When Megan Fisher first arrived in Missoula from her native Chicago, she wanted to play tennis, study wildlife biology and one day become the "Jane Goodall of big cats.”
But in June 2002, plans changed.
Instead of Africa, Fisher today is headed to Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Paralympic Games hoping to add to the gold and silver medals she won four years ago at the games in London.
This year, she is competing in four cycling events.
“I never planned on being a Paralympian,” Fisher, 33, said recently as she prepared to head to South America.
She and her friend Sara Jackson, who intended to come to UM for grad school, were driving from Chicago to Missoula in 2002 to sign a lease and drop off their stuff for Fisher's sophomore year.
Their last photo together was taken at the Corn Palace, where they spent the night in Mitchell, South Dakota. The next day, on the interstate just outside of Murdo, Jackson was driving when their car crashed and rolled more than eight times, coming to rest on its hood and roof.
It was a local waitress who was the first one to stop, crawl into the vehicle and pull the two of them out, Fisher said. She was taken to Pierre before being flown to Rapid City. Jackson died from her injuries.
Fisher spent the next week in a coma. Part of her foot was amputated, she was fitted with a prosthesis, underwent a procedure to reduce swelling in her brain and had to have abdominal surgery.
“I can only ever have a three-pack because they removed half of my six-pack,” she said.
She returned home to Hinsdale in suburban Chicago to recover, a process that meant relearning everything. What she wanted, though, was to get back on a tennis court. Enter Chicago tennis player Vicki Condon, who brought sports back into Fisher’s life before she could even walk.
“She would bring a rolling office chair and a bucket of balls. Eventually I got to a point where I started teaching youth tennis.” Fisher said. “You get such a curveball thrown at you that you grab onto what you can.”
Fisher returned to UM for the spring semester of 2003. But over the rest of the school year, walking became more and more painful. That summer, she chose to have a below-knee amputation and be fitted for a better prosthesis.
She returned to UM and changed her field of study to athletic training. She bought a bike and started cycling as a way to stay active.
Eleven months after the surgery, Fisher competed in her first triathlon in Missoula.
“It was such a definitive moment where I broke down barriers,” she said. “I didn’t think I could do it. Even before the injury I didn’t think I could do it.”
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During her senior year, the pain in her leg returned, to the point where Fisher was back on crutches and using a wheelchair at her home. A Missoula prosthetist told her it was unlikely she would walk again.
Fisher said it was her service dog, a blue heeler-border collie cross named Betsy, that put her on the path that led to Paralympic gold. After being fitted with a new prosthesis by Chicago-based John Angelico, Fisher got back on a bike and set a new goal.
“I wanted to become as fast as my dog,” she said. "At first, she kicked my butt, but I got to a point I could take her for a ride in the morning and be out alone for another later in the day.”
She became the first female lower-extremity amputee to complete an XTERRA off-road triathlon and took part in 24-hour mountain bike races. Through those races she met paracyclist and Montana native Sam Kavanagh, who introduced her to the coach of the U.S. Paralympic Cycling Team.
Since joining the team in 2010, Fisher, who works as a physical therapist at Providence St. Patrick Hospital, has won 10 world championship medals in cycling, XTERRA and triathlons to go with her individual Paralympic gold and silver. She trains with help from her friend and coach Brian Williams, who also made the carbon fiber prosthesis she uses when she races.
During the summer of 2012, in the leadup to the Paralympic Games in London, Fisher was working on a doctorate in physical therapy at the University of Washington and took an internship in Colorado Springs.
“I would work a 10-hour day, then go back to the dorm and be up training on a stationary bike, watching the Olympics,” she said.
In addition to the physical demands, being a para-athlete has financial barriers Olympians don’t have to worry about, Fisher said. Following the national team qualifiers in July, she had to go to a doctor because she needed a prescription.
For a leg.
If it weren't for her insurance, the new socket and prosthesis would have set Fisher back $9,000 just so she could continue to walk, let alone compete.
For Rio, Fisher is bringing three bikes with her from Missoula, including a time-trial bike lent to her by her team, Twenty16. Each of them needed different crank arm lengths on each side to compensate for the differences in her legs when she rides.
In August, a week before she left for a final training session in California, followed by athlete processing in Houston on the way to Rio, Montgomery Distillery hosted a fundraiser for Fisher. At the end of her presentation, a boy in the audience said her injury made him sad.
“I have done more with one foot than I ever would have with two,” Fisher replied.