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Adversity fails to slow down Walker

RICHARD CHITTICK
Summit Daily/Reid Williams Jill Walker has shrugged off numerous injuries to continue competing in triathlons.
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Breckenridge’s Jill Walker is having one of the best triathlon seasons of her life. In April, the 26-year-old Breckenridge resident won the Tri-the-Rim Triathlon in Durango, then followed that in May with a third-place finish in the Spring Chill Olympic Triathlon in Loveland, a performance that placed her first in her age group.On Sunday, Walker will take on the ultimate challenge for her discipline when she competes in the second Ironman-length triathlon of her life, in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. As if training for these events hasn’t been enough to keep the energetic Walker busy, she also wrapped up the final clinical of her physical therapy doctorate at Avalanche Physical Therapy on Tuesday. But no matter how much may build up on the Northbrook, Ill., native’s plate, nothing seems to wipe the brilliant smile off of her face. “There’s a lot you can say about her,” said Breckenridge’s Monica Minogue, who has known Walker since 2001 and shares her Gibson Heights home with Walker. “She’s just a real positive person to be around. Just watching her get up early in the morning to go for a run before working 12 to 14 hours is amazing.” The reality is, Walker knows adversity. Three times in her life, she has suffered catastrophic injuries which threatened her competitive aspirations, once even threatening her ability to walk. The first time came in 2000. Shortly after graduating from the University of Colorado with her undergraduate degree in kinesiology, Walker fled to Summit County to enjoy a winter of ski bumming before heading to the University of Montana to begin a postgraduate program in physical therapy. That summer, during a three-week biking sabbatical in Moab, Walker’s life flashed before her eyes.

“I was riding through town and got hit by a dump truck,” she said.”All of sudden I was flat on the pavement with a shattered collar bone and a scapula (shoulder blade) that was broken in two places. It kind of threw my life in a loop.” Walker quickly found herself back on track after taking a year off to concentrate on her triathlons and to travel.In 2001 she finally enrolled at Montana and enjoyed a breakthrough in her sport when she finished sixth in the Collegiate National Triathlon Championships in Memphis, Tenn., in April. Her summer was on track to be one of her most successful seasons yet, as she moved back to Summit County and began mixing the local mountain bike races and road time trials with her triathlons.Then tragedy struck again. In July 2002, Walker was participating in a mountain bike race in Dillon. Cruising downhill at close to 30 mph, Walker lost control and went down.”I remember this little kid’s voice. His name was George, and he was the cutest little thing,” Walker said. “And he said, ‘Um, you’re bleeding really bad. I think you’re going to have to have stitches, but they don’t hurt that bad.'”Walker required a little more than stitches; she spent the night in the Summit Medical Center having her fractured pelvis stabilized and a tree branch removed from her waist.

Miraculously, Walker was back on her bike within days. Two weeks later, she raced in a road time trial on the Dillon Dam Road. That October, she finished her first Ironman, taking ninth place among the collegiate women in Ironman Wisconsin. She finished the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run in 12 hours, 39 minutes and 31 seconds.In the winter of 2003, Walker was immersed in her physical therapy studies and her blossoming triathlon career, when the most dramatic of her three injuries struck. Riding her mountain bike on a trail near Missoula, Walker fell again – and broke her neck.Wearing a helmet, Walker landed on her head and actually heard her C1 and C2 vertebrae crack. Having just finished a course on spinal chord injuries, Walker knew right away the severity of her injuries. She was terrified to move, yet a light snow was falling and Walker knew hypothermia could become a life-threatening problem if she chose to wait for an emergency medical crew to evacuate her. So with the help of her friends, she fashioned a soft neck brace out of a fleece pullover and held it around her neck as she hiked two miles through the woods.Upon arriving at the emergency room in Missoula, she was immobilized and spent the night dealing with MRI’s and x-rays. She later found out she had come within millimeters of severing her spinal chord.For the next three months, Walker wore a stiff, plastic neck brace. In spite of the injury, however, she refused to slow down, using her time to learn how to play guitar and speak Spanish.Less than 18 months later, Walker returned to competition with the Durango victory.

“It’s part of her personality,” said Della Crone, a physical therapist at Avalanche’s Silverthorne location who worked as Walker’s instructor during her clinical. “She has a lot of perseverance. For her to return to such an elite status is pretty incredible.” If anything, Crone believes that Walker’s injuries add to her effectiveness as a physical therapist.”She can very much empathize with her patients because she’s been through it,” said Crone. “She really makes physical therapy fun.”Walker herself is aware of just how stunning her recovery has been. Though she still deals with range of motion issues in her neck, she’s seen subtle improvements each week since having her neck brace removed. “There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not grateful that I’m alive,” she said. “Each injury has taught me that life goes on and things can always get worse, and I’ve come back with more hunger for life in general.” She’ll be taking that hunger with her to the start line of this weekend’s Ironman. “I’m really so excited,” she said Wednesday. “I’m feeling really good. Life is great.” Richard Chittick can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 236 or at rchittick@summitdaily.com.


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