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She’s Still Going Strong : With Wheelchair Racing, Lois Taurman Has Become a Top Competitor Again

<i> Tammy Lechner is a Times staff photographer</i>

As Lois Taurman briskly rolls her racing wheelchair along the streets near her home here, neighbors wave and yell greetings. Taurman returns them, usually with a smile or a quip.

Those neighbors remember this spirited redheaded woman of 27 as an able-bodied athlete. In those days, she ran through these same streets, keeping herself conditioned for the various sports she played in high school and college.

At Louisville’s Bellarmine College, she set the women’s basketball scoring record of 1,414 points during her career as a 5-foot 7-inch center. She also is the only woman athlete there to have won letters in three sports--basketball, volleyball and softball--during each of her four years, 1979-83.

The community marveled at her, applauded her, took pride in her athletic accomplishments.

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It still does.

Despite a near-fatal accident on Oct. 12, 1984, that left Taurman paralyzed, her athletic desire remains. And today, after only 2 years in the sport, she is on a path that she hopes will lead to her being the best female wheelchair racer in her class in the world. In fact, she will be among a group of elite wheelchair athletes competing in the Paralympic Games in Seoul, starting Monday.

“It’s Lois’ attitude that impresses people so much today,” said Taurman’s mother, Bonna. “The wheelchair hasn’t changed her enthusiasm toward anything, really. She’s always been a competitor--and a winner.”

Evidence of Taurman’s triumphs adorn the walls and shelves of her bedroom--trophies, certificates, medals, plaques. But there is one decoration that means more to her than any other.

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It is an embroidered quotation that says, “When God closes a door, he opens a window.”

“That’s Lois’ philosophy exactly,” said her mother. “And it’s so ironic that she has had that saying hanging up on her bedroom wall since her college days--long before the accident.”

In her most recent competition, the 31st national Wheelchair Games in Edinboro, Pa., in June, Taurman broke a world record in her class and won the gold medal in the 200-meter race. Her time was 1 minute 2.17 seconds.

During the Stokes-Mandeville Games--a pre-Paralympic tournament for select international athletes--in England in August, 1987, she won four gold medals and three silver.

At the time of her accident, Taurman was playing in two volleyball leagues and two softball leagues and still found time for pickup basketball in a local park at night.

Then, one afternoon, while cleaning roof gutters, she slipped off a ladder, cracked her neck against an iron railing and fell down an 18-foot basement stairwell.

“I knew when I fell that I was paralyzed because I couldn’t get up,” she said. “And it was more or less acceptance at that point--because it was just me and the ladder. If it had been me and a drunken driver, perhaps I would have felt anger or denial.

“But to this day, I have never asked, ‘Why me?’ And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that nobody else was involved. It was fate, and there was nobody to be angry with. I just decided I would go on,” Taurman said.

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Going on wasn’t any different from tackling other physical challenges, she said. At first she, had to regain strength and motion in her arms, back and neck.

“The one thing I wished for was to get the use of my hands back,” she said. “But it never happened, and so I’ve learned how to use adapted utensils to assist me with things like eating, writing--even teeth flossing.”

At the urging of a physical therapist at the Frazier Rehabilitation Center here, Taurman began to think about the possibility of wheelchair racing. By late summer of 1985, she was committed to it.

She began serious training in February, 1986, when she acquired a specially designed racing chair and worked out on the streets around her home. The first time she circled the block, she had to stop for water 10 times. And the pain in her arms made her cry.

“It hurt so bad I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “But I just kept telling myself to go two more houses. At first I was so discouraged. The progress was so much slower than I was used to.”

For competitive purposes, Taurman is classified as a quadriplegic because she has no functional use of her fingers. She does, however, maintain slight use of her triceps--the muscle at the back of the upper arm--and normal use of her biceps, shoulders and wrists.

The big thing for her to learn was how to use her functionless hands as pushing tools while building up the strength in her biceps to provide the power behind the push.

She developed a palm-push technique that requires her to use padded handball gloves and her fingers and thumb taped to the top of her palms. The taping keeps her fingers from getting caught in the wheel spokes as she strokes downward on the wheel rim. She also uses double-stick carpet tape to provide traction for her hands against the wheel rim.

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Taurman found that the pushing got easier after several months, and today it takes her about 5 minutes to roll through her neighborhood--a course that took her 29 minutes to complete at first.

“Overall, I think this is even a better achievement than what I did in basketball, volleyball and softball,” Taurman said. “Before, I was able to get by on my natural ability. Jumping and running was something I was always able to do.

“But to achieve what I’ve achieved in wheelchair racing, I’ve really had to dedicate myself and focus on what I’m trying to accomplish. You can’t get by on your natural ability.

“I’ve already exceeded what I thought I would be able to achieve in my 2 years. Now I’m looking at ways to help myself get a little bit better all the time. I try to set my goals a little higher each day.”

She visited a New Orleans clinic, where she studied the use of a special backhanded technique developed by European racers. It would allow her to use her strong biceps muscles more and her weaker triceps less. Taurman believes that the technique could cut about 2 minutes from her mile.

“With the palm-push technique, you are forced to use your triceps to pull the arm up from the stroke,” she said. “So the more you push, the weaker your arm becomes. But with the backhand-push, the biceps pull the arm through the stroke.”

Taurman used her regional and national competition last spring and summer to test the technique.

“It’s been a challenge to implement the new stroke,” she said. “It uses a whole new set of muscles, and that has caused a good deal of soreness and stiffness. But this is the technique all the top racers use, and I think it’s definitely the way for me to continue.”

While spending recent years learning to be a disabled athlete, Taurman also has worked at getting the nursing degree she had been 6 weeks short of at the time of the accident.

“My only problem with the handicap is that people tend to associate the wheelchair with mental retardation and then condescend toward me,” she said. “That’s when I feel prejudiced against--and here I sit with three college degrees.”

The nursing degree was preceded by a bachelor’s in biology and complemented by a master’s in family counseling in 1987.

Athletically, Taurman came away from her first round of competition in the spring of 1986 with six consecutive victories and recognition by the National Wheelchair Athletic Assn. as the season’s outstanding novice female.

Winning was fun, Taurman said, but it was more of a lift to be surrounded by hard-working athletes again.

“I was just so happy to be back in that atmosphere,” she said.

Since being elected to the national development team, Taurman has traveled to Colorado Springs and Houston for testing and training.

In Colorado Springs, she and other development team members were tested, trained and given dietary instruction at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

In Houston, Taurman trained under her Olympic coach, Judy Einbinder, for several weeks.

“I wish I could stay in Houston, because I improve dramatically every time I’m able to spend time with Judy,” Taurman said.

“But the problem with that is the expense. It’s a real setback that disabled athletes are not paid the way able-bodied athletes are.”

Taurman estimated that the cost of her training, equipment, transportation and housing this Olympic year could exceed $30,000.

She has written and circulated a resume of her athletic career in hopes of persuading sponsors to help pay her way through international competition.

Meanwhile, her mother serves as her main support system.

Bonna Taurman recently took a leave of absence from her job to devote full attention toward getting her daughter to the Olympics.

She acts as a coach during Taurman’s daily workouts, a traveling companion during the out-of-state training sessions, and a financial sponsor when money must be available to accomplish goals.

“Lois will go to the Olympics if I have to go up on the street corner and sell pencils,” her mother said when the training began.

“The key word here is faith. And I have faith we’ll get there.”

On Monday, Lois Taurman--and her mother--will be there.


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