In October of 2011, Colleen Kelly Alexander had just begun her new life in Connecticut after reconnecting with her high school sweetheart. It had been a difficult personal journey that included two marriages and disconnecting from a family that promoted stifling notions of womanhood. She had undergone brain surgery and overcome lupus in recent years and was finally looking forward to a new chapter with her long, lost soulmate.
One regular morning, Kelly Alexander kissed her husband, Sean, and their dog as she left the house. She biked to work, as she did every morning, but she never made it. A 30–ton truck blatantly blew through a stop sign and ran her over. Her injuries were overwhelming. Her lower body was ripped apart, her pelvis was crushed, and she flatlined twice after nearly bleeding to death.
In those horrifying moments, this bright young woman’s dreams of a normal life seemed utterly crushed and she was left clinging to life. This would likely have been a lost cause for anyone lacking Kelly Alexander’s athletic spirit and level of fitness. That she survived at all is a miracle – five weeks in a coma and 22 surgeries— but this incredible athlete would go on to defy all odds.
Even more remarkable than her recovery is Colleen Kelly Alexander’s approach to life. She uses her experience to show others the power of what it means to view sport as a personal lifeline and a beacon for others who are struggling. Kelly Alexander advocates for road safety and raises money for organizations that played a role in her recovery. Since the injury, she has been in more than 30 races, including eight triathlons and two Ironmans. She had to walk during 90 percent of her last Ironman as she can’t run fast due to scar tissue build-up. Colleen takes great pride in crossing the finish line though.
GoodSport had the honor of speaking with Colleen and spending time with her family. We wanted to uncover what tools this remarkable woman uses to aid her progress mentally, physically, and emotionally. Hopefully, her journey will inspire others facing difficult physical challenges in theirs.
Colleen is a big believer in therapy for PTSD and managing her pain with as little medication as possible. She believes it’s an invaluable tool for young girls and women and wishes it could have been a possibility for her as a teen struggling with eating disorders.
“I would have started therapy much, much earlier but it’s secular so I wouldn’t have been allowed to do that. I had eating disorders as a teenager and into my 20’s. I wish someone would have pulled me aside and said ‘You are beautiful. You are enough.”
Surrounding yourself with good people and having gratitude
Gratitude is a key theme in Colleen’s life. She reminds herself all the time that despite her pain, she’s lucky to be here. Colleen donates the medals she earns to the everyday heroes that were a key part of her recovery. There are still more whom she wishes she could thank, like a female chaplain who held her hand and wouldn’t leave her. “She’s one of my missing links.”
“We have to exercise and empower ourselves to have those good chemicals flowing through our body and get our heart’s pumping. I remember my doctor saying ‘Aren’t you hurting after you do the marathon?’ I was like, yeah, I’m hurting but I’m hurting if I’m just sitting on my butt anyway. It’s better to be moving. Those endorphins that are being released when you’re doing exercise are some of the same chemicals that are being released when we’re taking heavy medications.”
“I think it’s important for everyone to remember not to judge yourself on someone else’s successes or failures. As far as being someone who’s trying to overcome adversity. Adversity looks and feels completely different to everybody. Be immensely gentle with yourself and realize that however capable you think you might be, you’re so much more capable than that. It’s okay being a mess sometimes. If you get up in the morning and your body is in pain or you’re feeling sad and you’re feeling devastated, it’s also okay to break down and sob and cry. You’re not being a weak female – you’re honoring yourself and your soul. And if the most you can do is walk around the block, that’s what you’re going to do because that’s what your body is allowing you to celebrate today.”
At the time of the accident, Colleen was “intensely, intensely vegetarian” so it was difficult when she was told that to better heal her skin she would have to do more for herself then the spectacular raw veggie smoothies her husband made every day.
“Nutrition is incredibly important for everybody and finding what nutrition is right for you and your body is a part of your journey. You have to realize that everything you’re eating has a purpose.”
Respect Your Doctors But Know They Don’t Have All The Answers
“I have learned that my doctor is going to tell me the same thing that he’s going to tell someone else who broke their hip or their foot. He knows that from a textbook perspective, this is the guideline that we need to follow and this is the healing that we need to follow, and he is held responsible for a certain code that he has to uphold.”
Don’t Give Up
“I remember saying to my doctors I know you’re telling me that I’m probably never going to run again, but I’m telling you that I will run again. I remember the first 5K I did without a walker was at Yale. I crossed the finish line and the orthopedic tent was up. There was a surgeon, who wasn’t mine, but I ran up to him and yelled ‘I had an open book pelvic break like a year and a half ago and I just did a 5K!’ He’s like ‘People don’t run after open book breaks,’ and I said, ‘Well no, people DO run after open book breaks cause I just did!’”
Colleen Kelly Alexander admits that she was never the fastest nor the best competitor, but she was always adamant. She believes it is so important for a woman to identify herself as an athlete for the sheer strength of will it can give her. Amazing advice from one of the toughest life competitors ever!
Photo Credit: Twitter, Unsplash