Caroline Buchanan opens up about her hellish accident and her incredible comeback.
Caroline Buchanan opens up about her hellish accident and her incredible comeback.

Sporting star emerges from brink of death to Olympic dreams

Holding Caroline Buchanan's sternum together is a metal plate with 12 screws. There's two wire cables that they keep the tension on, which holds the Olympian's chest together.

And while Buchanan's body may now have a fragility, her mind is tougher than ever. Despite the trauma and pain of the past three years, the two-time Olympian and eight-time BMX and mountain bike world champion is determined to make the Tokyo Games.

It's remarkable that the 28-year-old is even back on a bike let alone racing after the physical hell she has been through. It was on New Year's Eve in December 2017 that Buchanan was in a terrible car accident that could have killed her.

Buchanan was travelling in an off-road vehicle when it flipped. The vehicle's cage fell on her, crushing her sternum - that broken bone then ripped into her internal organs. It punctured and collapsed both of her lungs. It tore at her heart wall lining and she had internal bleeding. And she broke her nose.

"I was very fortunate to be alive," she said.

"I was in ICU and intensive care for 10 days."

 

Buchanan posted her injuries on Instagram.
Buchanan posted her injuries on Instagram.

 

Buchanan has endured a long recovery.
Buchanan has endured a long recovery.

It has been the broken sternum that has caused her immense grief. The titanium plate that they initially inserted into her chest snapped and it only became more complicated from there on. "From there I had sternum open chest surgery, then my next issue was bolts backing out," she said.

It was the failed attempts to fix this chest bone that dealt her some of the lowest moments of her life and thoughts she may never ride competitively again.

Half human, half robot...
Half human, half robot...

"All up, I had three full sternum reconstructions, 26 bolts, two wire cables, three plates; then they managed to fix my sternum," she said. "It was third time lucky. My final surgery fixed it in the December of last year."

That final surgery worked but it was a complicated task for the surgeon.

"The cardiothoracic surgeon we pulled in to for the final surgery did a different approach, threading the wire cables in between the heart and sternum to get it meshed together," she said. "They are quite invasive surgeries."

"For me, I wasn't just worried about that surgery - but worried about my future career to continue to be an Olympian."

The bolts holding Caroline Buchanan together. Picture: Supplied
The bolts holding Caroline Buchanan together. Picture: Supplied

Yes, in the middle of all this suffering Buchanan still just wanted to keep riding for her Australia. After that third surgery on her chest, every three months she had a CAT scan to check if the bone was meshing together enough to allow her to compete again.

She said that process was like "watching paint dry".

To keep her mind busy, she wrote a kid's book, called "Girls Can B". Its aim is to inspire to girls to be "brave, different and strong".

In another testament to her unstoppable nature, she raised $76,000 in her NextGen scholarship program to invest in 12 young female riders to the world championships.

"Doing all this kept me on track, knowing I could still be as influential off the bike as I can on it," she said.

 

Buchanan reacts after crashing out during the Women's Semi Finals of the Rio Olympics. Picture: Getty
Buchanan reacts after crashing out during the Women's Semi Finals of the Rio Olympics. Picture: Getty

In time, slowly she saw her sternum calcify on the scans, getting whiter with time, indicating her bone was healing and she was getting closer to competing again. The injuries kept her off the bike for 19 months.

Today, obviously, her body feels different to what it was before the accident. And she feels a lot of fear.

She has spent a lot of time telling her body, "you are okay, you are unbreakable".

Two weeks ago, she finally competed on the international BMX racing stage again since her accident.

She hasn't lost it.

 

Caroline Buchanan in action. Picture: Adam Head
Caroline Buchanan in action. Picture: Adam Head

She stood on the podium twice, including in first place, at Banyuwangi BMX International in Indonesia. This time, around three and half years ago, she was going into an Olympic Games as world champion.

Times have changed but she's still indicating she is a threat as she tries to qualify for Tokyo. "I used to have that target on my back," Buchanan said. "This time around, you can call me a bit more of an underdog.

"But I love that challenge. "The best moments in my career stem from the lowest moments in my career."

Buchanan at the Women’s Health Women in Sport Awards. Picture: Christian Gilles
Buchanan at the Women’s Health Women in Sport Awards. Picture: Christian Gilles

"It's a massive challenge to make Tokyo. I have a lot of focus and fire from having to be so patient and I have built a lot of resilience over the last two years definitely."

"To have this 'other' chance, I feel calm and so happy. This is the journey I want to be on," she said.

She said she has been incredibly well supported by Cycling Australia, the Australian Institute of Sport and her sponsors.

"It was always about athlete first, sport second with them," she said. "They were quite patient through all of this … my sponsors like Oakley stuck by me at my worst."

Buchanan has been an adrenaline junkie since she was a little girl. This accident has been a "massive reality check" as to how fragile our bodies are.

"I have lived my life on my edge since I was a little girl and this has taught me to slow life down and be grateful for the small moments," she said. "I am enjoying the ride as I go - because you don't have that guarantee that it is forever."

 

This is Jessica Halloran's last column for the Sunday Telegraph and she will be taking up a new role within News Corp next year.


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