Barbara Buchan was an up-and-coming cyclist in 1982, competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.
She never made it.
But now, more than a quarter of a century later, she has a gold medal.
Buchan, who lives in Bend, won the women’s individual 3,000-meter pursuit in track cycling Wednesday at the Paralympic Games in Beijing. The 52-year-old finished with a time of 4 minutes, 31.33 seconds, edging Jennifer Schuble of Homewood, Ala., by four seconds.
Buchan’s time set a world record in the cerebral palsy 3 (CP3) division.
“I can’t believe I did it,” Buchan said Wednesday, quoted in a United States Olympic Committee news release. “My accident was so long ago, but I am pleased I finally got my gold.”
That “accident” was a devastating road-race crash in Colorado 26 years ago. Buchan, who was wearing a soft leather helmet, was the most severely injured of the 21 riders who went down on a steep descent. According to a profile of Buchan by The New York Times, her accident led to the rule requiring racing cyclists to wear hard-shell helmets.
Buchan (pronounced BUH-kan) spent two months in a coma, and doctors doubted she would survive. Nearly a quarter of the left side of her brain was removed, and a titanium plate was installed to rebuild her skull.
After five brain surgeries and years of rehabilitation, she continues to struggle with speech problems and numbness in her arms and fingers.
But now, Buchan has gold.
“You can be very upset at the world and have everyone take care of you,” Buchan told The New York Times on Wednesday, “or get back on your feet again.”
Buchan did just that, and in 1988, she won a silver medal in the 800-meter run at the Paralympics in Seoul and finished fourth in the 400. She also competed as a runner at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona. (The Paralympic Games are a quadrennial international competition featuring each nation’s elite athletes with physical disabilities. The games follow the Summer and Winter Olympic Games at the same venues.)
Women’s cycling was not added to the Paralympics until 2004, but Buchan was an alternate for the U.S. cycling squad at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, and she raced against men in 2000 at the Sydney Paralympics, finishing ninth and 10th in two races.
A women’s cycling program was added to the 2004 Athens Paralympics, in which Buchan placed fourth in the time trial.
She has earned several other medals in international cycling competitions since 2002.
In her fifth Paralympics in Beijing, as the oldest member of the U.S. Paralympic Team, Buchan finally got her gold, just two days after placing eighth in the women’s 500-meter time trial.
“I’m doing all right for an old lady!” Buchan said in the USOC news release.
“Barbara’s the matriarch of our team — she’s been through it all,” U.S. coach Craig Griffin said.
“She’s never retired. She’s never let her body go and then come back. I don’t think age is as big of a deal as people make it out to be.”
Buchan was raised in Mountain Home, Idaho, where she was an accomplished runner in high school. She went on to excel in distance events at Boise State University.
Following her crash and the aftermath, Buchan moved to Bend from Southern California in 1990.
She works in the garden department at Bend’s Home Depot as part of the company’s Olympic Job Opportunities program for Olympians and Paralympians. Under terms of the program, she works a 20-hour-per-week schedule and receives full-time pay and benefits.
But before she returns to Central Oregon, Buchan has work left in Beijing. She is scheduled to race in the 25-kilometer time trial Friday.
“I think I’m still flying and floating around,” Buchan said. “It still hasn’t hit me. I’ve wanted a gold medal since I was 15, and now I have one.”
To read a profile of Barbara Buchen that appeared in The Bulletin in August, click here.