My accident was on September 1, 2007. I can only guess as to what time it was exactly but I’m guessing about 2:00 p.m. I was 30 years old. The first two people I remember getting to me were Bryn Atkinson and the guy that used to help build and design our courses. I’m completely forgetting his name and I feel like an ass because he’s such a sweetheart of a guy. Those were the two people I remember getting to me first. I just remember laying there in the hot sun, looking at Bryn, holding his hand telling him: ''I want to walk again... I want to ride my bike again. Tell me I’m going to ride my bike again?”
The first aid crew was there pretty quickly after and as soon as they were there they started asking the standard questions. "Can you feel this? Can you feel that? What day is it? Blah Blah." The interesting thing is that I think I hit my head pretty good in that crash but I don’t think they ever checked my head. They concentrated on my neck and back which was fine by me but six years post accident and my memory is still shot.
I was born in West Covina, California, which is in Los Angeles, but I grew up mainly in Brea, California from 5 years old until I was 18. Brea is in Orange County but it’s backed up into some hills so I was lucky to be able to ride from my house to some trails in Chino Hills State Park. One of the trails that I loved going to the most was called the Fullerton Loop. The Fullerton Loop is what I would describe as a mountain bike urban assault. Trust me if you don’t know where you’re going you WILL get lost. Maybe that’s one of the things I loved about it, the fact that I knew exactly where to go and felt like part of the group.
My dad passed away when I was 4 years old. His name was Tobias Eugene Llanes. I am an only child so it’s pretty much my Mom and I and I’d say we’re pretty tight. My Mom was an only child and she always wanted more than one child but then my dad passed away and my Mom never re-married.
I started racing BMX when I was about 11 or 12 years old. There is a BMX track that I used to see all the time when driving on the freeway. I got my start at the Orange “Y” BMX track in Orange, California.
When I rode for Haro I made it to the Mont Sainte-Anne World Cup, but it wasn’t until I signed my contract with Specialized in 1997 that I hit the World Cup circuit. I guess it took about five years for me to make it to Europe, Asia, South America, and all over the world. I am probably most proud of my Dual win in 1999 when I rode for Specialized. That year World’s were in Mont Sainte-Anne and the crowds were just insane! I ended up racing one of my fiercest competitors, Katrina Miller, in the finals and won. Although I had certainly won Worlds, Dual was not a ‘rainbow’ event so I was never officially World Champ. In 2000 the UCI made Dual an official rainbow event. In 2000 I finished in 2nd place behind Anne-Caroline Chausson. I also won gold at the X-Games in 1999, was the 2002 Dual Slalom National Champion, and the 2006 US National Downhill Champ.
I often think back to my races and the courses we rode. If we’re talking downhill I’d have to say my favorite courses were Mont Sainte-Anne, Canada (classic), Nevegal, Italy (insane sections of rock switchbacks), and Kaprun, Austria (pinball alley... nuff’ said!). As for Dual courses one of my all time favorites was one of my last races in Mammoth. I think it was around 2005 and they used the snowboard pipe as part of the course so you’d come out of the gate, hit a few turns, and then you’d hit this big step down into the pipe and then a big step up out of it, and straight into these three massive berms. The berms were each probably 10-15 feet high so you couldn’t see your competitor until the table top at the finish. It was awesome and it’s a real bummer they don’t use more pipes during the summer. After Worlds in Rotorua, New Zealand a few of the Giant reps took me out on a ride. We were out there for I think about 3 hours but it felt like 15 minutes because I was just having so much fun. Another great memory is the last time I rode up in Whistler. I was with Lenosky, Sorge, and I think a couple other people and we hit Garbanzo and Crab Apple and I’ve never gone bigger!
Thinking back to the day of my accident, I remember not feeling ready when I was in the gate and when they said, “riders ready?” I should have said, “No!” but I didn’t. Instead my pedal felt like it was in the wrong place, my goggles weren’t on right. I didn't feel right. When the gate opened I felt like I was all over the place and by the first turn I was so far behind I should’ve just walked back up to the gate! Instead of giving up I was telling myself not to quit because you never know what can happen. I was coming up to a tricky rhythm section and remembered saying to myself, ''Jump it! No, don’t jump it! Jump it!" And as soon as I doubted myself, even for a second, that was probably the moment I should've backed off.
I entered the rhythm section and needed to pick up my front end to catch the backside of the roller and pick up more speed but I screwed it up and the next thing I know I am going head first into the lip of the double I’m supposed to be jumping over! The initial impact is what broke my neck and then because I couldn’t slow down my body had nowhere to go but up so I did the full scorpion and that’s what broke my lower back. As soon as I hit I remember rolling back down the lip of the jump and I could feel my legs just sort of flopping around as I rolled. When I came to a stop I remembered it being super hot out just laying there in the sun. And then the pain hit.
The first few months after I got injured were surreal. I’d wake up to find myself in a hospital bed but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there. I just didn’t belong there because it was all a nightmare. Then I would of course realize that I wasn’t dreaming and it was all real and I would be scared out of my F%*!NG mind. During those first few months that I was still in Colorado and Craig Rehab Hospital, I was fortunate that I not only had my Mom and my partner at the time but I also had some really amazing friends: Jen Zeuner, Anne Keller, Elke Brutsaert, Leah Garcia, Beth and Brian Hawkins, Nicki and Diane, and my coach at the time, James. I was very grateful to have every one of them during my rehab.
During those first few months they keep you extremely busy and it’s a good thing. The more time you have on your hands the more time you have to think and thinking can seriously drive you mad! So my days were spent doing Occupational Therapy and Physical Therapy. I was doing a ton of stretching and workouts in the pool, learning how to get around in a wheelchair, and how to not burn myself while cooking since I couldn’t feel if I bumped into the stove. Basically I was learning how to take care of myself all over again at the ripe age of 30.
Life is so different now. I feel like I’ve been in one of those snow globes getting tossed around for the past six years. I saw my life going a certain direction and when that didn’t continue I just lost my sense of identity. I realize that it’s all part of the journey but sometimes you just want to say f*&k you to the journey!
Life now presents its daily challenges. A few that have been the hardest for me are my stomach/intestinal problems (I needed intestinal surgery due to my spinal fracture), nerve pain lasting about 75% of my day, and I’ve got this constant buzzing and at times a very sharp pain in my groin area. When I crashed, my spinal cord became tethered, which means there are three different points in my lower back where my spinal cord is touching the walls of my spinal column and when that happens it causes a phantom pain. A phantom pain is where I am experiencing actual pain where my cord is tethered but feeling it in a different place on my body (which for me is my groin). And those are just the physical effects. In my opinion the mental and emotional issues are the most difficult to deal with.
I met my partner Elladee Brown originally in 1994 and we ended up dating for a short while. We bumped into each other again about a year or so after my accident and just hit it off. We had both just split from our partners and she invited me up to Whistler to go sit skiing for the first time and when the weekend was over the next thing I know I’m changing my flight to stay longer! We had a blast and it was so nice being with someone that knew me before my accident. It might not seem like a big deal but when I meet someone for the first time I feel like they see me as Tara in a wheelchair, not Tara the athlete mountain bike racer. Elladee tells me I’m crazy and that’s not what people are thinking and she’s probably right, but sometimes my self confidence takes a hit and it’s hard not to think like that.
A father and son, Brian and Thayne Bolin started the Race for Tara. I was in the hospital and I think it was maybe a month or so after my crash and I got a call from Brian and Thayne wanting to know if they could start this event to help raise some money for me. I didn’t know them but they just sounded like the sweetest guys. They knew Mike Stewart who was the Giant rep up in Northern California and they also knew Renee Anderson who owned the land that we raced on for the first couple years. When the race got started I think everyone thought it would just be that one year that we’d do it and that would be it, but after that first year people were asking to have the event again so we did! After the second year Renee was having some issues with her land and if we were going to have the event again it was going to have to be somewhere else. A little while after that I got a call from Brian asking me what I would think if we had the event up at Northstar in Tahoe? I nearly fell out of my chair I was so excited!! I’d been to Northstar and it’s just gorgeous! Plus they had already done some major renovations in the village and added an ice skating rink, fire pits, cabanas, etc. and it looked amazing. So from the third year until just this last year which was our 7th year of having the event, it was up at Northstar. The event was about raising money to help me pay for all my medical bills. I had insurance but not everything was covered. For instance my insurance covered only $2,000 of medical equipment per year and that was unfortunately gone as soon as I bought my wheelchair, which cost $5,000. At the time I was also going to Project Walk for physiotherapy and since they don’t take insurance it was costing me between $3,200-$3,500 a month so without the money raised from the TLC there is no way I would have been able to go to physiotherapy for those two years. I am so thankful for that. The monies raised for the first couple years were donated to the Tara Llanes Road to Recovery.
The first two years the Race for Tara was held, I was more or less on the sidelines in terms of helping with the event simply because my life was about focusing on my rehab. It was that year that I decided to change the name from the Race for Tara to the Tara Llanes Classic and also the year that we became much more involved with the Reeve-Irvine Research Center.
When we were going into year number three I was becoming more involved in the event probably since I had just moved to Canada and had a bit more time on my hands. I was doing better in terms of my recovery and I wanted to be able to help others so we split the monies raised between the Reeve-Irvine Center and the Tara Llanes Classic. That way we could donate some of the funds to help find a cure for spinal cord injury as well as still be able to help me pay for some of my medical expenses.
Going into our 5th year one of my best friends, Aaron Baker, who had talked about opening his own rehab facility finally did it! His facility is called CORE, which stands for Center of Restorative Exercise and they opened their doors about two years ago! There are very few facilities such as CORE in the United States that I know of so when one opens up with the specialized equipment required, you want to see it succeed. So I felt it would be a good idea to not only get behind the Reeve-Irvine Center to find a cure but to also get behind CORE and all the people with spinal cord injuries that continue to work their asses off day in and day out, keeping their bodies in the best possible physical condition so that when it comes time to do some walking their bodies can handle it!
Last year was our 7th year of the Tara Llanes Classic and one of our most successful. I am so very proud of that. At the same time the event was getting to be a huge undertaking for me personally and I had to make the decision as to whether or not we would have the event the following year. I made the decided that we needed a bit of a break and to sort of regroup a bit before we get our next event going. This is not the end of the TLC.
I’ve been in touch with Mark Woods from the North Shore Mountain Bike Association. Mark is the creator of the TAP (Trail Adoption Program
) program here in North Vancouver and we’re working on making the trails fully accessible for everyone! I wanted to be able to ride my 3-wheeled mountain bike down the trails and fit over bridges and navigate the entire trail. I’m sure there are tons of other people that would love to ride some of those trails as well with bikes like mine. So it’s in the beginning stages but Mark is really behind it and that’s what it takes... someone to believe in it! I’m also working a bit as a consultant for a larger hotel chain in the States, which all came about after my own horrible experience at one of their hotels. I was refused help getting into the airport van for what I was told at the time was “company policy.” I won’t get into the whole thing, but what’s come of it so far besides an apology from the hotel is an open mind and an opportunity to consult and hopefully make some real change for the better for all of those in chairs and/or with different-abilities (I really don’t like the word disability or handicapped so I hope to see that changed as well). I really would like to open some eyes to some of the injustices happening so the appropriate changes can be made in our society. I never would have thought my life would have taken me in this direction, but it has so I’m going to make the best of it!
I can’t express my gratitude to Aaron Baker, Laquita, Taylor Isaacs, and everyone at CORE. Without them I would not be walking. Aaron opened CORE which is a state-of-the-art facility, equipped with specialized equipment, providing low cost integrated, structural, personalized and progressive evaluations, treatment plans, and education to help improve function and independence about two years ago and it’s been packed since the doors opened!
I started going to CORE about six months ago and the physiotherapy that I’ve received has been different than any other rehabilitation facility. It’s hard to explain but not only do the trainers at CORE deeply care about every person that goes through their doors but you can see that they have no doubt about how to treat you. That makes me so much more confident. There are things that my trainer Taylor does: for instance after I get there I’ll do a warm-up and then I’ll lay down and he’ll measure my leg length. Then we know what we are working towards.
I never knew how much my hips and legs had actually rotated in the last few years. I don’t think any rehab facility has ever measured my leg length but it makes total sense if the end goal is to get me standing and walking, right? Think about it, if you tried to stand up and your left leg was 1 1/4 in. higher than your right leg that would make it awfully difficult to stand up straight wouldn’t it? When I first started going to CORE six months ago 1 1/4 inches was the difference between my left and right legs but when I’m actively working out at CORE that 1 1/4 inch difference disappears! Literally after we get done doing our stretches and movements, my legs are measured again and they are dead even! Now I can get to walking! I had some custom leg braces made a few years ago that allow me to lock and un-lock my knees with the touch of a button. When I lock the braces out, I can put most of my weight on my legs and stand up-right. However, my hips are extremely tight now, because I sit for the majority of the day, so it takes a little while to get them loosened up. I haven’t gained any more feeling in my legs than what I’ve had since the accident. I can feel a little bit on the inside of my left knee but that’s pretty much it. I also have more movement on my left side, mainly because as the doctor put it in medical terms, "The right side of your spinal cord is the side that got smashed a bit.'' Well, that’s a pretty straight forward way to put it!
I need to use this opportunity to give my most heart-felt thanks to everyone: to my wife Elladee, my Mom, my friends Claire and Aaron, and another great friend, Laquita. If I am having a gnarly day and need someone to talk me off the ledge, so to speak, they are the ones to do that. They know that I would do anything for them as well.
Throughout this 6-year journey I would like to express my deepest gratitude, love, and thanks to my entire family. To all my friends back home in SoCal. To Fee, my dear friend, RIP. To Jaymie, Hels, and Jo. To my Craig hospital crew, Jen & Anne, EZE, Polly, Leah and Ian, Kiwi and Laura, Candi, Lauren & Miller, Brian and Beth Hawkins, Nicki and Diane, and to my former coach James. Taylor Isaacs and everyone at CORE. Every single person that helped with the Tara Llanes Classic: Brian and Thayne Bolin, Mike Stewart, Daniel & Kim, Renee Anderson, Patrick, Kathryn, Dillion, Toshi, Deanne, Monica, all of the racers, volunteers, sponsors, media, and everyone at Northstar. To all of my sponsors that have stayed with me...Giant, Shimano, Smith, & Troy Lee. Thank you to Suzy Kim, Tania, Rafer, Dr. Os, and everyone at the Reeve-Irvine Research Center. A huge thank you to my BC people: Lindsay, Daamo & Little Mac, Sara & Tamara, Chantal, Nat, Kelly Smith, Rob Mulder, Phil & Liette, and Danielle. Lou, James, and everyone at Obsession. Jeremy, Mike, and everyone at Speed Theory. And I want to thank all of the bike shops along the way that have helped fix my wheelchair or work on my hand cycle. And I’d like to thank Riley and Pinkbike for doing this article. I really hope that I haven’t forgotten anybody but if I did I’m really sorry and you know who you are.
CORE CentreReeve Irvine Centre
Riley McIntosh is a mountain biker from the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. He has done a fair bit of trail building and has dabbled in writing. He loves interviewing interesting people and learning more about them. He hopes that Pinkbike’s readers enjoy the Characters series.Danielle Baker is a writer and photographer who enjoys long walks in the rain, riding her bike, and shots of tequila. Growing up without electricity or running water, Danielle found a great appreciation for all things nature which eventually led her to her love of mountain biking, and fear of whales. You can find Danielle's articles and photos on pinkbike.com and at daniellebaker.com.
Characters #1 - Thomas Schoen
Characters #2 - Bill McLane
Characters #3 - Tig Cross and Sasha LeBaron
Characters #4 - Mark Holt
Characters #5 - Kevin Eskelin
Characters #6 - The Spell of the Yukon