Lindi Marcusen has always been active. As a gymnast from elementary school through high school, she travelled the country and spent 20 hours per week in the gym. In college she was a body builder in the bikini division. And when she was in a car crash that took her right leg and nearly took her life, she wanted to return to being active.
“I want to move my body daily,” she says. “I want to feel like I am powerful and capable and get that adrenaline rush and those endorphins. It doesn’t matter what the activity is, it has always been a constant in my life.”
A little more than three years after the crash, Marcusen is still on the move. She’s training in the 100-meter dash and long jump for the Paralympic trials for Tokyo 2021.
“I’m not a person who holds still or takes a break,” she says.
Getting to this point has been the biggest challenge of her life.
In the summer of 2017, she thought she had everything figured out. She graduated college with a degree in graphic design, she married the love of her life, Nathan, and moved to Idaho to be closer to his job.
Less than two weeks after the September wedding, the trajectory of her life was changed when her car blew a tire on a two-lane highway in Sun Valley, Idaho. She doesn’t remember what happened, but officials said her car then slammed into a pickup truck and the front half of her car was torn off.
“My right leg was cut clean off at the scene,” she says. “I had a compound fracture in the other femur and my sound side tibia was shattered. My [right] calf muscle was hanging on by a thread; it wasn’t attached to anything. There was no way to reattach the leg.”
On top of those injuries she also sustained a traumatic brain injury.
She says physicians struggled to keep her alive. At the worst point, they couldn’t control her bleeding and told Marcusen’s family she wouldn’t make it. Her siblings flew in and family members told her what they thought would be their last goodbyes.
“The next morning I was sitting up eating peaches,” she says. Physicians knew then she would survive but did not know what the quality of her life would be with a brain injury and the extent of her wounds. After about six weeks in the hospital, she was transferred to a rehabilitation center in Spokane, Washington, where she spent 15 days doing speech therapy, occupational therapy, and recreational therapy. While there, one of the therapists encouraged Marcusen to think about the Paralympics.
At the time, she says, she wasn’t ready to think about the prospect.
“I needed time to grieve,” she says. “It took me about a year and a half….”
That was time she also spent recuperating, learning to walk again, and figuring out her life and relationships. At a low point, she and her husband almost divorced.
“We had the divorce papers all written up,” she says. “That was the brain injury, and the recovery for that was nasty.”
Getting through that tough time turned out to be a blessing, she says.
“We’re awesome and would not change anything about our experience or our life. For a long time we felt cheated because we didn’t get that first year of marriage that everyone talks about. But we’ll always be a little more grateful for what we have. Our relationship is so much deeper now because we’ve chosen to be together more than once.”
Learning to walk again was also more of a challenge than she thought it would be. She had to build up her strength and work with prosthetists to find a solution for her challenging residual limb.
While she was unconscious after the crash, her family and her surgeons decided Marcusen should have a knee disarticulation instead of a transfemoral amputation.
“They wanted to make it easier for me to walk, and I’m really grateful for that decision,” she says.
However, it still wasn’t a perfect solution.
“The skin graft has been a very delicate thing to work around for socket design,” she says. “[The skin] is like tissue paper and I’m expected to walk on it, let alone run?”
Also because of the traumatic nature of the amputation, her femoral condyles stick out on the distal side.
“It’s not like a nice little cylinder,” she says. “It’s got a bit of an angle in it. That’s the only place I’ve ever gotten a sore.”
Being an athlete, she assumed that once she had a prosthesis it would be easy to walk, but that wasn’t the case.
“My whole body was extremely atrophied,” she says. “I had no muscle, and trauma on my sound leg—two rods put through the long bones. It was difficult to walk at first. Neither part of my body was strong.”
Still, Marcusen pushed herself. She went back to her old gymnastics studio, and her coaches pushed her to keep working. She was willing to do whatever it took to get her life back.
Another big transition was receiving a microprocessor knee, she says. For her day-to-day activities, she uses an ALLUX 4-Bar Hydraulic microprocessor knee with a vacuum suspension socket.
“I can’t even tell you how much easier my day was [after I received it],” she says. “I wasn’t expending as much energy because I had a little bit of help from the microprocessor. Also I was falling a lot less. It was also a huge asset in the weight room because I could squat more comfortably and didn’t have to worry about free-falling.”
Now Marcusen’s gait is near perfect, she says. It’s so good, in fact, that she’s gotten mean notes on her car from people who assumed she was abusing the handicapped parking space.
“People can’t tell I have a prosthetic leg,” she says.
Once she felt comfortable and strong, she decided it was time to get back into athletics. About a year and a half after her crash, she started training with ParaSports Spokane, which trains all types of athletes who have disabilities.
She jumped right in. She got a running blade and microprocessor running knee on a Tuesday and left that weekend for a competition in Chicago. For running, she wears an Ottobock 3S80 sport knee with the sprinter carbon foot.
She soon realized that she didn’t have a lot of competition.
“There was no one female above me to compete against,” she says. “I realized I was a unicorn to be young and female and above-the-knee and active.”
Even though she did well in the first competition, she knew she could do better. In the next race she beat her personal record by 24 seconds.
“Honestly, running is just fun,” she says. “It’s what I want to do. It’s made my life a lot easier.”
When she started, she was focused on being in the 2024 Paralympics in Paris. She’s had such success, though, that Tokyo in 2021 is a real possibility, she says.
Her plans for now are to keep training, stay healthy, and push any limits that are in her way.
Marcusen knows she’s a difficult patient for her prosthetist. Her amputation site is difficult to work around, her exercise routine means she puts her devices through a lot of stress, and she wants every prosthesis to look and feel perfect. Whenever it’s time for a new socket she brings a bottle of glitter for her prosthetist to use on her socket.
“I tell him I don’t want any left in the bottle when he’s done,” she laughs. “But I’m going to push [my prosthesis] to its limits, and I expect it to support my lifestyle.”
Maria St. Louis-Sanchez can be contacted at [email protected].