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Noelle Lambert

"I was the most driven, lazy person you ever met." A burgeoning lacrosse star, a tragic accident and the comeback of a lifetime. One athlete's dance with fate.

a year ago

Latest Post Anthony Kim by Matt Keyser public

She promised her mom she wouldn’t do it.

But it was a glorious day on Martha’s Vineyard. It was July of 2016. The warmth of the sun’s rays on her shoulders. The smell of the sea — that combination of saltiness and sweetness. The gentle ocean breeze.

The beach was calling, and 19-year-old Noelle Lambert and her friend Kelly Moran were ready to answer.

They rented a moped — the very thing she promised her mom wouldn’t happen — and after a mandatory safety lesson, headed down Barnes Road. Noelle was driving. She’s always out front, what with her stubbornness and independent spirit and incessant chasing of her brothers to best them at everything.

Kelly sat behind her. Just two teammates at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell ready for some fun in the sun. Laughing, smiling, taking the back roads to avoid beach traffic.

Time can stand still in moments like this. For reasons good and bad.

As they cruised down Barnes Road, Noelle remembers struggling with the weight and balance of the moped. She remembers swerving a bit, feeling unsteady. She remembers seeing the dump truck coming toward them, but in the opposite lane.

She remembers everything. Except the initial impact. Two college students — Division I athletes — frighteningly exposed on a small moped. A dump truck, built like a tank. All steel and giant tires and grease and grit.

Noelle Lambert's journey is one for the ages. From chasing her brothers to UMass-Lowell on a lacrosse scholarship to the Paralympics. [Chris Soule image]

Noelle lost control for a split second. The vulnerable teens and the massive truck made contact and side-swiped.

That’s the part she doesn’t remember.

“But what I do remember is basically realizing that I'm lying on the ground and like kind of sitting up and having all these people rushing toward me. Then I looked down and kind of lifted my legs up and I realized that my left leg had been severed on the scene,” Noelle says.

“It was completely gone. And the first thing I thought of was lacrosse, and it was sports because that's who I was as a person. I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. I didn't know who I was without lacrosse. So I was thinking, ‘This is it. My life is over.’”

There would be time for reflection and reconciliation later. Because the scene on Barnes Road was pure chaos. Kelly was lying on the pavement, several feet from Noelle. Kelly’s right leg was a bloody mess, with deep lacerations, severe road rash and mangled tendons and ligaments. As strangers rushed to her aid, Kelly would later tell ESPN, she pleaded with them to help Noelle first.

Across the road, Noelle is frantically processing the last few moments.

“I'm thinking my life is over, but I'm never feeling like I'm going to die,” Noelle says. “And the man that was driving behind me actually took his shirt off to create a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, which basically saved my life. And I just remember looking at some woman and saying, ‘Can you please call my mom and let her know what's happening?’”

Trauma creates a mental fog. Your body goes into shock. It’s how it deals with the terrible thing that just happened. Time is seemingly slowed. Your vision gets blurry. Things happen in slow motion, yet the sounds of panic and fear play in your ears in real-time. People screaming. People crying. The wail of sirens. But also, the chirping of birds. The whispers on the sidewalk. Your senses go into overdrive. The smell of sunscreen and that sweet, salty ocean air. The pungent smell of blood and freshly scraped skin mixed with oil and exhaust. The burning abrasions on your skin. Your mind is racing and your heart is pounding. You’re processing fear, trying to understand what happened. Trying to right the wrong.

Noelle was there, in that space. But she was also somehow present in the moment, perhaps triggered by her body going into shock, and her mind trying to escape the fog of trauma.

She remembers seeing someone carrying her severed leg, wrapped in a towel.

“Please call my parents,” she pleaded with a stranger.

A woman on the scene offered to help.

“I remember hearing her say, ‘You need to get to Martha's Vineyard immediately.’ And she's also hysterically crying. And then she said, ‘I don't think your daughter is going to make it.' And that's when I kind of said, ‘Can you please calm down and give me the phone so I can talk to my mother?’”

There it was. A moment of clarity amid the chaos and confusion. Noelle knew she wasn’t going to die. She knew it. Her stubbornness wouldn’t let that happen.

“I took the phone and just said, ‘Mom, I’m fine. I lost my leg. I love you. I got to go.’ And then I handed the phone back over, not really realizing what I actually just said to her.”

Noelle never lost consciousness. Bystanders, including a nurse, took charge. Emergency personnel were there within minutes, stabilizing her for an eventual airlift to a hospital in Boston. Her friend Kelly also had serious injuries. Thankfully, Kelly would be discharged from the hospital in a few days. She, too, had a long road to recovery.

The two friends and teammates who were headed to the beach on a warm summer day were now headed in different, life-changing directions. But their stories would merge again, and sooner than anyone expected.

It’s mid-March, and Noelle and I are talking on a video call. This was supposed to happen in person a week prior, but an East Coast storm and a Delta pilot shortage conspired to imprison me at LAX for 11 hours before my flight was canceled.

Seated on a couch, with a large window behind her, Noelle is bundled up in a gray hoodie. The drawstrings are neatly tied in a bow, and her dark hair is pulled back. A blanket is draped on a nearby chair. She’s quick with a smile, and her wit is equally nimble.

She really could be the girl next door, except she’s 26 now. She’s an animated talker. Her hands and head move around. Her eyes — large and inviting — get bigger when the story does, and smaller when the topic is more intense.

Noelle is confident, brash and unapologetic. She’s also warm, polite and giving. She is the alpha in the Lambert family, without question. She has three older brothers: Ryan, 33; Alex, 30; and Justin, 28.

When they were all younger, growing up in Manchester, N.H., she’d be chasing them around. Sometimes she’d take a beating. Sometimes she’d give one.

“The one thing that sticks out when I think about my childhood is, you know, playing on my brother's sports teams,” Noelle says. “Being a part of that family dynamic with always having something to connect with them and always going to my brothers’ sports games, that's definitely something I look back on and I always got excited to go and watch them play so that when I got to that level, hopefully, they could come back and watch.”

Of course, she really couldn’t wait for that to happen. It turns out she would show up for her brother Justin’s soccer practice and kept running on the field, being a little … disrupter, we’ll say.

“Eventually they were just like, ‘Right, let’s let her play.’ So I was playing with my brother, all of his friends. It was actually really fun and I was very competitive.”

Competitive. It’s a word Lambert uses often. And it’s often used by others when describing her. Her mom, Judy, likes a different word: determined.

“Noelle as a child was very spunky, very determined, didn't take no for an answer,” Judy Lambert says. “She was an outstanding athlete, had a lot of friends growing up.” She pauses. “Just really determined.”

To this day, Noelle lays claim to being the best athlete in the family. In her mind, it’s not even up for discussion.

“When we were all younger, I was definitely the best athlete in the family,” she says with a knowing, confident smile. “And I literally lost a leg and I continue to be the best athlete in the family.”

Judy Lambert concedes this all started early.

“Even though she's the youngest of my children, she's always been the boss. She likes to control situations and, you know, tell people how things should be done.”

In our conversation, Noelle plants another flag on the family turf: She is her mom’s favorite child. She laughs when making this declaration, and adds “My mom always says it’s her firstborn, but I know it’s really me.” Her humor and warm smile show the other side of the determined, competitive, stubborn athlete.

In this way, she reminds me of the actor Heath Ledger’s portrayal of The Joker in "The Dark Knight.” A complex nemesis — at times whimsical, romantic and charming. And then fierce, dangerous and determined.

Noelle has that look in her eyes. When the light catches it just right, there’s a glint of confidence that demands your attention, maybe even grabs you by the throat. Some athletes have that switch; they can flip it and stomp you. Then turn it off and take you for ice cream when it’s over.

Noelle possesses that trait. But she’s evolving, too.

Before the accident: “I was the most driven, lazy person you’ve ever met.”

After: “I definitely needed to realign. It definitely made me realize putting in hard work and I actually put in the hard work to get to where I am. I never really had to go through something really difficult before my accident.”

Plus-one for perspective.

Not surprisingly, Noelle turned her competitive fuel into a lacrosse scholarship at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. As a freshman, she tied for first on the team in goals with 15. She started every game. And she was named to the America East All-Rookie Team.

Admittedly, she accomplished all that by flipping the switch on for games.

“I loved showing up for competitions. I loved going to games, but I was also that person that was just really lazy and had the mindset of, ‘I don’t need to do this.’ I got where I am and it’s good enough.”

“She was my ride or die,” Noelle says of Kelly Moran.

The two were teammates, friends, roommates. That continued after the accident, too. The bond they shared grew well beyond the athletic fields. They recovered together. Cried together. Laughed together.

“We share a sick sense of humor,” Noelle says. “She’s the reason why I learned to be okay.” In fact, they took their sense of humor to the next level by showing up at post-accident Halloween parties as Forrest Gump and Lt. Dan. You know the rule: If you can laugh at yourself you can laugh at anyone.

While Noelle was still in the hospital, one of her earliest visitors was her lacrosse coach at UMass-Lowell. Noelle says the first question she asked set the tone for the next chapter in her life.

“I just remember having everything hit me at once and I was hysterically crying. And the next person to come and visit me in the hospital was my head coach, and I don’t even think she took two steps in the door before I asked the question, ‘Am I still on the team? Or what do I have to do to play?’

“Because I was thinking to myself, ‘This cannot be the rest of my story.’”

Both Noelle and Kelly redshirted their sophomore seasons to allow more time to heal. Noelle went through a grueling rehab. Learning how to walk, using different kinds of prosthetics, finding her strength and fitness again. She eventually hired a personal trainer to help her regain a sense of self.

“But it doesn't mean that it came easy. I mean, every single day it was a challenge. I would just come up with these small goals. And if one day, if my main goal seemed impossible, I didn't even think about it. I just said, ‘I just need to get to tomorrow. I need to just do this one thing to get myself better.’”

After receiving her running blade for the first time, Noelle says she could barely last 10 seconds on the treadmill. She grew frustrated and embarrassed. “I thought it was going to be a walk in the park.”

She was determined to return to UMass-Lowell as a lacrosse player. On the field. Playing. Just like before the accident. All she needed to do was show she could still compete at that level.

So when Noelle and Kelly returned to campus for their junior season, they faced an annual foe: a team fitness test called The Gauntlet. It’s a series of sprints that vary in length.

“My freshman year, I couldn’t finish it,” she says, recalling her lazy, driven pre-accident self. “But this time, I wanted the run test. I wanted it.”

Like they had so many times before, the two teammates used each other as motivation to push through. They gutted it out, and Noelle did something she couldn’t when she had two legs.

“I completed The Gauntlet. It was sort of my defining moment. I started believing I could come back.” Prior to this, Noelle talked like she was coming back. But deep down, she wasn’t sure. Taming the run test was like a shot of adrenaline.

Once a rising star in lacrosse for UMass-Lowell, Noelle Lambert is now a rising Paralympian.
Noelle Lambert has that look in her eyes. [Chris Soule image]

Her return to lacrosse had elements of a Hollywood script. There were highs and lows, some tears and frustration. It wasn’t easy. But this is where being stubborn paid off for her. She just kept grinding, putting in the work. Midway through her junior season, the NCAA granted an exemption that would allow her to compete with a prosthetic.

In her first game back, on her third shot on goal, she scored.

“I just remember being on the bench and there was about 10 minutes left to go in the first half, and I hear the words from my coach, ‘Noelle go in.’ And immediately I just want to tell her ‘No I'm all set, like, I'm not ready.’ But it was my teammates pushing me saying, ‘You’ve got this.’”

The goal, in the moment, looked and felt like the culmination of her journey back. Dropping her stick in wonderment, joy washing across her face, racing toward her teammates to celebrate. A goose-bumps, lump-in-your-throat-inducing snapshot in time. Four years later, with all that this odyssey has wrought, it now feels like a milepost on the road to something bigger.

She returned for her senior season “comfortable and confident” in her place on the team. She was a different player now, filling a different role. She played in seven games, starting one and recording no points. Fittingly, the more refined, post-accident Noelle was okay with this.

“I knew I was never going to be that player I was before — being the quarterback of the offense. That wasn't what was important to me. What was important was just having a role and being part of this family in this community. And I just remember when I graduated that I didn't want to hang up my athletic career just yet because in my eyes I had only been running for about two years.”

Not long after her final season at UMass-Lowell, a representative from the U.S. Paralympic track and field team reached out to Noelle, asking if she had ever thought about running.

“Fun fact about me,” Noelle says today. “I hated running. I hated anything to do with it. Even after my accident, I tried to use my disability to get out of it.”

But the competitor inside her — the determined athlete — saw an opportunity. What if I was actually good? What if I was good enough to represent my country?

What if?

Noelle signed herself up for a meet that was three weeks out. This was 2019, just after graduating with a degree in criminal justice. She was training at her local track. She bought some starting blocks, not knowing how to use them. She wound up Googling “amputees in starting blocks” — not helpful.

Soon, she found herself at the race, not knowing the competition level at all.

“I knew it was a Paralympic competition, but when I got there, I realized that the entire Paralympic national team was there competing and that I was competing against the reigning national champion,” she says laughing, eyes still filled with disbelief. “So I immediately wanted to go home and quit. Like I'm not ready. And, you know, luckily I had my amazing mother. But it was funny because I was talking to my mom the night before and I was just joking around and said, ‘What if I actually win?’”

What if?

“And, you know, she completely shot me down on that. She was just like, ‘I don't want you to get ahead of yourself or have too big expectations and maybe you fail.’ So she just said, ‘Just do your best.’ And I remember waking up the next day and I had never been so nervous my entire life.

“I had always done team sports. I had never done an individual sport. And I remember just lining up in the starting blocks. I remember honestly showing up asking where the 100-meter mark was on the track because I had no idea. And I remember the gun going off and then all of my nerves just went away and it was just, you know, that competitive kid that just wanted to win.”

That competitive, determined kid.

"And I remember halfway through the race, I heard this screeching noise and I realized that it was my mom because I was actually winning. And then I crossed the finish line. Not only did I win and beat the national champion, but I hit the qualifying times to be a part of the national team.”

Not a bad day for the former Champion of Lazy and Hater of Running.

With her early success, Noelle earned a berth in the World Championships, finishing fourth and setting an American record.

Then it was time to get serious, and really learn how to run.

“That’s when I knew I could really do this. I’d only been training for a few months. And I remember being humbled really quickly when I actually met my track coach. I showed up to my first practice, you know, expecting him to compliment me and be like ‘Oh my god, this is going to be easy.’

“But he just tore me to shreds. That first day of practice he just screamed at me. And I think he knew how tough I was when I showed up the next day and said, ‘Okay, what’s next?’”

Next was the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics (held in 2021 due to the pandemic), where Noelle would break her own American record in the 100-meter and place sixth in the world.

“In the last three years, there’s been so many times where I’ve wanted to quit. But I just kept telling myself, ‘I’m doing this.’”

At this stage of the story, it will surprise no one that Noelle is far from finished. She recently competed on CBS’s “Survivor.” She is training for not one more Paralympics, but two — Paris 2024 in track and Milano Cortina 2026 in snowboarding, a sport she just started to learn.

If that wasn’t enough, she also leads the Born to Run Foundation, which helps young adults and children receive prosthetics “so they can live a fun and fulfilling life.”

She remembers the first prosthetic her foundation donated. It was her senior year in college, and the recipient was a 2-year-old boy.

“He wanted to be like every other kid. And I remember being in that moment with his family, seeing him take his first steps with the running blade, and it just made me realize how special of a moment that was, because it was a full-circle moment. I was that same person, receiving a specialized prosthetic, thinking that I was able to accomplish anything and thinking I’m not somebody with a disability.”

Noelle has this ability to look both backward and forward, seemingly at the same time. The lessons are out front. She understands every day she’s fighting — for a personal goal, for her new dreams, for the young people her foundation is helping.

Determined as ever, Noelle Lambert is planning on Paris 2024 and Milano Cortina 2026.
Noelle Lambert isn't done representing the flag. [Chris Soule image]

The accident took her leg, but it gave her vision. She has clarity and purpose now. That’s the unmistakable gift her tragedy bestowed.

“I hate to say that having something as terrible as losing my leg made me realize how special life can be, because I wish I realized it when I had two legs. But honestly, God works in mysterious ways and I knew that when my accident happened that if it had to happen to anybody, it happened to me because I'm a very stubborn person.”

There’s that word again. Stubborn. Along with competitive and determined, those traits and her running blade just might help her step onto a podium in Paris.

Matthew Fults

Published a year ago