News & Features

Lexie’s Hurdles: a Tale of Recovery and Redemption

Former Flathead High School track star pens memoir about life before and after a car accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury

Nine years ago, Lexie Miller Wyman was recently divorced, in between teaching jobs, living in a one-bedroom apartment in Boise and trying to figure out her next step.

“My life was a mess,” she said.

On a whim, she unearthed the accident report from her horrific 1991 car crash in Southern California and read it for the first time, nearly two decades later. It had moved with her across the West, gathering dust in a file marked “Accident.”

The report triggered something inside her, and she started writing, the words flowing from a place deep within her yet unconsciously portrayed through the perspective of first responders, as if she wasn’t actually the woman rushed to the hospital with a traumatic brain injury and other severe injuries, as if she was merely a witness.

“It was like I was reading a report about somebody else,” she recalled.

But as she continued writing, her own voice emerged, even if details remained scant. She remembered the morning before the accident but nothing else until her transfer to a second hospital, a month-long black hole in her memory.

“It wouldn’t have been good to remember it anyway,” Lexie said recently. “I think your brain knows what it needs to know and what it doesn’t need to know.”

Friends and family reconstructed the scene and its aftermath over time, but it wasn’t until reading that routine accident report years later that Lexie was inspired to tell the story herself, at first in random posts she called “blog babble.” While those snippets brought degrees of catharsis and made important deposits in her recovering memory bank, they lacked orderly cogency and direction, until a friend and published author, Kelly Simmons, encouraged her to write a book.

With Simmons’ guidance, and later editing from another friend, Heidi Ostrom Duncan, Lexie’s disparate writings gradually coalesced into a memoir, “Still Lexie,” released by Kalispell’s Scott Publishing in January.

“It all started with that accident report,” she said during an interview in Kalispell, where she grew up and now lives again.

Lexie held a book signing on Feb. 9 at Moose’s Saloon, a significant moment in a place of equal personal importance. Her father was the late David “Moose” Miller, a former University of Montana football player and the longtime owner of Moose’s Saloon until his death in 1999. Lexie’s sister, Wallis, now runs the landmark drinking and eating establishment.

Like her father, Lexie is a household name in the Flathead Valley. At Flathead High School in the late 1970s, she carved out one of the finest track careers in Montana history. She holds the girls record for most points awarded at a state meet under the old scoring system, used from 1969-1989. She also broke the all-class state meet record in the long jump and set high marks in sprints, hurdles and relays.

Lexie earned a track scholarship at the University of Oregon, where coaches described her as the backbone of one of the nation’s best women’s programs. From 1979-1983, Lexie broke 10 school records and finished with 12 conference titles. Her 400-meter hurdle school record still stands after more than three decades, while her 100-meter hurdle record was only broken in recent years.

She competed in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1980 Olympic trials and the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Olympic trials. In 1980, her photo appeared in Sports Illustrated alongside hurdling legend Edwin Moses.

After Oregon, Lexie moved to Los Angeles with her first husband, Gary. Then they lived in Spokane for a while before returning to Southern California, where she earned her teaching credentials. The couple had two kids, a daughter named Rachel and a younger boy, Harrison.

On a November morning, after Lexie dropped Gary off at the airport for a business trip, she was driving with Harrison, almost 2 years old, in a car seat in the back when a truck plowed into her Volvo at an intersection at highway speeds. It was her fault, but that’s all she knows. Maybe she ran a stop sign, or underestimated the pickup’s speed, or was distracted by her unhappy toddler in the back.

If Harrison’s car seat hadn’t been properly placed in the middle of the backseat, the boy would have died. Instead, shattered glass sprayed his face, and he required more than 100 stitches on his forehead.

“Harrison wore his scars with little consideration,” Lexie writes, “but to me, they were a constant reminder of Guilt. Guilt said it was entirely my fault. Guilt told me I mangled my beautiful baby’s face.”

But the motherly guilt only came with consciousness, which didn’t arrive for several days while she was in a coma, and even then consciousness was tenuous. She had a broken jaw and collarbone, along with a head injury. She couldn’t use the right side of her body, and she has no memories from the 30 days she was in the first hospital.

Lexie’s admittance history to the second hospital describes her as a “30-year-old, previously healthy female, suffering from an underlying brain injury caused by a closed cranial trauma.”

“I was in bad shape,” she writes. “It was time for my recovery to begin.”

For months, Lexie worked with a physical therapist, learning to re-master simple functions: sitting, getting on all fours, standing and eventually walking. But the right side of her body remained, in her words, “useless.” Meanwhile, some of the brain injury’s effects were permanent.

“Once you have sustained a TBI, it remains a part of you,” she writes.

The athlete with rippling leg muscles and graceful strides now struggled to scoot across a hospital room with the help of a cart and three therapists.

“For a long time, I would cry for no reason — I didn’t know why,” she recalled in her interview. “Then it finally started sinking in: all the things I wouldn’t be able to do with my kids.”

But the hard-working athlete diligently honed the skills required of her altered mobility, although the traumatic brain injury still affects her balance and makes it difficult to perform multiple tasks — for instance, to walk and talk simultaneously. She has suffered numerous injuries from falls over the years, but she credits her first husband for pushing her to continually improve.

Today, she walks with assistance from a Rollator, a beefed-up walker with burly wheels, which helps her as a track coach at Kalispell Middle School, where she previously also coached cross country and basketball.

“It allows me to walk to where the kids are and talk to them without just trying not to fall over,” she said.

In the book’s prologue, Lexie recounts completing an 83-mile ride around Lake Koocanusa on a recumbent bike. She’s also known to leave people in her wake on a kayak.

“It’s freeing,” she says of those activities. “I like anything where I can keep up with normal people. And go fast.”

Lexie, now 56, married Dan Wyman, another Kalispell native, in 2012, shortly after moving back to the Flathead from Boise. She continued chipping away at her book with the help of her editorially experienced friends. The process was at times daunting and frustrating, but certain breakthroughs would renew her inspiration. The biggest may have been her 2014 introduction into the University of Oregon Hall of Fame.

“It gave me more reason to finish the book,” she said.

Lexie has battled depression and visits a psychologist. She doesn’t sugarcoat her experience, writing eloquently, “That morning in the high desert, my hopes and dreams were shattered.”

But through the glare of shattered dreams, she can see a life trajectory that landed her back home in a place she loves, with a man she loves. She is happy.

“It feels like my town wrapped its gentle arms around me and welcomed me home,” she writes. “Perhaps I have come full circle.”

The lessons she learned in athletics, such as goal-setting and perseverance, guided her through her post-crash recovery. So it shouldn’t be surprising that she lays out one more goal in her book: to coach a girl in middle school who goes on to break her Flathead High School track records.

“Luckily, I still have a few years left in me to coach up a mini-Lexie.”

Comments

comments