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Cotter stays calm on road to recovery from near-fatal crash

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The morning before a training accident which could have ended her life, Ruan cyclist Imogen Cotter was finally seeing the fruits of her hard labour. She spoke with Ivan Smyth from her base in Girona.

The struggle and sacrifices Clare cyclist Imogen Cotter has made to earn a professional contract were rewarded when Belgian based team Plantur Pura signed the 28-year-old this year after a rapid upturn in her form towards the latter half of 2021.

Enduring the 3.30am starts which came with working for the Belgian postal service or completing eight-hour shifts at a bakery all led her to fulfilling her dream. She moved to Spain at the start of the year as her career looked destined to reach new heights in the upcoming months.

On the morning of January 26, Cotter moved in to her new apartment in Girona and in that moment, it felt as if her life couldn’t be more perfect. At roughly 2pm that afternoon she set out on a gentle cycle around the hills of Catalonia.

However, in a moment which captured how fragile life can be, Cotter nearly lost hers when a van overtook a cyclist on the opposite side of the road and collided head on with her. The Clare cyclist suffered a broken radius, ulna (both forearm) and right patella (knee).

“It keeps me up at night. There are a million ‘what ifs’. I’ve seen photos of the car and it looks as if it hit another car. It was a miracle that I came away with only a few broken bones. The driver was travelling at speed so I’m not sure who was looking over me that day. The more I look at it the more scared I become because I could be in a coma or a wheelchair right now.”

The challenges of suffering injuries of this magnitude have only been heightened by the fact that she is away from her native Ruan. Although her family travelled to Spain, there was still a language barrier to negotiate which was highlighted by a trip to see a sports traumatologist.

“I went once to the sports traumatologist. He is a good bit outside Girona so when I got there they asked me to undergo an MRI. I had to find my way to Barcelona. There was a huge language barrier when I arrived at the hospital. The only instructions I got was when they said ‘me hot ring alarm’. That’s all they could tell me.”

“At the time I had 40 metal stitches and this treatment was magnetic. I panicked and rang the bell because I was in a lot of pain. I was crying while they were annoyed at me. Then they started trying to bend my knee and I knew that I wasn’t able for it. The whole day cost me €500 and led to some sleepless nights.”

The Plantur Pura cyclist has used her Instagram account to highlight her long and winding road to recovery. It offers a rare insight in to the highs and lows that an elite athlete faces when recovering from a serious long term injury.

Cotter finds that sharing her experiences has helped her stay motivated on her own journey back to cycling competitively.

“It is a huge source of comfort for me. There is a great online community looking out for me. People might look down on social media but it’s been an amazing thing to share the journey I’m on. I feel there are people on this journey with me and I think it’s important that I show the crap times as well as the good times.”

“People sometimes share their stories with me about their own injuries so it helps me a lot. A crap thing happened to me but maybe something good can come from it. I read positive messages and it gives me a little boost. I’m not always winning National Championships. There are going to be bad times so I’m not going to hide away and pretend that everything is perfect.”

The 28-year-old admits that the rehab and physio work needed to ensure she can return to the sport she loves is extremely challenging. However, she measures her day by the small tasks that she is slowly learning to complete again. Being able to climb a set of stairs or use the shower are small tasks that have helped her regain a sense of independence.

“Mini victories are how I gauge my day. The first time I was able to get in and out of bed by myself was a big thing for me. When I first came out of hospital, I couldn’t return to my flat initially. There were a flight of stairs to the first floor and at that time I could barely stand. I didn’t feel autonomous at all.”

“The first day I climbed the stairs was incredible. It meant I could leave the apartment on my own. I got my sense of independence back. I couldn’t stop going up and down the stairs. Last night (Monday) was the first time since the accident that I was able to stand under the shower. I’ll never take these things for granted again.”

Cotter admits it will take time for her to regain the confidence she once held on the bike. However, it is clear that she still maintains the same passion for the sport and is looking forward to getting back on the saddle later this year.

“I always knew there was an inate risk with cycling. I know that crashing in a race can happen but a crash of this magnitude…I thought that happens to other people, not me. It did happen to me though so I have to deal with it now. I still have appreciation for my sport but it will take a while to build up my confidence to get back on the roads.”

“I will get on the gravel first, away from cars. The cycling community has been wonderful to me so I will be doing everything I can to get back. The doctors tell me that I’ll get complete motion back in my knee. There will always be some anxiety about whether it will heal but I want to get back as I’ve goals to achieve.”

Although this year’s Tour de France may come too soon, Cotter is determined to complete the event in the near future while she also wants to test herself against the best cyclists in the world.

“I hope to be back racing this year at some stage. I feel that I’m only at the start of my cycling career. There are big things ahead so I’m excited for the future.”

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