Becky Piper: Get Back Up Eight Times

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By Betta Ferrendelli
Piper crosses the finish line in disbelief as she finishes her first Ironman triathlon.

Piper crosses the finish line in disbelief as she finishes her first Ironman triathlon.

The tattoo on Becky Piper's left forearm reads Relentless Forward Progress.

She got the tattoo as a reward to herself shortly after completing her first Ironman 70.3 triathlon in Boulder, Colorado, in August 2017.

Considering that just four years earlier Piper had been beaten so badly that her physicians told her she would likely never walk again, this significant accomplishment becomes even more extraordinary.

Bleeding on the Brain

In April 2013, Piper was living in Guam with her husband, Sam, who was in the Navy and stationed there. Piper was home alone near 10 p.m. watching television when she heard a knock at the door. "Being the naïve and friendly person that I am, I got up to answer the door," says Piper, who was 27 at the time.

Piper says three "very big, tall, angry men," pushed their way into her house. The details from the rest of that evening and the months that followed are hazy for Piper. She does remember one moment. "I was hit so hard over the head with a gun that it caused my brain to bleed," she says. Her husband and roommates returned home a few hours later and found Piper unresponsive on the floor in the living room. In the hospital she was put into an induced coma for three days. When she woke, she was unable to swallow or speak, and she was paralyzed on her right side.

"I couldn't even sit up in bed," she says.

She had to relearn everything, to eat, walk, and talk again. Piper says she credits faith and a good sense of humor for getting through those early months of recovery and rehabilitation.

 

A Medical Experiment

Before Piper's injury she and her husband were living an active life, mountain biking, running, and hiking. Piper had also recently qualified for the world championships of XTERRA, an off-road triathlon, and she had been training to run an ultramarathon that took place the same week she was injured. Though Piper was in a coma, she says she remembers running that race in her mind.

Piper approaches the finish line.

Piper approaches the finish line.

Because of the training, Piper was in excellent physical condition, which physicians credit as one aspect that helped with her recovery. Being an athlete and a competitor, one of Piper's first questions to her rehabilitation team was if she would be able to compete again—a question her physicians found difficult to answer.

Though Piper learned to walk again, her injuries left her with permanent foot drop. "One of the first things the doctors noticed was that I was going to need a brace for my lower right leg and foot," she says.

Physicians were able to fit Piper with a hard plastic AFO that allowed her to start walking again. "But that was about it," says Piper, who didn't like the brace the first moment she slipped it on. "It was very medical looking and I felt like a medical experiment wearing it."

The Three Bears

Frustrated with her stodgy and clunky plastic brace, Piper turned to the internet to research better orthotic technology.

That's when she came across the Allard BlueROCKER, a lightweight carbon composite AFO designed to help users walk with a more natural gait.

Through her research, Piper also discovered two-time Paralympian Jamie Whitmore, who uses that model when she cycles competitively. "I only use the BlueROCKER for riding the bike," Whitmore says. "I need something super stiff to be able to pedal without my foot flopping or any flex through the pedal. The stronger and stiffer the brace, the more power I can generate using only my quad."

It was some of that power that Piper hoped to regain.

Piper prepares to make her comeback in XTERRA at Lory State Park in Bellvue, Colorado.

Piper prepares to make her comeback in XTERRA at Lory State Park in Bellvue, Colorado.

From nearly the first moment Piper tried the BlueROCKER, the improvement was monumental, she says. It was then that she contacted Beth Deloria, manager of community outreach for Allard, via social media.

Deloria, also a long-time competitive runner, has permanent foot drop after spinal cord defects and subsequent surgery resulted in nerve damage that left her unable to flex her left ankle and raise the front portion of her foot. Once she recovered from multiple spinal fusions, her neurosurgeons said she would be able to run again only if she could find a way to manage her foot drop. Like, Piper, Deloria found the initial braces with which she was fitted painful and they didn't meet her needs.

Though Deloria says she was relentless with her orthotists about finding something better, it took more than another year before she discovered the Allard foot drop line of AFOs, which have been on the market for nearly two decades.

Deloria compares the three varieties, which vary in the orthotic control they offer, to Goldilocks' three bears: The BlueROCKER is papa bear, the ToeOFF brace is mama bear, and the Ypsilon is baby bear, she says. "I use the ToeOFF to run and Ypsilon for daily use since my only deficit is complete foot drop," she says. "Becky needs a much stronger brace, hence her papa bear BlueROCKER, but they are all very similarly designed."

Piper and her husband, Sam, ready to run the Bolder Boulder.

Piper and her husband, Sam, ready to run the Bolder Boulder.

Initially, Piper and Deloria wrote back and forth discussing their similar experiences with plastic bracing and dynamic response bracing. Deloria says Piper eventually asked her specifically how she "got back up" after her injuries. At the time, Deloria was training for a marathon in Denver in 2015. Since Piper was now living in Boulder, Deloria suggested they run the race together. Piper, however, said she wasn't ready to run. "It was only then that I heard her entire story," Deloria says. "To be honest, despite her optimism and determination, after learning the extent of her injuries and her condition, I wasn't sure she'd ever get back to competing at that level."

One thing, however, Deloria says she has learned during her time as a mobility ambassador is to never discourage anyone. "I suggested we try again next year," she says.

The two stayed in touch and, as it turned out, the National Stroke Association's inaugural Come Back Strong 5K run/walk was going to be held in Denver in May 2016. "I invited Becky to join me as Allard's guest, and to my surprise she said yes."

Piper happily runs the Bolder Boulder.

Piper happily runs the Bolder Boulder.

Though the women finished the race in last place, "in my book [Becky] was a gold medalist," Deloria says. "I could not get over how determined, strong, and joyful she was despite the right-side hemiparesis, which was even more pronounced then than it is now."

Get Back Up Eight Times

Along with Deloria, Whitmore, and 13 others, Piper is also part of Allard's TeamUP, which Deloria founded seven years ago as an extension of the Get Back Up Today national campaign to raise awareness about living with mobility challenges and to provide resources for those with mobility challenges. The groups were inspired by a Japanese proverb that Deloria says helped her during her own healing process, "Fall seven times, get up eight," which parallels the message Piper chose for her tattoo.

First time riding at CAF's Paratriathlon Camp.

First time riding at CAF's Paratriathlon Camp.

Though Piper still has limited to little use of her right side from her hamstring to her fingertips, she has no plans to let her limitations slow her down. She continues to run and cycle, having won gold at the 2018 USA Cycling Paracycling National Championships in Georgia in June.

Betta Ferrendelli can be contacted at betta@opedge.com.