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Buchan's Long Road Back to Top : From Olympic Cycling Hopeful to Paralympic Medalist

March 25, 1989|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

Seven years ago, Barbara Buchan was a world-class cyclist, a promising candidate for the 1984 U.S. Olympic road-racing team.

In June 1982, she was entered in a 32-mile race across the Santa Monica Mountains on a course that Olympic Coach Tim Kelly called "the most severe for women cyclists in the world."

Buchan was in the midst of a tight pack of riders, descending a steep, curving hill on Mulholland Highway in pursuit of the runaway leader, Pat Hines. They were only about three miles from the start when one of the women lost control of her bike, tapped the rear wheel of another, and started a chain-reaction crash that involved 18 of the 64 starters.

Buchan estimates that the pack was rolling down the hill at 35 to 40 m.p.h.

"I was the third or fourth one to go down," she recalled. "That's the last thing I remember. Actually, I don't remember falling. I know what happened from looking at pictures of it."

Buchan, then 26, landed on her right side with such an impact that her skull was broken on the left side, exposing and injuring her brain. She was in surgery at Westlake Community Hospital for nine hours, in a coma for two months and on life-support systems for six weeks.

"It was so bad that the first doctor who looked at me called my father in Idaho and told him I wasn't going to make it," she said. "He said to find someone who would operate, and he and my mother flew down to be with me. The operation lasted so long that they arrived before I was out of surgery."

Subsequently, she has had four more brain operations, during which one-fourth of the left side of her brain was removed, and she is considered an "acquired" cerebral palsy victim.

"I still talk slowly, but I'm doing better than the doctors said I would after I lost part of the brain that affects speech," she said from her home in Encinitas. "It's hard to tell I'm handicapped when I walk, but you can see it when I run or ride my bike. And I still have seizures. That's the big problem remaining."

But she did represent her country in the Olympics, or rather the Paralympics--an Olympic-style competition for visually impaired and handicapped athletes. Not in Los Angeles in 1984, as she had hoped, but in Seoul, South Korea, last October.

And not in cycling, but in track and field. Buchan won a silver medal in the 800 meters and finished fourth in the 400 meters. She turned to running after cycling events were dropped from the Paralympics schedule.

"I had a track scholarship to college (Boise State), but it was as a long-distance runner," she said. "I ran the 3,000 and 5,000 meters, but got tired of it and took up cycling one summer and had a knack for it. I was invited to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs in 1981, and at the time of my accident I was one of about a dozen riders looking for the two spots on the '84 Olympic team after Connie (Carpenter) and Rebecca (Twigg)."

It was three years before she got back on a bike, won a few races for the disabled and heard about the Paralympics.

"At first, I started training to ride, not run, at Seoul, but when cycling was canceled, I was so determined to go that I started training as a runner," she said. "The distances were too short for me, but I felt great about finishing second to the girl from Japan. She won the 200, 400 and 800 and had way too much speed for me."

For her part in the Paralympics, Buchan will be among those honored Tuesday night in the Casa Colina Foundation's Tribute to Courage dinner at the Irvine Hilton.

When Barbara was told that she could invite a guest, she called Bruce Jenner, the former Olympic decathlon champion.

"Bruce interviewed me once on 'Good Morning America' and he helped some of us in the San Diego area to raise money to go to Korea," Buchan said. "The regular Olympians all had their way paid, but the handicapped had to pay most of their own way. Bruce was really helpful, so I called him."

Jenner agreed, saying, "I'd be delighted to be Barbara's date."

Lack of interest and support for Paralympic athletes in the United States is a sore point with Buchan.

"I was interviewed in Seoul on TV by West German and Australian stations, but never by the U.S.," she said. "It seems the same everywhere in the U.S. No one hardly knows about us.

"There were 64 nations involved, including Russia and China, and just about every country that was in the regular Olympics. It was just as big a thing over there as the regular Games. We had the biggest delegation--and the least interest.

"The biggest thrill was the opening and closing ceremonies. The stadium was packed. There were people sitting in the aisles and it was such a thrill, such a wonderful feeling, to feel the warmth of everyone from all over the world."

Buchan, with the help of Olympic biathlete Rich Gross and other friends, hopes to change the plight of the handicapped athlete. She is negotiating for 400 acres near Bend, Ore., where she plans to open a training camp for the disabled, similar to the Olympic training site in Colorado.

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