She broke her back in a climbing accident – now she does Ironman triathlons
The inspiring story of how preschool trainer Lynnette Koh fought her way back from the lowest point in her life to pursue “a dream that is worth chasing”.
To complete the Ironman Triathalon, competitors must swim 3.8km, cycle 180km and run another 42km, all in 17 hours. It is widely considered to be of the most gruelling, physically demanding single-day sporting events out there.
Completing the race for any athlete is the culmination of months – sometimes years – of training, blood, sweat and tears. For Lynnette Koh, crossing the finish line at her first Ironman triathlon required even more.
Just three years before in July 2016, the competitive rock-climber suffered a horrific accident.
She fell from a considerable height, landing on her back and shattering the T12 vertebra in her spine, known as a burst fracture. With her vertebra in pieces, her spine became unstable, requiring two titanium rods and four screws to be surgically inserted to support her recovery post-surgery. The metal implants were put in to protect the fractured portion of her spine from any potential impact and to take weight off of it.
Koh was in the hospital for two weeks after that initial surgery, and had to undergo physiotherapy just to regain simple functional movement, such as walking.
She was slated to represent Singapore in the Asian Championships less than a month later, as well as compete at the World University Games in another two months, but both were now out of the question. According to her surgeon, all competitive sports were out of the question – for the rest of her life.
For an avid competitor like Koh, this was crushing news.
“The most physical thing you should ever have to do in your life now is to give birth to a baby,” the surgeon told her after a second operation in 2017.
“I was very upset when he said that,” Koh, now 26, told CNA Lifestyle. “He didn’t understand what it’s like to be an athlete.”
While progress was being made, a full recovery didn’t seem likely. She had read up on cases of similar injuries and believed that she would never get near to the same level of rock climbing she was competing at.
Maybe, she thought, it might be better to aim for something less high-impact. Like swimming. And cycling. And maybe a bit of stroll. Or a full Ironman Triathalon.
I AM IRONWOMAN
“Doing a full Ironman had always been on my bucket list,” said Koh. “It was something that I wanted to do one day, maybe when I was 40 years old.”
But she couldn’t wait until then. Faced with the real possibility that her climbing career was over, she needed something to “maintain a positive outlook”. She needed a dream.
Inspired to participate in an Ironman event after watching a video a friend had sent her, and with her the doctor’s cautionary advice, Koh decided to give it a go – starting with a Half Ironman first, at a relatively more manageable 113km.
While swimming and cycling were considered low-impact, it took a while for her to get used to running. It helped that training for triathlons did not hurt as much as climbing did, but it was no walk in the park.
Koh set her mind on completing the Half Ironman before the removal surgery, which meant that she had to deal with training while the metal screws and rods were still in her spine. Metal implants that she could feel even when she leaned back on a chair.
Despite the physical discomfort, she continued training. By the time she packed up for San Francisco a month before the race, her training saw her cycling up to 50km thrice a week.
You might not be 100 per cent who you used to be, but you are not broken anymore.
On Jun 3, 2017, Koh completed her first Half Ironman in Hawaii, with a time of seven hours, 28 minutes and 40 seconds.
She had achieved the impossible. And now it was time to start her recovery process all over again.
It was time to undergo surgery to remove the metal implants that were still in her back. To make matters worse, one of the screws had broken and was lodged in her spine.
“I had recovered already, did the race and was feeling so fit – but now I had to restart from zero,” said Koh.
She decided to go ahead with the removal surgery, despite her reservations about having to start her rehabilitation from scratch. In the end, the surgeons made the decision to leave the broken screw in as it was not worth the risk. It remains in Koh’s spine today.
“What was supposed to be a one-year recovery became two-years long because I had to wait one more year before I felt good again.”
CLIMBING HER WAY TO THE TOP AGAIN
Even though she had to endure another full recovery process, Koh remained undeterred, and would go on to complete her second Half Ironman in August a year later – even chalking up a personal best, completing the race a full 40 min faster than her debut. It was enough to snag her a third-place finish in her age category. Then came a third race in 2019.
Now it was time to go the distance.
Training for a full Ironman Triathalon would go on for months. In the weeks before the race, Koh would train for about 10 hours each week, dividing the time between running, cycling and swimming. “I sacrificed a lot for Ironman,” she shared.
Shortly after midnight on Oct 27, 2019, Koh crossed the finish line in Langkawi, Malaysia. From learning to walk again just three years ago, she had swum, cycled and ran a total of almost 226km in a little over 16 hours.
Fired up by her seemingly impossible achievement, Koh decided it was time to no longer allow the memory of her fall to haunt her. She had to return to her first love: Rock climbing.
Training wasn’t just physically demanding – it carried a mental hurdle, too. One slip-up, one awkward landing, and Koh knew she could be out of commission once again.
But there she was in Leonidio, Greece, that very December, making her way up a Grade 8A rock climbing route – a climbing grade reserved for a very elite few. To put things in perspective, fewer than 10 women in Singapore had accomplished such a difficult grade before Koh – and she did it twice on that trip.
“I knew that my back was compromised, but I don’t feel like it stopped me from accomplishing something,” said Koh. “After a while, I thought: ‘You are not injured anymore. You might not be 100 per cent who you used to be, but you are not broken anymore.’”
“I just needed to not be afraid.”
Koh, who now works as a climbing coach and a movement skills trainer for pre-schoolers, has also made her way back into the national rock climbing team – and will be representing Singapore at the upcoming Asian Championships in May 2020.
“Almost no one will tell you it’s okay to do something, but they’ll be the first one to say ‘I told you so’ when something bad happens,” she said, summing up her journey.
You decide, said Koh, if “it’s a dream that is worth chasing”.
Always consult your doctor before making any drastic changes to your lifestyle or exercise regime.