This college athlete lost her leg, learned to run again, and is aiming for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics

This college athlete lost her leg, learned to run again, and is aiming for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics

It was an NCAA women’s lacrosse game, in the spring of 2018: University of Massachusetts-Lowell versus University of Hartford. UMass junior attacker Noelle Lambert ran, swooped toward the goal, caught a pass, flicked her lacrosse stick, and scored.

“It’s Lambert!” a game announcer boomed. “The quick release. Her first goal of the year. And they’re going to empty the bench for that one.”

Her teammates rushed the blue court, jumping in excitement, gathering Lambert up in a giant team hug. The video of that moment went viral.

That’s because Lambert, who had started on the team with two legs, was now playing with only one.

This was her first game ever on a prosthetic limb.

And she’d just scored a goal.

Growing up in New Hampshire, Lambert had been a gifted three-sport athlete, playing lacrosse, soccer, and basketball at Londonderry High School. Sports had always come naturally to her — so much that, after losing her left leg in a 2016 moped accident, she set a goal of simply returning to her team, becoming an ordinary player like any other.

But moving from college athlete to para-athlete caused a surprising transformation — a new athletic path as a sprinter and Paralympic hopeful, and a new attitude about practice, glory, and teamwork. It’s a common experience for athletes who shift from able-bodied to disabled, says Jason Lalla, Lambert’s prosthetist, who is also a para-athlete. Training with a prosthetic requires a new level of creativity and focus, which sets para-athletes apart from able-bodied peers, even as they try to blend in.

“Returning to her college lacrosse team, she didn’t want special attention and she didn’t want to be a distraction,” Lalla recalls of Lambert. So she would join in the team workouts, he says, “and then she would spend countless hours on her own filling in the gaps.”

And for Lambert, who had never had to work so hard before, the extra effort turned out to be a revelation.

“I’m grateful, having this happen to me. I now think of it as such a positive,” she says. “Before the accident, I never put in any extra work … Having this happen changed my work ethic.”

In the summer of 2016, Lambert was a 19-year-old standout NCAA Division I lacrosse player who had just finished her freshman season at UMass-Lowell, and was visiting Martha’s Vineyard.

July 30 was a sunny island day when she and teammate Kelly Moran decided to rent a moped to drive to the beach.

On the way, Lambert says she “lost control and side-swiped a dump truck.”

After the crash, she looked down.

Most of her left leg was gone.

In shock, she asked a bystander to borrow a cell phone to call her mom, Judy, before she was rushed to Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, stabilized, and airlifted to Boston Medical Center. Moran also suffered serious injuries to her right leg along with a shoulder injury.

In Boston, what remained of Lambert’s leg was amputated above the knee. One of her first visitors, aside from parents Judy and Geoffrey, was her head coach, Carissa Medeiros.

“I asked her if I was still on the team,” Lambert recalls. “My main goal was to get back on the field.”

After five days in the hospital, Lambert spent a week at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. She then started physical therapy.

About a month after the accident, classes — and lacrosse practice — started up again. Lambert took online classes, but commuted some 45 minutes each way between New Hampshire and Massachusetts to attend nearly every lacrosse practice on the sidelines.

“I wanted to be there for my teammates,” Lambert says. “I didn’t want to miss anything.”

Teammate Kyra Lowenberg, a year behind Lambert at UMass, had competed against her in high school, when Lambert was “known for her spunky and sassy attitude,” Lowenberg says. After the accident, she says, “Everyone on the team admired Noelle for her positivity and determination … to play on the field with her teammates again.”

That spring 2017 season, Lambert cheered from the bench at every game, but she couldn’t participate. She had moved from a wheelchair to crutches to a prosthetic leg, but she didn’t yet have a running blade. Specialized athletic prosthetics can cost $5,000 to $100,000 and are almost never covered by insurance, she says.

At the end of her sophomore year, Lambert received her running blade through the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a charity that helps athletes acquire adaptive sports equipment.

She began working with Lalla, her prosthetist, who had made a similar adjustment to para-athlete. After Lalla lost part of his leg in a 1989 motorcycle accident, he became a Paralypian, winning medals for skiing in Nagano, Japan in 1998 and Salt Lake City in 2002.

Harnessed to a treadmill, Lambert taught herself to run again. When she got the mobility down, she hired a personal trainer to get herself back in shape — running, sprinting, weightlifting.

“I told my coach, ‘When I come back in the fall, I want to be treated like everyone else. I don’t want to be taken lightly,’” Lambert says. “But I don’t think they were expecting anything of me.”

Lambert herself didn’t realize how difficult a comeback would be. On the treadmill, she struggled with balance on her often-uncomfortable prosthetic limb. She missed having some of the body’s natural shock absorbers, and was frustrated with her brain’s inability to “read” the location of her carbon fiber blade the way it would an actual foot, Lalla explains.

Once she learned to run on the blade, she had to apply her new skills to lacrosse, a sport that requires hand-eye coordination, speed, explosiveness, and the ability to anticipate others’ movements while trying to mask your own.

“Now imagine that you are the only one playing on stilts,” says Lalla, “except you’re not any taller, and you’re really only on one stilt, which makes everything asymmetrical and awkward.”

Lambert got used to falling, and to the bloody blisters that formed on the nub of her amputated leg. But she maintained a sense of humor, dressing up one Halloween as an IHOP restaurant.

“Noelle was and still is one of the funniest people I know,” says Renee Gonzalez, who played goalie on the lacrosse team and graduated with Lambert. “She was always the goofball.”

Their freshman year, Lambert “was naturally athletic and had this natural skill that people died for,” says Gonzalez. “She worked hard, but not necessarily as hard as someone might need to, to be on that level.” Before the accident, teammates found her athleticism inspiring, Gonzalez says. Afterward, they drew inspiration from her positivity, tenacity, and humor.

“When she first began to come back with her prosthesis,” says Lowenberg, “it was such an amazing thing to see her work to get to walk and run.”

Lambert only revealed her emotional struggles to her mother and to her assistant lacrosse coach, Carly O’Connell.

“One day, I finally broke down in front my assistant coach. I was letting it all out for hours,” Lambert says. “She said, ‘I’m loving this.’ Because I always put up a wall — I never let anyone see my emotions, or how it affected me. That needed to happen.”

At one point, after watching Lambert on her prosthesis, hiding self-consciously behind the other players, O’Connell “stopped practice and screamed at me, saying, ‘You need to be doing every single drill. You have one leg and everyone else has two, so you need to be doing more work,’” Lambert recalls. “It was what I needed, to be pushed.”

By her junior year, Lambert was in better athletic shape than she had been before the accident. Her team often ran a drill called “the gauntlet” — a mile, half mile, quarter mile, half mile, with short rests in between.

“My freshman year, with two legs, I couldn’t finish,” she says. “I finished [with my blade] because my teammates wouldn’t let me stop.”

Her teammates were overcome with emotion watching her run.

“To this day, I will never forget her running on the track to complete that test,” says Lowenberg. “People were in tears.”

The NCAA cleared Lambert to play halfway through her junior season. Her coach “was hesitant to put me in and have me fail,” says Lambert. “I reassured her that if that were to happen, it would make me work harder.”

Finally, in spring 2018, Lambert played her first game on one leg. That was the game in which she scored a goal.

“When I look back at that footage, it’s not me scoring that gets me teared up — it’s the emotions of all my teammates,” Lambert says. “Just seeing how the bench cleared, how everyone was so happy, that’s what makes that moment special.”

“I don’t think any of us ran faster in our life to go hug her,” says Gonzalez. “We ran off the bench and we just wanted the game to be over, then to go celebrate. We were crying, laughing, smiling so hard.”

Yet after a while, Lambert says, the extra work and game play became routine. By her senior year, she says, “I didn’t think about having a prosthetic leg anymore. I just went to practice every day, and did every single drill. I got in a lot of games. I was contributing to the team in any way I could.”

Still, playing with a disability broadened her focus. She created a charity, The Born to Run Foundation, which donates prosthetics to other young athletes in need of a limb.

In August, Lambert was among 26 volunteers recognized for their contributions at the 2019 Myra Kraft Community MVP Awards at Gillette Stadium. Lambert’s Born to Run Foundation received a $10,000 grant from the New England Patriots Foundation’s Celebrate Volunteerism initiative.

Lambert graduated UMass-Lowell in May, and was awarded the Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award, honoring student-athletes who have “overcome great personal, academic or emotional odds.”

After graduating, she took up a sport she had never tried before, traveling to Tempe, Ariz., to compete as a sprinter in her first para-athletic track meet, the Desert Challenge Games. Lalla accompanied her, took video, analyzed her movements, made adjustments to her blade, and provided feedback. Neither knew anything about sprinting, they say.

“It was pretty funny — the two of us standing out on the track, me as her ‘coach,’ both looking out of the corners of our eyes to see what everyone else was doing,” says Lalla. “We just winged it.”

Lambert ended up winning her class and beating the top U.S. female in the same class, Lalla says. “Not bad for the first time she ever heard a starting pistol.”

In August, at the World Para Athletics Grand Prix meet in Paris, Lambert qualified for the U.S. National Team by running the 100-meter race in 16.85 seconds. She’s among 63 athletes who will compete for Team USA in November at the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai. Her goal now is to run the 100-meter race in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics.

“It’s funny to see Noelle go on to a track career,” says Gonzalez, who recalls Lambert complaining about run-tests and running during their freshman year. “Seeing how far she has come in her training, and following her journey, you can tell how much she wants it.”

Lalla adds, “Noelle has an incredible amount of natural athletic ability. But I can tell you, she worked harder than anyone to get that opportunity back.”

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