It was October 2011, and Colleen Alexander was cycling home from her job in Guilford, Connecticut, when her life changed without warning. It was during the 12-mile trek that a freight truck driver blew through a stop sign and hit her.
As a former EMT, Colleen knew how slim her chances of survival were, so she screamed and yelled as much as she could. Medics arrived, and they pumped about 80 units of blood into her and spent 20 minutes giving her CPR. Finally, her heart started.
Before she lost consciousness, all Colleen could think about was her husband, Sean, whom she had married in 2010. The two were high school sweethearts who fell out of touch for 17 years before rekindling their romance.
“I said it repeatedly as I was dying: ‘I just reconnected with my soulmate, don’t let me die. I’m not ready to go.’ That was my mantra, and thank God it wasn't my time,” Colleen said.
Path to recovery
Colleen spent the next five weeks in a coma before being transported to a rehabilitation hospital for two-and-a-half months. She was released, but her body still needed a lot of work — more than 20 surgeries over the course of two years.
“I have literally been rebuilt,” Colleen said. “My pelvis was snapped in two pieces, my iliac crest got severed off, and from just down below my sternum to just past my knee my skin was ripped off. I thank God my heart wasn't crushed under the double tires.”
It takes persistent physical therapy to recover from a trauma as intense as the one Colleen experienced, but there was another kind of therapy she said was integral to her healing process: competition. Colleen is an athlete, and even though she wasn't able to compete in races she was able to show up, and that’s exactly what she did. She could be found in the crowd, cheering as runners passed her, and she was waiting by finish lines to congratulate those who crossed them.
“Whether I was in my wheelchair or with a walker, I could be in that crowd of people," Colleen said. "That is so powerful, to just be able to feel safe."
It took Colleen two years to get back on a bike, but there are other ways to compete. Her first post-trauma event was a 5-mile Father’s Day race in Connecticut, which she did with a walker. People sponsored her by registering to donate blood.
Moving forward, always
Through all of this, Colleen has learned a lot about life, what it means to be human, and how necessary it is to cherish those you love. She’s an advocate for raising awareness about the dangers of distracted driving and is currently on tour to promote her book, “Gratitude In Motion: A True Story of Hope, Determination, and the Everyday Heroes Around Us.”
Colleen doesn't know offhand how many races she’s finished since she was hit; her best guess is something like 50 triathlons, including 15 Olympic triathlons and four half Ironman races, plus a ton of sprints, relays, and footraces.
“Footraces were one of the easiest things because I could be in a hand-crank wheelchair for a lot of them,” Colleen said.
It seems Colleen hasn’t been alone for any of this. Besides the camaraderie with other competitors, her relationship with Sean is solid, so much that they sign each other up for races. That’s how she learned they were doing the Tupper Lake Tinman on June 23. It’s the first time either of them have competed in that race, although neither of them are strangers to the Adirondacks. Colleen used to live in Vermont, and spent a fair amount of time hiking and cycling on this side of Lake Champlain.
The Tinman will be a reunion of sorts for her, a reconnection to a place she loves to visit. It also speaks to her resilience as someone a near-death trauma couldn't keep down.
“The Adirondacks is really God’s country, and it’s a great place for people who have endured,” Colleen said. “It’s very healing up there, and it has a lot of great energy. I’m excited to be there, and to be one with nature and celebrate and remind everyone, as they’re going on their journey, to have fun. We only have one opportunity on this earth. Embrace each and every moment.”
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