A Christmas miracle: That”s what doctors call Serita Shone
On that fateful evening, 22-year-old Serita Shone folded herself into the back of the two-woman British bobsleigh and counted the corners as driver Fiona Harrison guided the sled down the floodlit track at Winterberg in Germany at 80mph.
Christmas miracle: Serita Shone at home in Weymouth
Shone was preparing for her first competition as a member of Britain”s squad – the British championship tobe held over the same course later that week – and had ticked off 12 ofthe 14 turns they had to negotiate when disaster struck.
“In a split-second it all went wrong,” recalled Shone last week in the first interview she has given since the catastrophic accident that broke her back and changed her life.
“We went up. We came down. I was fractionally pulled out of the bob by gravity – even though I was clinging for dear life to my handles – and my back hit the ice first. The pain was intense.”
As if that were not bad enough, the bob, weighing 175kg (nearly 28st), landed on top of Shone.
She and Harrison, by then unconscious, were dragged down the rest of the course until the bob finally came to a halt after passing the finishing line.
Shone admits that her first thought as the bob was removed from around her by rescuers was: “Oh my God, I”m paralysed.”
But after two operations on her spine, 44 days in hospitals in Germany and Bath, and a recovery that hersurgeon called “a medical miracle”, Shone walked back into her home in Weymouth on Friday afternoon with a big smile on her face and declared: “Being home is the best Christmas present I could ask for. I could have been paralysed; I may even have died. Instead, I am here and making a better than expected recovery.”
Brave fightback: Shone was injured after crashing at around 90mph in a training run
Her dramatic recollections of her accident – and the pain she has endured – are recounted without any wish for sympathy.
She is still hopeful that one day in the distant future she may yet get the chance to fulfil her dream of competing for Britain at the Olympic Games.
She was a good enough heptathlete to represent Britain at under-20 and under-23 level.
But recently she switched her sporting ambitions to the bobsleigh, directing her athlete”s strength tothe far from glamorous role of brakewoman in the two-woman bob.
The result was the crash just over six weeks ago that Shone now recalls in all its vivid horror.
“When the bob wedged itself to a stop, I was in so much pain I couldn”t get any words out,” she recalled.”In front of me, Fiona was making noises, a mixture of snorting and choking. I didn”t know she was out cold and instinctively I tried to help her. But I couldn”t move. It felt like 10 minutes had passed beforeanyone got to us, but it turned out it was no more than a minute. When they pulled the bob from us I was lying in a heap on the ice staring at the sky on my back. I still couldn”t move … and that was the moment I feared the worst. Oh my God, I am paralysed.”
An ambulance crew arrived and Leigh Cockman, from the British bobsleigh team, ensured that Shone”s back was properly supported on spinal boards before the two women were taken to the nearest hospital.
“I could hear Fiona talking in the next room,” said Shone. “I had been pumped full of drugs as the pain from my back was horrendous. I could see a light moving. I thought, “Is this the tunnel people are supposed to see when they are dying” I said to myself, “I”m not going to see tomorrow”.”
Run of terror: Aerial view of the bobsled run at Winterberg in Germany
In fact, the cocktail of drugs she had been given was causing her to hallucinate.
But the doctors at Winterberg still had shattering news for her.
“They said that I had broken my back, at the L1 and L2 vertebrae. They were also worried because there was bleeding in my spinal column.”
An air ambulance was summoned to takeher on a 20-minute journey to the Marburg University Hospital, where there is a spinal unit.
/12/10/article-2072568-0F1FDB4000000578-431_468x298.jpg” width=”468″ height=”298″ alt=”Battle scars: Shone shows the neat lines of stitches that are the only physical signs of the horrifying crash” class=”blkBorder” />
Battle scars: Shone shows the neatlines of stitches that are the only physical signs of the horrifying crash
That week in Winterberg had been her first real exposure to travelling as brakeman in a bob at maximum speed and she had already had three crashes in five previous runs with another driver without harming herself.
“My mum had texted to tell me to come home if I wanted,” said Shone. “But she knows me too well to know that I”d never quit.
“I”ve always been an adrenaline junkie. I knew, and accepted, that by trying to make the British bob team for the 2014 Olympics I would be exposed to risks at high speed. I just thought those earlier crashes were part of the learning curve and, anyway, I reasoned that after that, how bad could it get”
Her childhood and adolescence had been governed by sport.
She graduated from Bath University in Sports Performance and had just finished her Masters in Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Leeds Metropolitan when she first trialled for the bob team in the summer.
“We called her Bomber from when she was very young,” said her mother, Julie. “She just bombed from one thing to another. As we have a karting business, she was driving from the age of eight. At 12, she was captain of the rugby team at school as there weren”t enough boys to make up a team. She did athletics and played volleyball with her dad, who took her to grand prix races. Sport brought them very close.”
Her mother has never cried at her daughter”s bedside but she has shed plenty of tears.
“She”s still my baby, whether she”s two or 22,” said Julie as she climbed around the bags of gifts and clothes that testified to the fact her daughter was home at last.
“There was a time when we feared Serita would never walk again. Then, we thought if she does walk, how will she walk Her dad doesn”t show his emotions but I know, like me, he was worried sick. We have always encouraged her to follow her dreams.”
Shone was an instant success on the British squad, her effervescent attitude towards life adding to her popularity.
“She was totally focused on making the Olympic team for Sochi,” said Gary Anderson, the British bobsleigh performance director. “Serita is extremely strong and powerful, but she also has a great humility that makes her stand out as a team player. It”s not enough to assess an athlete on the numbers they produce from the tests we set. What Serita showed us was that she possessed the attitude of an elite athlete.”
Anderson has found the weeks since Shone”s accident an ordeal unlike any other he has experienced after 30 years working in sport, at Barnet, Watford and Luton football clubs, with the British judo team at the Athens Olympics and with track and field operations.
“What Serita has been through has really affected me,” said Anderson. “When I saw her walk for the first time I had a tear in my eye.”
Shone was encouraged by the medical team in Germany to get back on her feet soon after the second operation, but she has discarded her crutches only since undergoing three sessions of physiotherapy a day at the Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases at Bath.
She can now walk up to 10 minutes at a time.
“When I walk I am fine, but when I stop I have to lie down and rest because the movement aggravates the area in my back,” she said. “Sitting down is also problematical, it puts a lot of pressure on my vertebrae. Every day has to be organised.”
Three neat scars – one on her spine and two on her hip – are the only physical signs of the two operations she has endured but meetings with sports psychologist Amanda Gatherer, the lead clinical psychologist at the England Institute of Sport, have been crucial in coming to terms with what has happened.
“We”ve spoken since and Amanda has been really helpful,” said Shone. “I”m human and there are days that are worse than others. At times you feel sorry for yourself, and I”d lie if I said I hadn”t asked, “Why me” But I”m determined to show I can come back from adversity. I”m a positive person. Instead of dwelling on the negative, I think about the things I will do when I”m better: I think of holidays, doing sport again.”
She will return to hospital after Christmas for further intensive treatment but already has a series of challenges planned against Cockman, the firefighter from the RAF and assistant coach of the bob team who never left her side during her ordeal.
“He”s a great man,” she said. Would Shone ever get back in a bob
“Yes!” she said, without hesitation. “I know I will be considered mad, but I want to prove to myself that this hasn”t stopped me from achieving something. I still want to be an Olympian. I just know it”s going to be a harder, longer road than it already was to get there.”
She may never get to the Olympics, of course, but Serita Shone already has a story of courage that will sit comfortably alongside any of the tales waiting to unfold at London”s Games next summer.