When triathlete Lynn Oski of Grafton qualified for national competition a couple of years ago, she was too busy with work and school to make the trip to Phoenix. She thought, "There'll be other times."
There almost weren't.
Oski, 30, broke her neck in an ice hockey game Nov. 6.
Eight months later, she completed her first full triathlon since the accident and qualified for the nationals Aug. 13 in Columbia, Md. This time she's going.
Captain of the Landry's Cycling & Fitness triathlon team, Oski won just about every race in her age group last year, though exercise-induced asthma slowed her down late in the season. She switched to hockey in the fall, playing with Clark University's coed Division 2 club team.
In the final seconds of a losing game against Southern Connecticut State, Oski launched the puck from the defensive zone and saw an opponent come off the bench and head straight for her. "Guys don't like it when women play sports, especially if they're equal to or better than them," she said.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pound skater hit Oski in the left shoulder and sent her flying eight feet into the air. When she hit the boards, her neck snapped back, crushing two vertebrae.
Oski is a neurophysiologist at The Medical Center of Central Massachusetts, and knew from her patients that "if you break your neck, your life's going to be totally messed up. At the same time, I was thanking God all my toes were moving."
Oski's brother died nine years ago at age 25 after breaking his neck in a fall from the seventh story of his apartment building. "So imagine my parents getting that 3 a.m. phone call, this time about me," she said.
She could only conclude, "Somebody was looking out for me. One in one family is enough."
Oski was "extremely lucky" to escape serious damage to her spinal cord, said Dr. John P. Weaver, the surgeon at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center who installed a titanium plate in her neck as an internal splint.
Another of her doctors, Chris Troup, was more blunt: "She could have been a quadriplegic."
"There was some narrowing of the spinal canal -- it's only about 15 millimeters in diameter, so the spinal cord can be damaged very easily -- but no bruises to the spinal cord. We took a fractured bone out of her neck because it threatened the cord, and replaced it with a piece of bone from her hip," said Weaver, a cyclist himself who rides with the UMassters club.
"I was entrapped in a collar for months. But my hip actually bothered me more," Oski said. "I used to visualize things: swimming. You just play it in your head ... Anybody who plays sports is very independent, and that was a big thing, to lay there and allow somebody to take care of me."
She kept her mind active following housemate Shelly DiFranco's winning hockey season and coaching triathlon teammate Siri Lindley of Worcester, who also has qualified for the nationals.
Twelve weeks after surgery, Oski started riding a recumbent exercise bike. "I'd be counting the days until I could do the next thing -- lift weights, ride the LifeCycle, swim. I could run in the water." By March, she was trying out the cross-country skis Lindley gave her for Christmas.
She also resumed courses at Clark, where she is working toward a doctorate in psychology. She is transferring to Antioch College in Keene, N.H., in January.
Dr. Troup said Oski's "determination and drive" played a big part in her recovery, which he called extraordinary. Oski gave a lot of the credit to support from friends, family and Landry's.
She suffered some slight nerve damage in her right foot and right hand -- she tapes her wrist to swim -- and lost some flexibility in her neck. Her bike required a shorter top tube and stem, and steering with aero bars became even trickier. She's riding an aluminum Quintana Roo Kilo with Dura-Ace components from her old Kestrel and "titanium everything."
"My bike's my savior this year, because I can't do as much running, so it keeps my legs in shape," said Oski, whose favorite place to ride is around Lake Singletary in Sutton.
She works out twice a day. Wednesday, for example, she planned to swim 87 minutes and run 60 to 90 minutes.
"My swim times are faster than before I broke my neck," she said. "I spend more time in the pool, and I have learned to roll better, instead of twisting my neck, to breathe."
In the qualifier July 10 in Fairlee, Vt., she placed fourth among 42 women aged 30-34. She covered the .9-mile swim, 24-mile bike ride and 6-mile run in 2 hours, 16 minutes. Her biking time was 1:11, over 20 mph.
Oski is looking forward to the competition next month in Maryland but said she is "not setting big goals now -- I just try to show up ... The best thing that happened out of all this is maybe it got me to sit back and look at things in a different way."
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