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Lucy Buckingham on the long road back from serious injury

We chat to Lucy Buckingham, who has returned from career-threatening injury to the top step of the podium once again

Chief Correspondent
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On Sunday, Great Britain’s Lucy Buckingham returned to middle-distance action in some style when she took the victory at IRONMAN 70.3 Warsaw in Poland. As the saying goes, it’s been a long time between drinks. But you can be sure that drink tasted so, so good after a challenging last 12 months.

After starting her middle-distance career in 2019, the London 2012 Olympian really began to find her feet in the non-drafting format in 2021. Over a 12 month period from June 2021, Lucy raced 13 events, during which time she finished on the podium 11 times. So, what happened next and where has she been?

Just over a week ago I sat down for an extended chat with Lucy, who has had an incredibly tough battle to return from a potentially career-ending injury.

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Emotional to be back

In early August last year we reported that a herniated disc in her back would put her on the sidelines for a while. As it turned out, ‘a while’ would prove to be exactly 12 months to the day from her win at Challenge St Pölten 2022, until a low-key return at the Mallorca Olympic Distance event two weeks ago.

It’s been really touch and go whether I’d get back racing, to be totally honest.

“I didn’t really realise the full extent of the injury until we went to see a surgeon. It got serious quick, when you realise that it is potentially career-ending.

“Luckily I’ve got back to racing – and it was quite emotional really. I didn’t think I would be – in the grand scheme of things it was a little race in a town in Mallorca, but it had been almost exactly a year. It meant a lot to be back, it really meant a lot, I enjoyed it and it was just a massive relief to cross the line without any massive repercussions.”

Lucy Buckingham Mallorca Olympic Triathlon 2023

The (long) road back

While Lucy has been in the sport for a long time, at just 30 years of age and after perhaps the most consistent period of success in her career, enforced retirement could have been on the cards.

“When I initially did it, I had a lot of pain going down my leg. I went to see Alison Rose, the physio here in Leeds and she suspected it was a herniated disc. I was on crutches, and found that I lost all strength in my leg.

I literally just couldn’t lift my leg up.

“We called on a few more contacts from my short-course days, doctors that I trusted and they put me in touch with a neurosurgeon.

“When we had the scan results back, the herniation was pushing on something called the Cauda Equina – and that controls your bladder, your bowels, all that sort of thing. Knowing how serious that was, that was the biggest thing, beyond simply sport. When I saw the neurosurgeon, because I was progressing, they didn’t want to do anything too invasive. With the back everything is so tightly packed, that we elected against surgery.

“We decided to go down the route of strength, of time (for recovery) and altering training; so for example no intensity at all for quite a while. With surgery, there was no certainty that it would be successful, so I’m glad we took the route we did, even though it has been a slow burner to get here.

Lucy Hall, BMC Pro Triathlon Team - training, running
Photo Credit: BMC Pro Triathlon

“What was also difficult with nerve issues is that nobody could give me a timeframe. You know with a stress fracture that after say six to eight weeks you can start riding, but this was trial and error, two steps forward and one back. Just a challenging time all round.

“I’m an athlete first and foremost – but my happiness and health are important too. Luckily, we slowly saw progression. I had something called drop foot, and do still have to a certain degree, and that can take two years to retrain that pathway.

“The neurosurgeon said that you have a weakness there, it can happen again and to be aware of that. I have scoliosis as well – and one of my legs is longer than the other too! – so I’ve come to accept that I need to alter training. I think it’s a reality for a lot of older athletes, that you have to do a lot more prehab/rehab, strength work, core stability and to just keep my glutes as strong as possible.

“It also means being a bit more flexible with sessions. I’m quite a regimented person and so if I’m due to do a four hour bike ride, that’s what I want to do – but nowadays I might have to assess it and be adaptable.”

Teamwork

Despite the background of a potentially long-term injury with an uncertain route to recovery, the BMC Pro Triathlon team took what could perhaps be considered a calculated gamble, when they signed Lucy as a new member of their squad for the 2023 season.

That, in all regards, has proven to be a huge contributor to her return, and something that Lucy values deeply.

“It was genuinely incredible. Bob got in touch and we started chatting – just to know that Bob and Ben really do believe in me, that just means so much. At that point as well it was pretty bleak. I was being positive and it was making progress, but I knew it was going to be a long process.

“They have been intrinsic with my recovery and have played such a huge part. Maarten, the team physio and Roel the team doctor, I genuinely don’t think I could have made it back without their help. And obviously Bucko [Ed. Mark Buckingham, Lucy’s husband] he has been literally my rock.

“Even everyone in Leeds – Rhys, Russ, Non – to have everyone come around you, it just meant a lot. It means a lot when everyone is happy to see you back, and just shows that I’m really lucky to have such an amazing training environment.”

BMC Pro Triathlon Team 2023
Photo Credit: BMC Pro Triathlon 2023

Plans?

Given that last year, perhaps not surprisingly Lucy hasn’t pencilled in a long list of race targets just yet.

“I’m just going to take each race as it comes. So that little Olympic drafting race that I did was a massive thumbs up and step in the right direction. I’m still waiting for a little bit more control to come back into my ankle. We’ve made small changes, like some new insoles to reduce some pressure.

“But I’m looking to race IRONMAN 70.3 Warsaw. I’m confident that I can go there and race well [Ed. which clearly did go well, with that win on Sunday]. After that, it’s just about seeing how I go and taking it from there. I’m not wanting to do too much big travel, because my back definitely gets set off on a long-haul flight. I now have to travel with a little seat to help me!

“I’ll try and target races where I know I can cope with that element, but we’ll just decide as we go through the year. There’s the IRONMAN 70.3 Europeans in Tallinn, so I’m looking at that. Lahti – the IRONMAN 70.3 World Champs – I’d really like to be there with the big girls, to see where I’m at. For now though, it’s learning on the go.”

Changes

Having had such a potentially serious injury and come through the other side, I asked Lucy about some of the changes that has meant to her training now.

“I’m not riding the TT bike as much at the moment. On a Thursday for instance, I join in with the short-course athletes at the Brownlee Centre track, where I’ll do half a session with those guys and help out some of the younger ones, and then do some of the session on the TT bike at the end. That way I’ve got a little bit of fatigue and then seeing if I can deal with that in the aero position. If that works, we then extend the TT session a little bit more.

Lucy Buckingham BMC Pro Triathlon on TT bike
Photo Credit: Ben De Wolf

“It’s also been quite nice helping the young ones – I’ve always thought about coaching, so to have another focus that’s not just me, but on other athletes and their races and seeing them race well, it’s great to know you’ve been a part of that and helped them to be the best they can be. That’s helped me as well mentally. I think it’s really important to help as much as you can with the next generation of athletes.”

Helping others too

Those comments reminded me of a theme that Lucy expressed when I spoke to her back in late November 2021. With few races happening during the pandemic and sources of income limited, Buckingham worked as both a COVID swabber at Sheffield United Football Club, as well as some cleaning work.

Her comments to me then on that experience were overwhelmingly positive, and I got the feeling that in a different manner, having something else to focus on here was also providing benefits too. Was that the case?

“100%, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I actually get a lot from helping others – I think I’m just that sort of personality. Some athletes – and credit to them – they can be very focussed and driven and that’s what gets them to the start line. I’m a little bit less like that; I actually struggle more when I’m completely like that, and I drive myself round the twist a little bit. Both me and Bucko really get a lot from helping other athletes and really like being a part of that, and like you say I’ve learned a lot from that. It’s good to see that they are all racing well too.

“Also some of those athletes are going through injuries, so it’s good to be able to shine a bit of light on how we’ve dealt with that, and to try not to be too consumed as we’ve been there, done that kind of thing. If you can say something that might make them feel a little better, or help them not over stress, then that comeback might be a little quicker.”

Based on the last 12 months that Lucy has experienced, and where she is now, that would be wise counsel and great advice for the next generation to take.

John Levison
Written by
John Levison
TRI247's Chief Correspondent, John has been involved in triathlon for well over 30 years, 15 of those writing on these pages, whilst he can also be found commentating for events across the UK.
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