As a stream of Victoria Williamson’s blood oozed across the track, medics threw a small canopy around the stricken cyclist, as they might for a lame racehorse that had to be put down. “From what the crowd saw,” she says, “it looked near enough like I was dead.” For anybody of a delicate disposition, her injuries were a dreadful sight. Such was the mayhem of her high-speed tangle with Dutch rival Elis Ligtlee, whose bike propelled her into a fence, she had broken her neck, back and pelvis, while sustaining a cut to her flank so deep that it exposed her bare spine.
The date was January 9, 2016, the occasion the Six Days of Rotterdam, which Williamson had hoped to use as a staging post en route to the Rio Olympics. Instead, a few hours later, she found herself drifting in and out of consciousness at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University Medical Centre, where trauma doctors scurried to and from her bedside. Remarkably, a photograph of that moment, taken by Scottish rider Ellie Richardson, shows her smiling. In retrospect, she ascribes her expression to a dose of fentanyl, a painkiller up to 100 times stronger than morphine. For the news about to be imparted was anything but cheering.
“Rio’s off the cards now,” Richard Freeman, the British team doctor, told her. It was as gentle as he could have been. The opinion among Erasmus’ specialists was that not only had Williamson’s Olympic dream evaporated, but her whole sporting career. “They believed I was fighting,” she reflects, “to lead any kind of normal life.” At the time, being just 22, she dismissed such prophecies as doom-laden. But each passing week, as she stared at the ceiling and adjusted to a neck brace that left her unable to sleep properly, would deliver a grimmer verdict. When nurses eventually lifted the angle of her bed a few degrees past horizontal, she passed out from the pain and disorientation.
What could she, in such a state, have best expected as a prognosis? The ability to stand upright? Perhaps to walk a few steps unaided? Somehow, we are here in a meeting room inside Manchester Velodrome, the headquarters of British Cycling, to toast a rather loftier triumph. A little over three years since the crash that left her mere millimetres from paralysis, Williamson has just been selected for next week’s world track championships in Pruszkow, Poland. For a young woman whom most expected never to step back on a bike again, even for a meander around the local park, it is a feat that defies credulity.