Alanna Columb’s recovery from a life-threatening mountain bike crash has been miraculous and inspirational. The champion Queenstown sportswoman talks to Philip Chandler about her past six months and plans to go riding again
Former New Zealand downhill mountain bike champion Alanna Columb turns 30 this coming Monday, but six months ago it was touch and go whether she’d make it.
On January 10, the lifelong local was having fun at Queenstown’s Gorge Road Jump Park when she overjumped a jump, landing on the up-ramp of the next jump.
Her head took the impact, causing severe brain injury.
She was ambulanced to Lakes District Hospital where was placed in an induced coma, before being helicoptered to Dunedin Hospital late that night.
Following four days in intensive care, during when she came out of her coma, she was transferred to another ward.
After being “out of it” for about three weeks, Columb recalls looking in a mirror “and saying ‘your name is Alanna’, then I was like, ‘you look nothing like Alanna’.
“I thought I was having a nightmare and I was, ‘shit, I better wake up’.”
That nightmare partly arose from seeing her right eyelid closed, as her optic nerve had been badly smashed.
Scarily, she was told by medical staff she mightn’t get her eye back, though she could get surgery in a year’s time.
Columb says she didn’t listen to that prognosis.
“Luckily for me, I have that stubbornness.
“I never had that fear, but in saying that, one of my friends had the optic nerve hit, too, and that was over a year ago, and his eye will never open again.”
In her case, her eye was shut for two-and-a-half months.
Aware she was to be a bridesmaid for her brother Lachie’s wedding on March 31, she says she willed her eye to open – and with a week-and-a-half to go, it did just that.
“It was over a few nights that really made the difference.”
Her mum Marilyn says in the week leading up “you could see it was working”.
For the first three months, Alanna admits “I was pretty away with the fairies”.
A further three months on, she says “only now, I feel similar-ish to the human that I am”.
“Currently, nature is my biggest healer.”
Her memory, though, “is not as great as it used to be”.
Speaking last Friday, the day after getting glasses, Alanna says she’s very happy with how her right eye’s progressed, estimating it’s about 70 per cent right.
She notices, however, when her left eye moves, the right one takes a while to catch up.
She’s hoping to get back on a bike in about three months when it’s warmer.
“Before I start really pushing riding, I’d want to give it about a year.”
“At least”, Marilyn chimes in.
She adds: “The prognosis was that this could take Alanna two years before she’s deemed to be 100 per cent, so I will be pushing for her to take it easy and have patience.
“Because a head injury isn’t visible, there is sometimes a lack of understanding about it.”
Alanna feels the accident’s changed her life.
“I’m definitely a lot more grateful, and I’m happy.
“My family has been amazing and mum is just incredible.”
Marilyn, who says she’s very grateful for the medical support her daughter got, adds: “She’s a different person but we are hopeful we will get the old Alanna back.”
For the future, Alanna’s keen to teach yoga and meditation – she’s doing papers in kinesiology – and to take youngsters biking and help them appreciate nature.
In her former life she was a three-time NZ women’s downhill champion with a best World Cup placing of 10th.
Before the accident she’d already pulled the pin on her international career – “that was costing me a fortune” – but was getting back into motorbikes, having earlier competed in motocross.
“I’m pretty wicked on a motorbike so that’s going to be a great one to get back into, and especially doing stuff like The Dakar [international off-road rally].
“I just love two wheels – I’m not afraid of bikes at all, despite this big slap out of nowhere.”