Resilient return to luge for Ashley Cooney after spinal injury

Ashley Cooney. Picture: Marie Nirme d444785
Ashley Cooney. Picture: Marie Nirme d444785

FOUR years after a car crash stole her gymnastics dream, Ashley Cooney thought the worst of the collision was behind her.

Having rebuilt herself as an emerging athlete in the winter sport of luge, she came close to selection for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.

It seemed success was not too far away for the ambitious Kingsley resident, who was 18 at the time.

But in a jarring halt to her rise, trauma struck.

Cooney woke one morning in March 2014 with an aching back; by lunchtime she had collapsed.

A simmering injury from the 2010 car crash had surfaced four years later.

She would have to learn to walk again.

“Mum rushed me to hospital,” she said.

“That night, I had no feeling in my left leg.

“My vertebrae had hit my spinal cord and had squished my left nerve root. I was in hospital for two weeks before surgery.

“I had a spinal fusion; I have two rods and four screws in my lower back.

“Sport was the last thing on my mind. The only thing I was focused on was putting one foot in front of the other and gaining my independence.”

After such an ordeal, it is hard to believe where the 20-year-old finds herself less than a year-and-a-half later.

This month she is in Europe, adrenalin pumping as she hurtles at about 130km/h down the unforgiving bite of a luge track in preparation for the sport’s World Cup.

“I had to learn to walk again,” she said. “However I promised myself if I could do that, I could do anything.

“I owed it to myself to give luge a go again and that’s why I’m back. This season is all about testing the waters and having no regrets.”

Cooney’s recovery has been a remarkable subplot to a story that was already inspirational before she rose from the serious spinal injury last year.

The immediate consequences of the May 2010 crash in Perth changed the course of her life.

She was never meant to be a luger.

She had aspirations for the London Olympics as a gymnast through the WA Institute of Sport. But they were lost when a vehicle ploughed into the side of her family car as she sat as a passenger.

Only 14 at the time, she suffered a broken collarbone and never regained the mobility needed for elite gymnastics.

Rather than give up on her Olympic ambitions, she found an alternative under the tutelage of Australian luge Olympian Hannah Campbell-Pegg, who identified Cooney’s potential.

The ECU communications student, part of the university’s elite athlete program, was pragmatic about failing to qualify for the Sochi Olympics.

“Sochi would have been the fairytale ending,” she said. “There was so much media hype and everyone wanted to see me succeed, but I can’t be disappointed.

“When I look back, I really only had about six months training on the ice so it was massive I got that far.”

The 2018 Games in South Korea beckon as the ultimate reward for the young woman’s resilience.

The anguish of last year’s spinal injury has not left her apprehensive to return to luge, despite the sport’s obvious dangers. Apprehension is seemingly not her nature.

“Life is too short to think about the worst consequences,” she said.

“I’ve broken ribs, my foot in three places and had bruises head to toe. Of course it was at the back of my mind, but sliding at 130km/h, you literally just take each corner and day as it comes.”