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After losing her leg in a moped accident, lacrosse player moves forward with sense of purpose, humor

They call the run “The Gauntlet.”

The UMass Lowell women’s lacrosse team takes the line for the four-part fitness test at the start of every school year, the first challenge before a season full of them. For freshman Noelle Lambert, The Gauntlet lived up to its name. She failed to finish the series of 1,600-, 800-, 400- and 200-meter runs the first time she attempted it. She conceded midrun, overcome with fatigue.

Two years later, in fall 2017, she would take the test again. But this time, it would take on a new meaning for Lambert, now a junior. She toed The Gauntlet’s starting line with only one natural leg; the left had been replaced by a shaft of metal and plastic. No one expected her to finish — or, perhaps, even start. Yet just over 13 months after a moped accident claimed one of her legs, Lambert yearned to rejoin her team on the field. The run test was an important step.

Among the teammates at the starting line with Lambert was Kelly Moran, her longtime friend, roommate and passenger on the moped July 30, 2016, the day Lambert lost control of the small motorcycle and veered into an oncoming dump truck. Moran suffered torn tendons and ligaments, a deep laceration on her right leg that required multiple surgeries, and other injuries. After a year of rehabilitation, Moran was marking her return with The Gauntlet, too. With Lambert next to her, she had all the motivation she needed.

“If she can do it with one leg,” Moran remembers thinking, “I want to be by her side running it with her.”

So on that fall day, more than 400 days after Lambert laid eyes on her own extremity severed in the road, she began to run.

***

Lambert and Moran were vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard when they rented a moped to get around the island. They stuck to back roads that afternoon to avoid beach traffic. It would be safer, they thought.

The two remember the crash in vivid detail. The loss of balance that sent the women swerving into the opposite lane. The stunning recognition that they were about to collide with a dump truck. The contact with the side of the truck that prompted Moran to heave her arms against it in protection. The bystanders rushing to help, forming makeshift tourniquets that likely saved their lives.

As others desperately worked to stifle her bleeding, Lambert spotted someone carrying her detached leg in a towel. She felt pressure near the severed area, almost a vibration, but not much more. Shock had taken over.

The friends were rushed by ambulances to a nearby hospital, where Moran went into surgery and Lambert was stabilized before being airlifted to Boston Medical Center.

UMass Lowell women’s lacrosse coach Carissa Medeiros arrived at the Boston hospital the next day, unsure what to expect. She was accustomed to the rising sophomore cracking jokes — sometimes inappropriately timed — and exuding a contagious energy. But she did not anticipate an ounce of that positivity in the hospital.

The 19-year-old greeted her coach from the hospital bed with a hug and a question: “Am I still on the team?”

Later, Lambert would say she was joking, per usual. But the line moved Medeiros. “That was the first thing on her mind.”

In the difficult weeks and months that followed, Lambert’s upbeat nature continued to surprise those around her. She received her first prosthetic in October 2016 — “her everyday leg,” she calls it, which she charges every night like her cellphone. That Halloween, Lambert left the prosthetic behind and dressed as the movie character Lt. Dan, while Moran went as Forrest Gump.

“Right away, it was like she had already accepted that she had lost her leg,” Medeiros says. “She in no way, shape or form was embarrassed by it. She was not feeling sorry for herself and not letting anybody feel sorry for her.”

Medeiros also noticed a shift in Lambert’s work ethic. The athlete was naturally talented, with some of the best stick skills on the team and a high lacrosse IQ. Yet when Lambert was a freshman, Medeiros wondered if she took the conditioning seriously.

Today, the coach says, Lambert is one of the hardest workers on the team. That determination spread to the classroom, too, where Lambert, a criminal justice major, has raised her GPA. “The injury did change a lot of her perspective,” Medeiros says. “I think it changed a lot of her outlook on what’s important.”

Lambert acquired two other artificial legs: a waterproof leg donated from the foundation of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Heather Abbott, and a running blade, which equipped her with hope. Between classes and physical therapy, Lambert toiled to regain her fitness. She pushed so hard she “overworked” her new leg, leading to a crack in the foot of the prosthetic and necessitating an upgrade.

Lambert didn’t miss a River Hawks game last spring. Unable to be a force on the field, she adopted a new role. She led her teammates on the bench in elaborate sidelines celebrations. She bought a GoPro video camera, recorded scenes throughout the season and presented a culminating video at the end-of-year banquet. Her determination to return to the field served as an unspoken reminder to her teammates to make the most of their opportunities.

Medeiros credits Lambert for bringing energy to the young program, which experienced its best season last spring. “I think what helped catapult us going from one win to seven wins in a year was how our nonstarters and our bench players were just fired up for games and pumped on the sidelines,” Medeiros says. “That was spearheaded by Noelle.”

Lambert never wavered in her decision to stay on the team. “I always wanted to get back on the field,” she says. “But if I didn’t, I always wanted to be part of the team. I always wanted to be part of that environment.”

***

Stride for stride, Moran and Lambert pushed through the 1,600-meter leg of The Gauntlet.

Lambert had tried running a full mile while home last summer but always came up short. When she completed that first portion of The Gauntlet, energized by the cheers of her teammates, Lambert surprised even herself. “I’m just going to keep going,” she thought.

The team was split into two groups for the test. Moran completed each leg, running hard for time, then doubled back to repeat each run with Lambert.

Together, they finished the 800. Then the 400. And finally, the 200. “I just started running,” Lambert says, “and I never stopped.”

This spring, Lambert is maintaining that momentum. The NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Rules Committee approved a waiver to allow her to play with a prosthetic, and Saturday, Lambert made her return to competition in a game against Hartford. The feat put her among the few amputees to compete in an NCAA team sport.

As if logging minutes wasn’t triumph enough, Lambert scored. And as they watched her shot sail into the back of the net, the rest of the River Hawks rushed to her side, cheering her on every step of the way.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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