text by Sara Gross

[Author’s note – After writing this in May 2016, Lana once again displayed remarkable resilience and was able to leave hospice care for many months. She passed on Tuesday, November 29th 2016 and will be dearly missed by family and friends.]

“Hi Sara” she said as Carrie and I entered the room at the hospice. In the final days of her fight with brain cancer, I wasn’t sure Lana Spreeman would be herself – or even remember me. But she was bright-eyed and lucid, and 100% Lana.

“Good thing you weren’t here earlier,” she told us with a sly smile, “I fought with the nurse again. They won’t let me stand up.”

At the age of five, Lana lost a fight with a piece of farming equipment. She is a below-the-knee amputee who spent 20 years on the slopes representing Canada as a paralympic skier. Cancer is much braver than I am. I would never pick a fight with Lana.

 Lana was strong on the bike, beating people up the hills who were both younger than her and had the advantage of two fully functioning lower limbs

I met Lana about a decade ago. She had signed up for Ironman Canada and attended our training camp in Penticton, BC. The first time we went to the pool, she was afraid to put her face in the water but was determined to learn. She was 51 years old.

Despite being new to cycling, Lana was strong on the bike, beating people up the hills who were both younger than her and had the advantage of two fully functioning lower limbs. Once an athlete, always an athlete.

When she raced the Ironman, Lana refused to enter the Challenged category. She refused to use an athletic leg or take off her prosthetic for the swim. As a result, her leg functioned as an anchor in the water and she ended up blistering the crap out of herself on the run. But you can’t argue with Lana.

She went on to win 13 Paralympic medals, a record for Canadian women and a three-way tie world wide.

During her Paralympic career, Lana represented Canada in alpine skiing at five Paralympic Games starting in 1980 where she won the first ever Paralympic gold in the Giant Slalom 2A. She went on to win 13 Paralympic medals, a record for Canadian women and a three-way tie world wide. In 1994, Lana was the flag-bearer at the Paralympic closing ceremonies in Lillehammer.

During her skiing career Lana found out she was pregnant with her son but did not want to stop training so she strapped up her belly and went into her season as usual, telling no one. Even doctors and common sense will not sway Lana once she’s decided to do something.

This dogged determination also spilled over into Lana’s career as a massage therapist. Owner of her own clinic, Lana was absolutely determined to help people feel better. I used to love going to Lana for massage because of her wacky life stories and the easy way she would laugh during the telling.

“I hope this last phase goes as fast as my Ironman swim.” Lana told us. At Ironman Canada that year a decade ago, we waited in transition for Lana to finish the swim and as the time cut-off approached, we were certain Lana hadn’t made it in time. We should have known better.

Someday we will all lose our final fight in this life, but it’s the little fights -won and lost- along the way that make it worthwhile. A lesson I learned from Lana.

Instead, Lana exited the water much earlier than expected and we missed her. Determined, steadfast, never-say-die Lana had learned to swim, and swim well.

A month before her diagnosis, Lana called me to tell me about her latest project. Having recently retired from massage therapy, she planned to run across Canada in support of a charity raising awareness about the dangers of drugs for kids. She was working with the Canadian Mounted Police and planned a route that would take her to schools across the country where she would speak and inspire. At the time, I thought she was crazy. Even for Lana, running a zig-zag route from school to school across Canada seemed insane. I hung up the phone thinking about how Lana might prove me wrong once again. Maybe a sixty-year-old woman with a prosthetic leg can inspire a generation of young people with the courage to dream big? I mean, at least she had agreed to wear an athletic leg this time. But Lana would not have the chance to execute this crazy plan.

Carrie and I said our final goodbyes and left the hospice with tears in our eyes. I commented on how I would not have wanted to be the nurse that told Lana “no” that morning. It’s hard to see someone so strong and inspiring, become so weak and incapable. “I mean really,” Carrie said, “That’s Lana Spreeman. She’s a f***ing legend.”

Someday we will all lose our final fight in this life, but it’s the little fights -won and lost- along the way that make it worthwhile. A lesson I learned from Lana.

 

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