Franks was the keynote speaker for the Kin Life launch, a College of Kinesiology program meant to encourage career planning and personal growth among students.
She shared the extraordinary story of how she was unexpectedly paralyzed from the neck down when she was only 14 years old — then went on to become an Olympic gold medalist and multisport world-class athlete.
Franks was no ordinary student athlete. She didn’t compete for the Huskies, or for any other campus sports teams. Instead Franks competed internationally in wheelchair racing and basketball — but that doesn’t come close to covering her whole story.
The first 14 years of Lisa’s life were like those of most other young women. She was academically gifted and expressed an early love for sports as she tried to keep up with her three older brothers.
But her life drastically changed on April 18, 1996. Franks recalls waking up in the middle of the night unable to move her legs. By the end of that day she had lost function of her arms as well.
Franks was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, a condition that caused clusters of blood vessels to prevent blood from properly passing by her spinal cord.
These vessels eventually built up so much pressure that they burst and damaged her spinal cord. When the doctors discovered what the issue was, Franks was told to say goodbye to her family and rushed into surgery to stop the bleeding before she died.
Doctors stopped the bleeding, but enough damage had been done to permanently change Franks’ life.
“When I was first injured I was completely paralyzed from the neck down. I was on a ventilator and there wasn’t a lot of good prognosis,” Franks said.
“One of my first goals was to be able to move my arms, to feed myself and to dress myself.”
She spent the next few months painfully recovering from surgery and rehabilitating movement in her upper body. She slowly regained movement in her fingers, hands and arms.
“When I first wiggled my finger, that was an amazing day because that showed that I still had some neuron function into my hands,” Franks said.
A few months later, once she had regained most of the movement in her upper body, Franks started participating in wheelchair sports. Less than a year after her surgery Franks made Team Saskatchewan and was competing at the Canada Games in wheelchair racing.
Franks described the years following the national competition as being caught in a whirlwind that ultimately led her to the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia.
Sporting the red-and-white, Franks shocked the world, winning four gold medals and a silver. Only 18 years old and she sat atop the wheelchair racing podium in both sprint and distance races. Four years later, at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, she scooped up two more gold medals.
By the time Franks finished the 2004 racing season, she had posted world-record times in the 100-, 200-, 400-, 800-, 1500- and 5000-metre races as well as the 42-kilometre marathon. It appeared as if she had achieved the impossible by winning almost every competition in the world of wheelchair racing.
Franks decided she was looking for a new challenge. She chose wheelchair basketball.
“I came back from Athens and I knew that I wasn’t going to continue with racing,” she said.
“I took two weeks off and then I went to Edmonton and I trained with some of the [Team Canada] basketball players.”
Franks was named a team reserve player in her first tryout for Team Canada and made the team the following year. She competed with the squad until 2010 and in that time she won a world championship in 2006 and returned to the Olympic stage in 2008 for the Beijing Olympics, where the basketball team finished fifth.
After taking a year off from university to train for the 2004 Olympics, Franks returned to the U of S to complete her mechanical engineering degree. She graduated in 2006 but was not able to attend her convocation because she was playing in a basketball tournament with Team Canada in Europe. She often missed school for athletic purposes.
“I travelled quite a bit,” Franks said.
“I would be gone for usually two weeks at a time and [went on] probably eight to 10 trips out of the year.
“Luckily engineering is the kind of program where you can learn from a textbook.”
After sustaining a career-ending shoulder injury in 2010, Franks went to work as a mechanical engineer. She retired from competitive sports with six Olympic gold medals in racing and a world championship in basketball, and she still holds four of the seven world-record times she set almost a decade ago.
But it didn’t take long for her to get back into sport.
Last November she was hired as the high-performance wheelchair basketball coach for Saskatchewan’s provincial wheelchair basketball program. She is currently training and coaching other wheelchair athletes who hope to make the national team.
The students listening to her keynote speech on Feb. 4 were left with this message from the woman who had seemingly done it all:
“I tasted the sweet taste of success both when I won my first gold medal and when I was first able to feed myself a chocolate bar after my surgery,” Franks said.
“I’m not saying everyone’s goals have to be to reach that podium but just do what you find enjoyable and really give your whole to it and you can get so many benefits from it.
“I set goals because that keeps you motivated and engaged in what you’re doing. That way you can see your small gains and then celebrate your success. It doesn’t have to be in athletics, it can be in anything. I think it’s important for students to set those goals for themselves.”