A freak racing crash more than a decade ago left Suffolk schoolgirl motocross star Laurie Squirrell paralysed and facing the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
Hailed as the most promising female motocross rider in the country, Laurie’s future looked bleak as she struggled to come to terms with her crippling injuries.
But in an extraordinary show of courage and determination Laurie is now back in the saddle of a specially-adapted bike - and racing her old bike at more than 60mph.
Riding her original highly-tuned Yamaha 125cc machine that has been adapted by her father Richard, and after twelve years of living with her disability Laurie has defied surgeons who told her she would never ride a motorcycle again.
Exhilarated by the experience, the 28-year-old said: “It felt odd and I had almost forgotten how competitive I am - but I was just determined to ride again and that my disability wasn’t going to stop me. It was strange at first but then the old emotions came back.
“The one thing I can’t do is follow my instinct and stick my leg out for balance - and if I stop and there is no-one to catch the bike as it comes to a halt so I would fall off.”
Her father, 50, who runs a coach company from the family’s home at Hitcham near Stowmarket, used his engineering skills to convert Laurie’s bike.
He said: “We got rid of it after the crash - there didn’t seem any point in keeping such a reminder. But when we found it was for sale again we discussed it - and Laurie said she’d like it back and be able to ride it again.”
Richard has modified the bike so that the gear selector and brake, normally operated with the feet, are now controlled from the handlebars and a special frame holds Laurie’s legs and feet - but she has to be carried from her wheelchair to the bike.
He said: “My wife Julie cried when we first saw Laurie riding again - it was a very emotional moment for all of us, to see her tearing across a stubble field on a motorbike just as she started doing when she was just a little girl.
“Getting back on a bike has been important to Laurie and once she got started you could see how special it was for her. We were worried - of course we were - but Laurie is a very determined young woman. I don’t think anyone would have been able to persuade her not to get back on a bike.
“Her riding style is just the same - watching her it was as if she was the same schoolgirl who twelve years ago was faster than the boys.”
Laurie was so successful - and fast - that when she was 12, some motocross clubs declined her race entries - because the boy riders were upset at being consistently beaten by a girl.
She took a year off from her High School studies to turn professional at the age of 16 competing against adult riders with Richard acting as her mechanic.
But that day in San Antonio, Texas in December 2004 changed everything. During practice she crashed and her bike flipped over and landed on her back, breaking three vertebrae and badly damaging a fourth.
She said:”My first memory was waking up in hospital and the doctors telling my dad that I had broken my back. I didn’t want to hear it and pretended it wasn’t real.
“It was a shock but I realised that I had to accept what had happened. There have been times over the years when I admit I have struggled and have been pretty down. But I have tried to be positive and am now looking forward to a job and real independence. I know that there is so much that I can do to help others even from my wheelchair.”
Surgeons at San Antonio University Hospital had to break the news to her distraught family that her chances of making a full recovery were a million to one.
But the Squirrell family admit they are fighters and have put all their efforts into helping Laurie and others like her and in the intervening years, Laurie has become a strong supporter of disabled charities and research into stem cell treatment.
She has now joined the “Wings For Life” campaign run by F1 team Red Bull that is backing research - Laurie recently addressed a meeting of several hundred of the team’s staff at their Milton Keynes HQ in what one of the bosses later described as an “inspirational” talk about her accident and coping with life in a wheelchair.
The Red Bull charity is helping to pour millions of pounds into pioneering spinal cord injury research and treatment which experts hope will one day enable paraplegics to live a more active life.
Laurie has just got a 2:1 honours degree from Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge in education and child studies and hopes to become a primary school teacher.
And her love of speed has now switched from two-wheels to skiing - she has bought a special “sit ski” machine that allows competitors to race downhill controlling a single ski with two smaller hand-held poles.
“Once a racer, always a racer,” said Laurie.
Anglia Press Agency