FROM PARALYSIS TO POLE VAULTING (Christi Lehman)
A little luck and a lot of guts helped a 12-year-old girl with a broken back to recover fully, and only five years later she's eyeing a track scholarship.
By Laura Dayton
Published: Fall 2000
“Run, Christi, run!” The cry shattered the quiet countryside of Hesston, Kansas. It did not take place at a track and field event. It happened at a home. It did not hail the start of a race. It signaled a tragedy.
Christi, 12, managed to take one step in response to her father’s scream before a 20-foot tree came crashing down squarely on her lower back. A split second later a large limb that was higher on the tree buried itself in the dirt and caused the trunk to roll off the aspiring young gymnast. Barry Lehman, Christi’s dad and a local paramedic, went to work immediately on his daughter.
“The adrenaline just took over,” he said. “You remain in that paramedic mode because it’s what you do for a living--working through other people’s tragedies.”
At the hospital it was a different story. Barry switched from paramedic professional to the parent of a victim of a tragedy that happened while his daughter was in his care. Barry was taking down a tree on their property. Christi was helping to pick up the brush. Barry recalls that Christi was about 50 or 60 feet away when he began to make the first cut. What he didn’t see was Christi coming in for the brush closer to the trunk.
“It all happened so incredibly fast,” Barry says. “I went ahead and made a two- or three-inch cut in the tree, which was about 24 inches in diameter, and it just snapped.
“It was real tough right after the accident. You never want to hurt your kids. I’ve had to work through that, but Christi’s helped a lot. She has no anger about it. She just says, ‘It was an accident.’”
The Road to Recovery
Christi knew she was seriously injured from the initial impact. “At first I could move my toes and had feeling,” recalls Christi, now 18 and a senior at Hesston High, where she maintains a GPA of 4.0. “When my dad came back from calling 911 I was pretty numb. I’d lost all feeling from the waist down. We live in the country and the ride to Newton Hospital was rough going over the bumps.
“I was moved to the Wichita Trauma Center where my mom works as a nurse. I was pretty groggy but I still remember all the care and attention I received there. Because my dad works in medical services and my mom too, I think I received special treatment,” she says with a laugh.
Christi had fractured her L2 vertebra and dislocated her L3. Doctors were ‘cautiously optimistic’ that she would walk again. A week after doctors affixed a temporary rod-and-screw assembly to Christi’s spine, she was moved to Our Lady of Lourdes Rehabilitation Hospital. Her gymnastics coach Joanne Thaw was at her bedside.
“I knew if anyone was going to make it back from this, it would be Christi,” says Joanne. “I don’t train kids for the Olympics here. I train them for strength, for conditioning, for flexibility to compete. For Christi, I think some of those benefits she got here--the upper body strength, her competitiveness and her ability to focus--helped her to recover.”
Her early rehab was stoked with an athlete’s desire to push herself and was aided by her excellent physical conditioning and strength.
“The rehab wasn’t that much different from gymnastics,” says Christi. “It’s a win-or-lose situation. If you don’t get first place in a gymnastics meet, you come back and you work harder. Every day in rehab, when I couldn’t walk and then when I barely could, I reminded myself that I had to work a little harder. If I hadn’t had that attitude, things might have turned out differently.”
Christi broke her back in June, losing all feeling and function from the waist down. By July she was walking with braces and a walker. “I’d regained some feeling,” she says. “But I couldn’t feel the difference between sharp and dull. My legs tingled and sometimes it felt like they’d fallen asleep. It was strange to look at your legs and not feel them.”
Progress was quick. In August she went back to school and reduced her rehab to only three times a week. In November she switched to a sports rehab center in Wichita, about 30 minutes from Hesston. There she began using more weights and was soon able to walk on her own.
She returned to school in September for seventh grade, but at first Christi couldn’t do any sports. During the spring she went out for track and shot put, and ran the 100-meter for her last meet. She was slow, it was awkward, but she did it.
That was the picture when BFS first caught up with Christi five years ago. She was a determined girl fighting the odds, but no one knew if she would make it. Catching up with her now, just beginning her senior year, we’re proud to see her spirit still pushing her on the athletic field and to learn she is not only fully recovered from the accident, but stronger for the effort.
Better Than Ever
In the summer, only a year after her accident, Christi began running well. “I was doing everything,” she says. “If a normal person saw me they couldn’t tell anything happened. I was playing volleyball, basketball, track and gymnastics.
“The doctors actually say my back is stronger because of the bone they took from my hip to fuse my spine. I have no side effects, none. It’s amazing. Sometimes I forget the whole accident happened.”
Pressed on the subject, she admits to some weakness in the right leg. “I need to compensate with the left,” she says, “but I’m working on fixing that in the run. It doesn’t stop me, but it is a technical point I need to work on.”
Christi attained her present height and weight of 5-foot-3 and 130 pounds early, and gymnastics gave way to track and the pole vault. She began working at Wichita Extreme Athletics with brothers Randy and Darrin Bryant. The center works with dance, tumbling and cheerleading, but because both brothers vaulted in high school, they also coached vaulters. Randy has been to two Olympics and coached in Australia and Mexico. The two trainers are highly technical in their approach, and they believe that Christi has the raw talent and drive to make her mark in the vault.
Christi’s best vault at press time was 12.1 feet. She feels that won’t stand for long as she enters her senior year. With her scholastic achievements, she’s confident she’ll receive a scholarship in the vault or in basketball. She’s spent the summer working hard on both, at the academy with drills, trampoline, push-ups, the high bar and speed drills. At the local rec center she’s been able to maintain a three-times-per-week strength-training schedule where her training weight on the bench is 135 and her squat is 180. Power cleans complete her core lifts.
Back to school means back to the gym with her coaches for a more aggressive approach. The lifting that sped her recovery and brought her back to the competitive athletic field is first on her list to win her that ticket to a good college and vaulting coach.
“Gymnastics was my first love, but as I got older and with the accident I grew out of it,” says Christi. “The pole vault is what I want to do in college, but some day I’d love to coach gymnastics.”
Considering colleges, Christi isn’t looking at location as much as coaches. “I feel the coach is the most important. I want a coach who knows the vault, and a school that also has a good track program. I wouldn’t mind moving away, but I know it will be tough.
“I’m thankful for everything my parents and the community have done for me. I have a real support system here, with my church and friends. I’m very lucky and very grateful, and hope that luck carries on when I move on.”
Perhaps it’s due even more to sheer guts than to luck, but however you look at it, Christi has demonstrated that you can make miracles happen with dedication, persistence and faith.