Lake Macquarie man Owen Walton reflects on the mountain bike crash that changed his life a year ago

HOME: Owen Walton with wife Anne Moore and their companion dog, Bella, at Wangi Wangi.
HOME: Owen Walton with wife Anne Moore and their companion dog, Bella, at Wangi Wangi.

EVEN in a year when a pandemic has imposed "a new normal" on people's lives, relatively few have experienced change as dramatically as Owen Walton has.

"What I learnt in 74 years on this earth, I've had to learn to do a new way," said Mr Walton. "All those things that took me 74 years to learn, I've had to learn again in a very short period of time."

The Wangi Wangi resident's new journey began exactly a year ago.

On the afternoon of January 8, 2020, he and wife Anne Moore were riding their mountain bikes at Holmesville. Both were keen riders. Just that morning, he had put down the deposit on a new bike worth more than $7000.

As an older man, Owen Walton had embraced pedalling as a way to explore the countryside, and to keep fit. Once he was in the saddle, "all these years washed away".

But then on January 8, life, as Owen Walton had known it, was washed away in one moment. Nearing the end of the ride on a track of about 21 kilometres, he realised he wasn't lined up on a ramp and applied the brakes.

As Mr Walton recalled it, he was catapulted off his bike and landed on his head. His helmet, which he believed helped save his life, cracked.

"I came down, hit the ground, stayed conscious, but I knew I was in big trouble," he said. "The fact I couldn't move and the fact I was in agony, absolute agony."

His wife arrived only about a minute later to see her husband lying "in a mangled heap".

"I said, 'Don't touch me, don't move me. I'm in trouble'," Mr Walton said.

"I knew that I couldn't move him, I had to keep him still and to keep him conscious, and I knew I had to ring the ambulance," said Ms Moore, who had done some remote first aid training.

HELP: Emergency services personnel attend to Owen Walton after his crash. Picture: Courtesy, Anne Moore

HELP: Emergency services personnel attend to Owen Walton after his crash. Picture: Courtesy, Anne Moore

Emergency services crews arrived, and a doctor was winched from a helicopter into the bush. Owen Walton was transported to John Hunter Hospital by ambulance.

"The two memories I take from it are agony and terror," Mr Walton said, as he became emotional recalling that day.

"I thought I was dead. I knew I'd broken my back. I told Anne, 'I've broken my back'."

That would be confirmed after Owen Walton was transferred to the Royal North Shore Hospital's spinal unit. He had fractured his neck, which slowly improved, and he had broken his back, at the T4 vertebra. Owen Walton was confronted with complete paraplegia.

He was one of about 15,000 Australians living with a spinal cord injury. Owen Walton would have to learn to live in a wheelchair.

For about seven months, he was at the Royal Rehab hospital at Ryde, undergoing therapy, preparing for the life ahead by learning new skills and relearning old ones, all the while trying to reconcile what had happened in that one moment on January 8.

"I had hit the 'why me?', then you go through the 'If only I'd done this?! If only I'd done that!', then you get the guilt feeling, and this was the one getting to me," Mr Walton said, as he worried about his family and felt that he could no longer help them.

Instead, his loved ones helped him. Anne Moore regularly travelled from Lake Macquarie to be with her husband and underwent training ready for him to return home.

"I want to get back to the lake," he said in July. "I want to get home. I've got family there. I've got friends there."

But first their house had to be remodelled, with the bathroom modified, a hoist installed in the bedroom and ramps built.

While there were some grants and government help, the couple had to spend more than $50,000 of their own money on the house, having their car modified, as well as buying essential items such as a wheelchair, along with meeting ongoing medical expenses.

"We've been spending our meagre savings like a drunken sailor in port," he said.

Owen Walton finally returned to Wangi Wangi in late October. At first, he felt anxious, being away from the immediate care of nurses and doctors. But he was reassured by being back in his home, and his community.

Owen Walton with his companion dog, Bella.

Owen Walton with his companion dog, Bella.

Friends have been dropping by, neighbours have offered to help in any way, and the village is learning to look out for Owen Walton's motorised wheelchair. Although it is hard to miss with its bright pink trim; magenta is his favourite colour.

He has been undergoing therapy at the Hunter Spinal Cord Injury Service and recently had his first pool session in Toronto. As well as having the love of Anne and his family, he has a companion dog, Bella, an American Staffordshire Terrier puppy, who arrived this week.

And he is learning to accept what happened.

Owen Walton doesn't look for something or someone to blame, nor does he have any regrets about taking up mountain biking.

"I wish to Christ I hadn't fallen off that day, but no regrets," he said.

"It was a million to one, my accident. Had I not landed the way I did - 'had, had, had, had'... All the planets had to line up for me to end up where I was."

In the garage sits his bike, his cracked helmet, even the shirt that had to be cut off him, but those reminders of that day don't disturb him: "It wasn't the bike's fault; it was my bloody fault."

Owen Walton and Anne Moore are planning for the future; maybe travelling, or re-engaging with sailing. They are embracing life.

"Just to live as happy and as successful a life as I can," Owen Walton said. "Just to be able to do things. That's the important thing."

Owen Walton and Anne Moore, with Bella the companion dog, at their Wangi Wangi home.

Owen Walton and Anne Moore, with Bella the companion dog, at their Wangi Wangi home.