Shattered dreams rebuilt anew

By Michael Dickison

Told he'd not walk again after a serious crash, a teen cyclist had other ideas.

Fraser Sharp in the hills above Tauranga, where he has been in training for the half-ironman. Photo  / Alan Gibson
Fraser Sharp in the hills above Tauranga, where he has been in training for the half-ironman. Photo / Alan Gibson

Brain injuries took away Fraser Sharp's speech and physical movement 20 years ago. But this summer, he is preparing for an ironman race - 12 hours of running, swimming and cycling - to prove anything's possible with dedication.

Mr Sharp recalls the Auckland rehab centre where he learned to speak and walk again in 1993.

He was 16 years old and had just woken up from a month-long coma - with a changed personality and disabilities.

Doctors said he wouldn't walk again and had only an 8 per cent chance of regaining control of the right side of his body.

But Mr Sharp had emerged from the coma with a drive that seemed to cut through it all.

"It was all the brain knew how to do - get back on the bike," he says.

He had no memory of the accident that had got him there, but he has since pieced together a picture.

Mr Sharp was cycling on the North Shore with two friends. He was a competitive cyclist and had recently won a marquee event.

The trio were racing down a hill when a car made a right-hand turn.

In a moment, "pretty much every major bone" was shattered.

His helmet barely saved him, leaving him unconscious, with frontal lobe damage.

The first memory he has is from a month later. He is riding in an ambulance to the rehabilitation centre in Pt Chevalier, and he thinks, "Where's my bike?"

Thirty days apart, unaware of the unconscious hours he'd passed, Mr Sharp's old and new lives were connected by the impulse to cycle.

He doubled and tripled the requirements of his physiotherapy.

In a year, he was competing again.

He reached the top levels of the sport, and his seemingly miraculous recovery made the front page of the Herald in 1994.

But the triumphs were racing away from the fact that he now carried a disability.

Unlike in his physiotherapy, Mr Sharp struggled to get through the tongue-twisters and rhymes necessary for his speech therapy.

There were frustrations in daily tasks and relationships.

For several years Mr Sharp kept cycling, knowing the risks of another fall, until he fractured another collar bone in the Tour of Southland in 1999.

He began working on superyachts in the Mediterranean.

But he was held back by the old accident. "It takes a lot longer to do pretty much anything. Things like my memory. And I write like a 5-year-old. I get it down, it just takes longer."

He became stuck working as a senior deckhand.

"People I joined the industry with, they're skippers now. Being a deckhand is pretty much the bottom of the ladder."

Meanwhile, Kiwi cyclists he had once raced against were contesting the Tour de France.

And soon there was a second-hand bike Mr Sharp began to ride again around Nice.

He entered a race, and he blitzed an Australian friend, a skipper who had bought and trained on the best gear. The friend, amazed, challenged Mr Sharp to an ironman race.

It has become his motivation. He wants to compete in Tauranga's half-ironman on January 5, the inaugural 70.3 Auckland triathlon on January 19, and Ironman New Zealand in Taupo on March 2.

Mr Sharp has come home to train. He rides across the Kaimai hills from his parents' house in Tauranga, swims and runs several times a week.

He has gone further than anyone thought was possible as he lay unconscious in hospital 20 years ago.

But he says he doesn't make much of it; he tries to avoid looking back.

He'll take each task, or dream, as it comes. "It never stops ... like anyone," he says.

"There's only the drive to go on."

Support Fraser Sharp's goals and his fundraising for the Head Injury Society of New Zealand at indiegogo.com/FraserSharp

- NZ Herald

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