For an athlete accustomed to covering long distances on a track faster than any of her competitors, it was a tiny movement that might mean the most to North Vancouver runner Megan Roxby.
She wiggled her toes.
That may not sound like much, but when you’ve just gone through 10 hours of major surgery on your spine, a little wiggle can mean the whole world.
“I remember waking up and being able to wiggle my toes in the ICU,” Roxby said. “I was just thinking that I could walk and run again, recognizing that I wasn’t paralyzed or anything.”
This weekend Roxby will compete in the B.C. high school track and field championships at Langley’s McLeod Stadium, her final time wearing the colours of West Vancouver Secondary. When the gun goes off there’s a good chance that she’ll race to the front of the field, fighting with the best in B.C. for top spot on the podium. There’s also a good chance that many of those racers won’t know the incredible obstacles that girl pulling away from them has faced just to set foot on that track.
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Megan Roxby was a natural runner from the time she first started racing while at North Vancouver’s Braemar Elementary. She was also a talented soccer and field hockey player, but by Grade 8, when she was headed to West Vancouver Secondary, running had become her true passion.
“I just really started to love it,” she said. She was good too – she won gold in the 800 m and 1,500 m in the Grade 8 division at the high school provincial championships.
“She’s always been really focused and she’s very competitive,” said Cindy O’Krane, Roxby’s longtime coach with the North Shore’s Hershey Harriers. “She was just a runner from the get-go, winning races by quite a bit. … It’s not like it came easy for her, but she was a hard worker and was successful.”
Her straight path to track stardom took a major curve, however, when a family friend asked an innocent question at a North Shore cross-country race during Roxby’s Grade 10 year.
“Why is Megan hunching over so much?”
No one had really noticed it before, but once the words were spoken it was obvious for everyone to see: Roxby had a noticeable curvature of the spine. A doctor confirmed it as scoliosis, and with a curvature of 40 degrees it was severe.
“It was weird. I don’t know how we didn’t notice it,” said Roxby. A specialist confirmed that surgery was needed, and so in early 2016 Roxby was scheduled for a relatively new form of treatment that involved tethering a cord directly to her spinal column. The procedure called for one of her lungs to be deflated to allow access to the area, and for screws to be inserted directly into her vertebrae. If successful, the surgery would straighten her spine and allow her to continue growing into a high-powered adult athlete. There was risk though.
“They tell you that one in 1,000 won’t walk,” said Roxby. “The odds were with me that I would, but it’s just another scary statistic.”
She checked into B.C. Children’s Hospital for a surgery scheduled to last eight hours. It lasted 10. But then she woke up, and wiggled her toes.
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The “before” and “after” X-rays are quite stunning. Pre-surgery you see the distinct scoliosis curve, Roxby’s spine wandering off course like a meandering stream. Post-surgery you see a much straighter spine, but you also see all that hardware, unnatural reminders of all that she went through to snap her back into shape.
“She showed me a picture of the surgery and I was like, ‘Oh my goodness,’ said O’Krane, who along with Harriers co-coach Darcie Montgomery was keeping close tabs on Roxby as she went under the knife. “When you see all those little screws in her vertebrae, it’s like, ‘Holy cow!’”
It didn’t take long for Roxby to show her strength during rehab. No time, basically. She was walking the next day.
“She was basically doing walking intervals with the physio,” O’Krane said with a laugh. “The physio was really impressed with how fast she was recovering.”
By Day 3 she was doing stairs, and everyone had seen enough to let her go home. From there it got a little tough as everyone had to keep her from pushing too hard. It was six weeks with no training, and three months with no running. But Roxby still came out to practices with the Harriers, if only to stand nearby and help the other runners. Soon enough, though, she was back on track.
“She put all the focus that she had in running into her rehab program. She just was walking and then she was jogging – it was incredible,” said O’Krane. “In my heart I knew she was going to be back. I didn’t really listen to all the gruesome details about the surgery and everything, I just had this sense she was going to be back.”
Roxby announced her return the next fall in her first North Shore high school cross-country race following the surgery. Competing against a talented field, which included many of her teammates from the Harriers, Roxby won.
“That was amazing,” said O’Krane. “It caught my heart. It was pretty neat to know all the challenges she’s gone through. When I was a runner I had a lot of injuries, and I remember some of the most amazing races that I had were these little victories that no one really knew about what you’d gone through to get there. I just thought that’s what she had there. She ran this little race at Ambleside, the first race of the season with basically a lot of the athletes she trains with, and she just stormed across the field. She just looked so happy. It was pretty neat.”
Roxby felt it too.
“It was something I’ll always remember, that race. It really meant something special.”
Last spring she added another big result, earning silver as a Grade 11 in the senior girls 800-m race at high school provincials. Her push back to the front of the pack continued last fall when she earned a spot on Team B.C. for the junior national cross-country championships. Her story, however, took another hard turn. Roxby’s right leg began to ache three weeks before nationals, taking her out of training. She still went to Ontario for the race though, still wanted to challenge herself against the best in the country.
She raced, but she could never catch her proper stride, the pain was too great. Expecting to finish in the top-15, she instead found herself outside the top-100.
“I wasn’t last though!” she said.
This became a source of pride when the extent of her injury became clear. X-rays taken more than a week later confirmed that her right fibula was broken, had been for some time.
“It didn’t feel real to me,” said Roxby. “I couldn’t run, but I was walking around. I thought if your leg was broken it would be more painful.”
Looking back now, her coaches can’t believe she completed the race.
“To look at the bruising on her leg, and that she ran on that, four kilometres, cross country, rough terrain … it’s cold and everything,” said O’Krane, adding that she still marvels at all Roxby has gone through. “Every now and again you look back. It’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember what that X-ray looked like, or I remember going to the hospital, or I remember seeing her leg after nationals. All that pain. It’s just like, ‘Oh, OK. Tough nut.’”
Six weeks in a walking boot got the bone back into shape, and now after all that, Roxby is running better than ever and ready to make a big impression at her final high school championships.
“I feel pretty good,” she said. “I feel like I’m really fit right now and happy with where I’m at.”
Her coaches are happy too.
“She’s just flying around the track right now,” said O’Krane. “She looks amazing,”
After provincials Roxby will continue to race, setting her sights on the junior national track and field championships this summer. In the fall she’ll join the powerhouse running program at Simon Fraser University, following in the footsteps of several other North Shore middle distance stars such as Jessica Smith, Helen Crofts and Lindsey Butterworth.
She’s faced a lot to get here, but now she’s ready to go full speed. Look out, racing world: through all this, Megan Roxby is way past wiggling her toes. Now she’s ready to really stretch her legs.
“I think I’ve gained a lot of strength out of it,” she said. “I think I’m just mentally really strong right now and really ready to run fast times.”