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Denna Laing embracing new challenges

Thirteen months after injuring spinal cord in Outdoor Women's Classic, makes trip to All-Star Weekend, plans to participate in Boston Marathon

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- Denna Laing rolled her wheelchair forward, into the lift, and her mother, Jerilyn, clicked the door behind her. The lift took her downward, into the concrete bowl of Staples Center, and she quickly found her spot, a place to watch the hockey that was happening below her on Saturday.

Laing had traveled from Boston to Los Angeles for this, the 2017 NHL All-Star Celebrity Shootout, among various other events. She had already appeared on the red carpet ahead of "The NHL100 presented by GEICO" on Friday and had gotten a chance to see the festivities at L.A. Live.

It was another step for Laing, who sustained a significant spinal cord injury Dec. 31, 2015, while playing for the Boston Pride in the Outdoor Women's Classic as part of the 2016 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic at Gillette Stadium. It was another move in the drive to recover, to recapture herself and her sense of possibility.

"It's just kind of proving to yourself that you can do it," said Laing, 25. "It's been not easy, but it's been easier than maybe I thought to get out here. I think that some people in wheelchairs think that it's impossible to take these flights and it feels pretty good to get out here, to say that I can keep doing the things I want to do."

The trip was the second for Laing in a week, and they marked her first flights since the injury. She had flown to Florida the previous weekend to meet up with former NHL player Bobby Carpenter regarding another project that has her thrilled: the Boston Marathon.

It was something her friends had joked with her about after the injury. They had said they'd push her, train with her. But it barely rated a thought back then. She had other priorities.

But then Carpenter got in touch with Laing's father, Dennis, suggested that they pair up for the race and asked if she would be interested. This time she was.

She has watched the race before, like any native of suburban Boston, stood on the sidelines and cheered. She has never been the one they've been cheering for, the one the signs are for, and that thought is thrilling, especially knowing how much the city of Boston has supported her in her recovery.

"I'm really excited to be doing it," Laing said. "Really excited for the opportunity. I think it's going to be a lot of fun and I think it's going to be very, very exciting."

There is still work to be done, however. When Laing traveled to Florida, the plan was to participate in a half-marathon, the Clearwater Distance Classic, to start some of the preparations together. But the trip turned into a nearly comedic series of errors, beginning when the airline broke one of the brakes on her manual wheelchair, which she termed "kind of a rough start."

And then, when they arrived, the race had been canceled.

"But Bobby said that we were going to run it anyway," she said. "So we got out there and we had a nice group of people with us who knew the course and none of the roads were blocked off or anything like that, so were kind of on sidewalks and in the middle of the street. Only had a couple people beeping at us."

It was very windy, she said, but the rain held off and the pair was able to complete 13.1 miles. It was a victory.

"We made it back unscathed," Laing said. "But it definitely was an adventure."

There is more training ahead, both for the Boston Marathon and for a more pressing competition, the C.R.A.S.H.-B. Sprints, the world's biggest indoor rowing competition, held at Boston University on Feb. 12. For that, Laing has been training two or three times a week on an erg rowing machine, which simulates the rowing of a crew boat. It has helped in myriad ways: in her rehab, working her upper and lower body; in her desire for competition; and in getting her heart rate up, something that's generally difficult for someone in a wheelchair.

"I've been working with Chevrolet, with this goal of getting back to competing," Laing said. "It's been really exciting so far. I definitely think it helps me in terms of getting in the right mindset to push and keep wanting to improve my personal best.

"And it definitely gets me excited. Just to have that feeling to be competing again is pretty incredible and not something that you usually get just in everyday life. So it's really exciting to be back, to have a goal like that."

She has been able to do this, to fly to Florida, to fly to Los Angeles, to train for the rowing championship, to consider the Boston Marathon, all because of the support she has gotten, a system that she continues to thank and praise. Her mother and her aunt traveled with her to Florida. Her mother and a cousin came with her to L.A.

That, she said, makes it workable.

But so does her drive, her desire to get out and be out and capture the normalcy that she lost 13 months ago. Her rehab has been much the same for the past six months, as she's worked to improve upper-body strength and core stability, and she passed the year mark from her injury without much changing.

It is a daily process, five days of workouts per week, incremental changes, day by day by day.

But there is excitement ahead, with events to anticipate and push toward. There is the rowing championship. There is the Boston Marathon. There are more things to fight for and more things to win.

"I don't think [getting back to competing] was really the first thing on my mind," Laing said of when the injury occurred. "But just by watching my sisters [play hockey] and hockey in general, you realize quickly how much you miss that."

And, if you're Laing, you figure out how to get it back.

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