Everybody remembers Californian Tara Janelle Llanes (39) as a beautiful, charming and fearless biker. She started with BMX racing in 1988 at the age of eleven. Her mother took her to a BMX race after she repeatedly asked to stop and watch one at the Orange “Y” BMX track one weekend and she started racing the following weekend.
In 1993, while still racing BMX, she asked her sponsor to support her in a mountain bike race. She liked it and soon transitioned from BMX to MTB and focused on Downhill, Dual Slalom and Four Cross events. During her mountain bike years she acquired the nickname of “T”, the first letter of her given name. Unlike BMX she turned pro in MTB in 1996. She almost immediately started doing well on the pro circuit, but it was not until 1999 when she won her first title. She got a gold medal in Dual Slalom downhill event of that year’s ESPN Winter Extreme Games, also known Winter “X” Games. She would go on to win further 14 medals in the next seven years of her career, including five championships.
Thanks to her popularity, American edition of Maxim Men’s magazine asked her to shoot a photostory for them and she was featured on the cover of the issue.
She suffered numerous injuries during her career, however, the fateful accident came on September 1st in 2007. Llanes crashed at Beaver Creek, Colorado, host to the Jeep King of the Mountain finale. The accident happened on the second to last straight down on the Dual Slalom course as she raced head-to-head against Jill Kintner in the semifinals. Llanes hit an obstacle and the bicycle landed nose first on the ground. She was thrown over the handlebars and onto her head and then landed on her back, suffering massive and severe lower back trauma, resulting in a C-7 fracture and L-1 damage to her vertebrae, and paralyzing her lower extremities.
The first who arrived to give her first aid was mountain biker Bryn Atkinson. Tara remembers lying there in the hot sun, looking at Bryan, 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?
She was first rushed to the Vail Valley Medical Center and then airlifted to the Denver Health Hospital. She underwent seven hours of surgery but still had no feeling from the waist down. According to the surgeons who worked on her, the condition is most likely permanent. Llanes recalls the moment of the accident: “This was my job and I was blessed. Then my life and everything I had dreamed of and accomplished flashed before my eyes as I lied there on the ground, trying to understand why I was in such pain and why my legs just wouldn’t move. When this happened I was completely devastated. I mean, this has been my life since I was 11 years old. This is what I know and it’s what I love. It’s what I absolutely without a doubt love. I mean, not being able to ride my bike again for the rest of my life… It would crush me,” Tara says.
She’s undergoing a rigorous rehabilitation and despite physician’s diagnosis of her never being able to walk again, she is determined to not only walk again, but to return to riding a bicycle and even competing. She is devoted to sit-skiing, and rides in a 3-wheeled hand-pedaled mountain bike. The last chapter of Llanes’s racing career is probably still not written in the face of such determination.
Be sure to check the first part of our series – HERE. Jürgen Beneke’s story is truly fascinating.