After almost a decade of foot pain and unanswered questions, transtibial amputee Danielle McLaughlin heard the diagnosis she least expected: cancer. But for McLaughlin, this diagnosis, and the subsequent amputation of her foot, enabled her to pursue the athletic career that she never thought she could.
McLaughlin was always an athletic child, playing soccer and running. As she got older she developed pain in her left foot, which thwarted her athletic performance.
“I grew up playing soccer, but I always had this pain in my foot,” McLaughlin told O&P Business News. “It hindered me from being as athletically capable as I think I could have been, because it bothered me when I ran and I couldn’t kick the ball with my left foot.”
McLaughlin visited numerous doctors over the years who told her that she had flat feet or growing pains. McLaughlin was prescribed orthoses and received X-rays and CT scans, but the pain continued to worsen, and, as a result, McLaughlin was forced to quit sports altogether.
“After several years of pain in my foot and no one being able to diagnose what was going on, I finally saw a doctor in San Diego who decided to do a biopsy after he saw one spot on an MRI,” McLaughlin said. “In July 2003, when I was 16, I was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma.”
Image: McLaughlin D.
Synovial sarcoma is a cancer that affects soft tissue, usually in the joints or extremities. Although it is a rare form of cancer, it typically occurs in young adults, so McLaughlin’s case was not unusual. McLaughlin’s doctors recommended that she immediately amputate her foot, but she refused. Instead, she underwent radiation and went into remission. However, less than a year later, the cancer had returned.
“The cancer came back in July 2004, and I had an amputation on Aug. 23, 2004, a week before my senior year of high school was supposed to start,” she said.
Running on a walking leg
After the amputation, McLaughlin focused on finishing her senior year of high school and preparing for college at the University of California, Davis. Although she maintained a fairly active lifestyle throughout college, it wasn’t until she graduated in the spring of 2009 that McLaughlin decided to get serious about athletics again.
“In college, I would go to the gym and do the elliptical and things like that, but it wasn’t until I graduated and moved to Los Angeles that I really decided to get healthy and active again,” she said. “I started to get really into spinning, and it was the first activity that I did after my amputation where I felt like I had the same capabilities as everyone else.”
At this time, McLaughlin was using her walking prosthesis for sports, not knowing what a running prosthesis was or even how she could obtain one. But by a stroke of luck, McLaughlin was introduced to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) by her roommate when she moved to Los Angeles.
“My roommate’s aunt and uncle were very involved with CAF, and she couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been a part of it and that I wasn’t using a running leg,” McLaughlin said. “So I applied for a grant through CAF [for my running prosthesis].”
As she waited, McLaughlin decided to start running anyway.
“I had always enjoyed running, and after my amputation, that is definitely what I missed the most,” she said. “I started running on my walking leg. It was the only leg I had ever used, so I just kept pushing through.”
McLaughlin attended her first San Diego Triathlon Challenge in 2010, participating in the Tour de Cove, a 4-and-a-half-hour spinning event held in conjunction with the triathlon challenge.
“That was my first major CAF event and first real exposure to other amputees,” McLaughlin said. “I was shocked when I saw what everyone else was doing, and I finally realized everything that I could be doing.”
McLaughlin bargained with herself, saying that if she could complete the spin-a-thon, then she would sign up for a triathlon.
“Once I finished, I made a New Year’s resolution to race a triathlon and see how it goes,” McLaughlin said. “And I loved it.”
McLaughlin completed two triathlons before learning that she had been awarded the CAF grant and would be receiving a running prosthesis.
“When I found out that I got the grant, I knew my life would change forever,” McLaughlin said.
In May 2011, while waiting for her running prosthesis to be completed, McLaughlin attended CAF’s paratriathlon camp in Pensacola, Fla. While there, she was encouraged to sign up for the paratriathlon national championships, which would be held in August in New York City.
In preparation, McLaughlin enrolled in the CAF’s Project N.Ex.T. (New Expectations Today) program, where she was partnered with a mentor who helped her prepare for the Accenture USA Paratriathlon National Championships. She also began training with USA Triathlon Coach Bernard Baski.
“CAF paired me up with a mentor who has actually become one of my very good friends,” McLaughlin said. “She helped me navigate the water and taught me things that I would have never thought to ask my prosthetist.”
In August 2011, McLaughlin traveled to New York City for the Accenture USA Paratriathlon National Championships, winning the female Tri-5 division. The win qualified her for the world championships, and McLaughlin traveled to Beijing that September for the International Triathlon Union World Championships. McLaughlin again won her division and brought home a gold medal.
“It was an incredible experience,” McLaughlin said. “I achieved a lot in my first year of racing, and I feel like I have completely changed as a person since I started racing and participating in CAF events.”
McLaughlin is currently training for the 2012 ITU World Championships, which will be held in Auckland, New Zealand this October and spends 1 hours to 2 hours a day, twice a day, running, swimming, cycling or weight training. She attributes a lot of her athletic success to CAF and its resources.
“If I look back, I can see all of the mountains that I have already overcome, and without the grant for my running leg, I don’t think I would have been able to do nearly as much,” she said. “CAF has so many great programs, especially the mentoring program. Their mission is all about empowering physically challenged athletes through sports, and I think I am a perfect example of how much good it does.”
McLaughlin also praised CAF’s ability to raise awareness about the opportunities for challenged athletes.
“There are so many opportunities to be an active, physically challenged athlete, and CAF has spread the word across the country about what we can do,” she said. “But we need providers to tell their patients about the opportunities that are out there, because I did not have that. I found all of this on my own. We need to reach out to other amputees and let them know what is available.”
Paratriathlon will make its debut at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, and McLaughlin hopes that this will bring more awareness to the sport and encourage other athletes to join.
“I would like to bring more athletes into the movement, because in my category, we only have two or three of us in every race,” McLaughlin said. “The difficult thing about triathlons is that it is an expensive sport, which I think deters people. But if we can show the assistance that CAF, and other organizations can offer athletes, we can continue to grow the sport.”