From her vantage point in the cool waters of the Pacific, no more than 100 yards off the Santa Monica shoreline, Crista Lawrence couldn’t see a cloud on the horizon.
Twenty years old, two All-American seasons as a Cal State Northridge swimmer behind her and a reasonable expectation of two more, the only waves Lawrence could see in her future were those beckoning to her within arm’s reach.
It was 8:30 a.m. on a summer’s day. Time to kick back, kick out and hang ten. Soon, the crowds would arrive and she would have to go to work as a lifeguard for Los Angeles County. But for now, on this Aug. 7, there was still a little time to paddle out and work on her new hobby--surfing.
Lawrence spotted a wave heading her way. It wasn’t much of a wave, just about four feet high. But, she figured, what the heck, she’d ride it for what it was worth.
She hopped on her surfboard, but the wave had already peaked. She never did quite catch up. Or gain her balance.
Before she knew it, she was swept toward shore, the board going one way, her body another. She had landed head first with terrific force and lay still, unable to move.
Lawrence had always felt comfortable in the water. It was there she had first gone to escape the ills of a childhood that saw her contract pneumonia 13 times before she reached age 8. She was also bothered by periodic asthma attacks that resulted in a series of midnight trips to the hospital.
“My doctor told my parents,” Lawrence said, “that they should get me into sports or I would be sick all my life. I was a sick little kid, a frail thing.”
So she dragged her frail body off to soccer practice, to track, to swimming.
The water proved an irresistible lure.
“Once I started swimming, I never quit,” she said.
The doctor was right. By the time Lawrence was 14, the pneumonia was gone. So were the asthma attacks. And all the inherent medication.
But Lawrence kept swimming--for the AAU and Granada Hills High.
“When I was on the frosh-soph team,” she recalled, “I swam the 200-yard freestyle against everybody, boys included, and won. Everybody thought I was going to be an Olympic star. They didn’t know any better.”
Lawrence didn’t get that far, but she did manage to win the 200 and 500 freestyle in the City finals as a junior.
She went on to Northridge where she was an All-American her first year in the 100 and 200 butterfly, the 200 individual medley and the 400 freestyle and medley relay. Her All-American honors this past season came in the 100 and 200 fly and the 200, 400 and 800 freestyle relay.
Before the year was finished, Lawrence had also left a couple of national records in her wake. In the NCAA Division II championships last spring at Orlando, Fla., she shaved the Division record (2:06.03) in the 200 fly by more than a second. That day, she also helped the Lady Matadors to a national record (7:35.24) in the 800 freestyle relay.
“She had not reached her potential as a swimmer,” said Pete Accardy, her coach at CSUN. “I thought she could go faster. By no means had she reached the end of the line in terms of what she was capable of.”
Lawrence co-captained Northridge last season, and Accardy wants her present, if possible, to continue in that capacity next year, despite the surfing accident that left her paralyzed.
Lawrence remembers everything about the instant she was thrown from the surfboard. She didn’t have to be told what had happened. As a lifeguard, she knew. The unthinkable had occurred. She had been injured in the environment she had so long dominated.
“My arms were tingling and I couldn’t move. I had been trained to help people in the same situation,” Lawrence said. “I knew what it would probably feel like. I knew I had broken my neck.”
Two lifeguards--Lane Murphy and Anous Alexander--were nearby. At first, when they saw their fallen companion, they thought she was lying there as if to rinse her hair.
Almost 20 seconds passed before Murphy and Alexander responded to Lawrence--just enough time to keep her from drowning in a foot of water.
Lawrence had sustained a broken neck bone and was paralyzed from the bustline down.
Kay Lawrence was a little late for her job as a hairdresser at a Sherman Oaks beauty shop. Before she could get settled in, the message arrived. Her daughter had been in an accident and was in a Santa Monica hospital. But it was an injury that hospital couldn’t handle, and Crista was being airlifted by helicopter to the Northridge Hospital Medical Center.
“They didn’t tell me over the phone what the injury was,” Kay Lawrence said, “but they didn’t have to. When I heard they were flying her there by helicopter, not ground transportation, I knew.”
It has been four weeks since the accident, and Kay Lawrence is feeding her daughter at the Northridge facility.
“This is the worst thing that has ever happened in my life,” the mother said, “but we’re coping. We are very religious people. We feel there is a reason for this and we are waiting to see what it is.
“The doctors say she probably won’t walk again, but we are confident she will.”
It’s not hard to see where Kay gets her confidence.
Her daughter still bears the trademark smile. It may not be possible to carry on a normal life after sustaining an injury as serious as Lawrence’s, but she’s certainly trying.
The night before, the lifeguards in her group held their annual, end-of-the-summer banquet. Did Lawrence have to beg off?
She was there, thanks to a friend who enlisted the use of an ambulance. Admiring lifeguards refer to Lawrence as T.C., for Tough Chick.
Tough. That seems to be the unanimous adjective for Crista Lawrence.
Talk to Accardy, a man who has been guiding Lawrence in the water since he first discovered her as a 13-year-old swimmer at Chatsworth Athletic Club.
“She’s very tough, very motivated,” he said. “She was not gifted with a lot of natural talent for swimming. The success she had has come as a result of hard work and guts.”
Therapists at the Northridge Hospital Medical Center echo that sentiment.
Lawrence already has survived a bout with bronchial spasms that came soon after the injury. And she has begun to regain the use of some muscles.
“I had to start learning to breathe all over again,” she said. “After that, I can handle anything.”
“She’s doing really well,” occupational therapist Cheryl Finkel said. “It’s like I give her something to do and she says, ‘OK. What’s next?’ If she can handle it, she goes for it. There’s no sense in holding back. That kind of attitude really makes a difference.
“We are trying to build up her endurance. We are teaching her how to use a pinch movement in her hands to pick things up. We are teaching her how to drink from a cup, how to write, how to feed herself, how to turn the pages in a magazine. These are things we take for granted. We are seeing which muscles are responding and trying to show her how to use them. She’s getting stronger. And the more she does, the better she gets.”
To a point.
“We are still in the process of evaluating her,” physical therapist Art Lum said. “We are learning what her range of motion is, her respiratory status, her sensation level, her ability to propel her wheelchair, to sit at a 90-degree angle.
“You look to see what muscles she has, to get patterns of development. She never had to move her body in a certain way before, but that may be the only way she can move it now.”
She is already planning on going back to classes at Cal State Northridge, perhaps as early as February. Before her injury, ironically, she was interested in a career in medicine.
“The doctors told her she would be in the hospital seven or eight months, but she’s planning on only three,” her mother said. “She’s getting more movement back all the time. She may eventually drive a car. If there’s a way to do it, she’ll find it. She’s a tough lady.”
Said Accardy: “I am optimistic she is going to beat the situation she is in right now because she is going to work as hard as she has to. She was never afraid of hard work.”
Even as she begins the long journey back, Lawrence has no illusions about the difficulties on the road ahead.
“You never know,” she said. “They told me I have a 5% chance to walk. There are people with a 3% chance who have walked. You can’t predict. I just need a little luck, some hard work and a lot of prayer.
“I know I’ll never give up. I can’t. I don’t want to be an invalid all my life. I’m just going to make the best of the worst. I’ve got to.”