D

o you want to do this or not?”

Carly O’Connell, an assistant coach for the UMass-Lowell women’s lacrosse team, noticed Noelle Lambert simply going through the motions during a January practice in Lowell, Mass., an hour north of Boston. Shortly after losing her left leg above the knee in a moped accident July 30, 2016, Lambert professed her intent to return to a normal life — to run again, to play lacrosse again.

"> The Shot Heard Round the World: Noelle Lambert's Return Highlighted 2018 in Lacrosse | USA Lacrosse Magazine

COURTESY OF UMASS LOWELL

Lambert returned to the field April 7 — one year, eight months and eight days since the accident — and delivered lacrosse’s most memorable moment of 2018.

The Shot Heard Round the World: Noelle Lambert's Return Highlighted 2018 in Lacrosse


D

o you want to do this or not?”

Carly O’Connell, an assistant coach for the UMass-Lowell women’s lacrosse team, noticed Noelle Lambert simply going through the motions during a January practice in Lowell, Mass., an hour north of Boston. Shortly after losing her left leg above the knee in a moped accident July 30, 2016, Lambert professed her intent to return to a normal life — to run again, to play lacrosse again.

Nearly 18 months had passed since Lambert crashed a moped with her teammate and roommate Kelly Moran riding on the back seat. Driving a motorized scooter for the first time during a summer trip to Martha’s Vineyard, she lost control of the vehicle, veering and hitting the side of an oncoming dump truck. Bystanders saw Lambert’s mangled left leg and fashioned a makeshift tourniquet to control the bleeding until emergency responders arrived.

Moran suffered lacerations on her right leg, tore ligaments in her foot and ankle, sprained her knee and had some road rash on her arms and legs. Lambert’s injuries were more serious. She lost part of her left leg at the scene.

While Moran was treated at Martha’s Vineyard, Lambert was sent to Boston Medical Center, where doctors decided to amputate her leg.

When Lambert came out of surgery, she apologized profusely to her mother. Still foggy from anesthesia, Lambert then turned to River Hawks head coach Carissa Medeiros.

“Am I still on the team?” Lambert asked.

“You are the team,” Medeiros replied.


“It wasn’t this sob story of, ‘Poor me, my life’s over. It was, ‘When can I run?’” - Jason Lalla, prosthetist at Next Step


Emboldened by the support of her family, coach, teammates and friends, Lambert from there set out on a remarkable road to recovery. Her grit and humor helped. (“Kick my ass,” she recently told sports performance coach AJ Whitehead during training this fall.)

But equal treatment meant tough love from O’Connell, who is now on the coaching staff at Army. When O’Connell noticed Lambert shying away from drills out of fear of falling, she confronted her bluntly.

“‘Listen, you’re not going to be what you were,” O’Connell said. “Let’s make you the best at what you can be.’”

O’Connell gave Lambert the weekend to think it over. Lambert stormed in the following Monday. “Yes.”

 

***

 

After the accident, Lambert spent a couple of months on crutches, waiting for her wounds to heal and to be fitted for a prosthetic. Once she had her new leg — a shaft made of metal and plastic — it took her just two weeks to walk on her own. She paced proudly into the office for her follow-up appointment at Next Step, her prosthetic provider in Manchester, N.H.

Next Step gave Lambert a waterproof prosthetic so she could jet ski with her teammates in Cancun.

Despite suffering from phantom pain — a sensation that makes it feel like there’s pain coming from a body part that’s no longer there — Lambert shocked everyone with her positive outlook and attitude.

“It wasn’t this sob story of, ‘Poor me, my life’s over,’” said Jason Lalla, her prosthetist at Next Step. “It was, ‘When can I run?’”

Nine months after the accident, Lambert, who redshirted the 2017 lacrosse season, received her running blade and started bringing her stick to physical therapy.

“I know Next Step is amazed at how far she’s come in such a short time,” Lambert’s mom, Judy, said. “Even Jason, who himself is an amputee.”

Lalla, an avid ice hockey and lacrosse player in the late 1980s, lost his leg, also above the knee, in a motorcycle accident two weeks after he graduated from high school. He went on to win a gold medal as a rookie giant slalom skier at the 1998 Paralympics in Japan, plus silver and bronze medals at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City.

“Noelle’s a good example of this — people that are competitive and driven switch into that gear of, ‘OK, now what?’” Lalla said. “We don’t view ourselves as disabled. Now, I mountain bike and still ski. In my mind, there’s no reason why I can’t be just as good as the next guy, even though I’m using my leg above the knee. Everybody else thinks that’s unbelievable. She’s the same way.”

Lambert’s training began in May 2017 at Fortitude Health and Training with Derryfield (N.H.) coach Kirstin Kochanek, whose daughter, Madi, was then a freshman at Iona. The initial focus was to return Lambert to normalcy, meeting three times each week to relearn the basics of moving her body.

But Lambert advanced quickly to 30-yard sprints with plants and cuts, and then to daily mile runs. She reached a major milestone the following September, running the Gauntlet — UMass-Lowell’s timed test in which players sprint one mile, a half-mile, a quarter-mile and lastly a half lap around the track.

“I knew she was going to play again,” Kochanek said. “She never complained. It was insane. Maybe she saved it for her mom in the privacy of her own home. It was pretty incredible. Anything I told her to do, she would do.”

Lambert’s prosthetic chafed her leg to the point of bleeding.

“We’d wipe it off and she kept going,” Kochanek said. “There was always a reason to quit, and she just didn’t.”

It didn’t even matter if her leg fell off.

“We bought 10 new rowers for the gym and I said, ‘Have you ever rowed?’ and she said, ‘No, let’s try it.’ She gets on it and — not kidding you — she took one pull and her leg fell off,” Kochanek said. “We were laughing hysterically.”

Laughter and lacrosse got Lambert through the tough times. Her humor brought levity to the situation and also helped everyone around her feel more comfortable. One day during a team lift, as soon as her leg fell off during box squats, she started talking trash, Whitehead recalled. For Halloween, she dressed up as an iHop billboard

Get it? I hop?

“She has a sick sense of humor, which I appreciate because I do as well,” Lalla said. “It’s a way of coping with things, but that’s also who she was before. It physically changes you, but it doesn’t change what you’re made of. That’s very apparent with her.”








***

 

“You’re not getting off the hook,” Medeiros told Lambert. “You asked for this.”

In case Lambert was ready to play for one minute in one game, UMass-Lowell submitted paperwork to get cleared by the NCAA in February, including a statement from Kochanek.

“What’s the worst thing?” said Kochanek, recalling her letter. “Your leg’s going to fall off? It’s happened before.”

The NCAA cleared Lambert to play in March. Medeiros didn’t think she would see the field until fall ball of 2018.

“You may technically be cleared to play, but that doesn’t automatically get you on the field,” Medeiros said.

UMass-Lowell had improved from 1-16 in 2016 to 7-9 in 2017, just its third year as a Division I program. Players fought for their spots. Medeiros likened Lambert’s recovery to someone being cleared from an injury, like an ACL tear. Just because you’re cleared, doesn’t mean you’re ready. Lambert sat out dodging drills.

During the week of March 19, it was Medeiros’ turn to sit her down.

“A little one-on-one heart-to-heart,” Medeiros said. “Getting into lacrosse drills was the biggest hurdle for her, because that’s where I think she compared herself more to what she was with two legs to what she was with one leg. She was becoming somewhat frustrated, recognizing, ‘I can’t do that move I used to be able to do. I can’t do it yet.’ That’s what we kept reminding her. ‘You can’t do it yet, but work on it. Practice is where we want to fail.’”

Medeiros needed to see Lambert do the dynamic stretches with the team, hop in the one-on-one and three-on-two dodging drills and battle in the ride instead of holding back.

“And she did,” Medeiros said. “She didn’t pull herself out when she didn’t think she would do well. She put herself in a position to fail. I knew at that point she’d be ready to take a tumble in a game.”

Success is rooted in failure. It was Lambert’s biggest lesson.

“You never know what you’re capable of doing until you fail,” she said.




COURTESY OF UMASS LOWELL

Lambert scored her first goal back just before halftime in a blowout win over Hartford.


***

 

Lambert’s 40-yard time improved 0.67 seconds over the course of the fall semester in 2017. Her squat improved 85 pounds from 115 to 200 by the spring, and her vertical jump went from 11.8 inches in late fall to 12 inches in early spring. She even shaved more than four minutes from her Gauntlet time.

All with a metal leg. She has three of them now — one for everyday use, one for running and a waterproof one that was given to her by one of the Boston Marathon bombing survivors that visited her after the surgery.

Lambert also found inspiration in her uncle, Vincent, a double amputee due to complications of diabetes. According to Judy Lambert, he would joke at the pool, with his legs in water without the prosthetics and say, “Watch out for sharks!” as he pulled them out. 

“She follows the lead of her family,” Medeiros said, calling the Lamberts blue-collar, hard-working people.

“She was a badass,” Kochanek said. “Even now with one leg, she’s faster than other kids on her team. She can pass run tests that other people can’t pass with two legs.”

On April 7, two weeks after meeting with Medeiros and one year after receiving her running blade, UMass-Lowell hosted Hartford, a first-year team, in an America East battle.

Medeiros and O’Connell met beforehand and decided that they would call Lambert off the bench if the game script allowed them to do so.

“We certainly remember three years ago being the brand new team in town, and we were hopeful that we would be in a place successfully where we could get her in,” Medeiros said.

“I remember I wore sunglasses that day,” O’Connell said.

They would allow Lambert to get the jitters out. Experience the big stage again. Use the game as a measuring stick. Put her in for a few minutes at a time and then take her back out.

When Medeiros shouted her name, Lambert blacked out.

“I didn’t actually hear my name,” she said. “Wait, what?”

And then she scored.

With 49 seconds left in the first half, Lambert came careening off a pick. Kendyl Finelli fed Lambert the ball, and she ripped a bounce shot off the blue turf at Cushing Field to send UMass-Lowell into halftime with an 11-0 lead.

O’Connell signaled for a timeout. The River Hawks rushed the field.

“It was a special moment I’ll never forget,” Lambert said. “That was really a great steppingstone for me, and it reassured me I would be able to play again and even perform better.”

Lambert finished with three shots, one goal and 20 minutes of playing time. The goal went viral. ESPN, NBC, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo, The Washington Post and many more national media outlets carried the video.

“She went out there and did exactly what she always does, which is surprise us, put smiles on our faces, make us happy, make us laugh and create special moments,” Medeiros said. “It was a really proud moment as a coach, but more importantly to view resiliency as humans.”

Madi Kochanek and her Iona Gaels knew of Lambert’s goal before their game against Siena had ended. Lalla watched the highlight countless times. Other teams sent cards. Two of the game’s biggest names, Taylor Cummings and Kylie Ohlmiller, reached out with congratulatory messages.

“The lacrosse community as a whole is particularly special,” Lambert said. “It wasn’t just about the game of lacrosse. It was about all of us coming together.”

Lambert, a senior this year, played on a summer league lacrosse team, dubbed “Team with the Girl with One Leg.” Since her return to the field, she also has fixed her eyes set on something bigger — the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.

“It’s my stubborn mindset of nothing’s ever good enough,” Lambert said.

With continued training, she plans to run the 100- and 200-meter sprints and is already on par to meet the qualifying times.

“The U.S. track team called her and asked if she wanted to join the team after she graduates,” Judy Lambert said. “There really isn’t anything that can stop her.”

O’Connell was glad she wore sunglasses April 7.

“I was for sure crying,” she said. “It was just a checkpoint in her journey. After the game, I went up to her and I said, ‘This isn’t over. I’ll see you Monday at 9 for our footwork session.’”