Silken Laumann's inspiring comeback from a gruesome leg injury

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In the vast majority of circumstances, it’s hard to picture a bronze medal being one of Canada’s most memorable Olympic moments. In the case of Silken Laumann and the 1992 Barcelona Games, though, it’s perfectly apropos.

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Silken Laumann shows off her bronze medal in Barcelona in 1992. (The Canadian Press)

A freak training accident just 10 weeks before the Olympics saw another boat hit Laumann’s leg, fracture her fibula and leave part of her leg muscles hanging loose, but she battled back through five surgeries and an exhaustive recovery and somehow managed to pick up a bronze medal in the single sculls, inspiring a nation along the way and being named as Canada’s flag-bearer for the closing ceremonies. Laumann’s 1992 Olympic performance remains one of the most remarkable stories in Canadian sports history, and it demonstrates that the end result isn’t always as important as how you get there.

Laumann was a performer to watch at the Barcelona Games long before her accident. She’d claimed a bronze medal in the double scull at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with her sister Daniele, finished seventh in the double scull at the 1988 Games in Seoul, won silver in the single scull at the 1990 world championships and picked up gold in the single scull at the 1991 world championships. Still, it looked like that would all come crashing down when the German men’s pair boat of Colin von Ettinghausen and Peter Hoeltzenbein collided with her shell during a training session in Essen on May 15, lodging 200 pieces of wood in her leg and tearing part of her muscles away from her bones. As Laumann said afterwards, her initial thoughts weren’t about if she could compete again, but rather if she’d even be able to keep her leg.

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"The bang, which sounded very much like two cars crashing, was my boat splintering. I didn't really feel anything, and then I looked down at my leg and it was just a mess. The injury looked so bad I actually wondered whether I was going to lose my leg, because I could see the bone."

It didn’t take long for her focus to shift, though. Although her injury was described as if “a chisel had gone from the knee inward” and some doctors initially thought she might never row again, much less compete in Barcelona in a few months, Laumann didn’t give up. While being transferred to a trauma centre by ambulance just a few hours after the accident, she told her then-boyfriend (later her husband) John Wallace, “I don’t want to miss the Olympics.”

She followed up on those words with an incredible determination, rolling her wheelchair to her rowing shell less than a month after the accident and getting back on the water. Through intensive training and rehabilitation, Laumann made it to Barcelona and earned a place in the women’s single scull final on August 2, just 78 days after her tragic accident.

Making that final alone would have been an incredible accomplishment for Laumann, who was still hobbling around with a cane during the Games, but that wasn’t enough for her. She still wasn’t back to her peak rowing form and was sitting fourth with just 250 metres left, but somehow managed to find extra strength and boosted her stroke rate from 38 to 40 per minute over the last 100 metres, catching American Anne Marden (the 1988 silver medalist in the single scull) just before the finish and earning a trip to the podium. It was a performance that captured the hearts of Canadians and worldwide spectators, and one that’s remembered to this day by many.

[Slideshow: Silken Laumann's recovery and amazing comeback]

Laumann had plenty of accomplishments after that, of course. She took a year off after the Olympics to let her leg heal further (it would eventually require seven surgeries, and she still bears scars from it), but got back in the boat in 1994 and won a silver medal in the 1995 world championships. She also was part of the Canadian women’s quad that won gold at the 1995 Pan-Am Games, but that medal was stripped after she failed a drug test thanks to a medicine mix-up.

Laumann came through again at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, though, picking up a silver medal in the single scull. After retiring in 1999, she’s remained a prominent force on the Canadian sports scene, serving on the board of directors of Right To Play and travelling the world as a speaker, advocate and author. It’s that incredible comeback to win bronze in 1992 that’s the most memorable part of her story, though, and it demonstrates that the Olympics aren’t always just about the medal results, but also about the competitors’ journeys to that point.

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