Tess Lloyd's sailing miracle: From near death to Olympic medal hopeful

Australian sailor Tess Lloyd was pulled from the water with a fractured skull and doctors doubted she would make it, now she's aiming for an Olympic medal. "I like sharing my story and I hope it helps."

By Ben Furlong and Ken Browne ·

At 16 Tess Lloyd was a sailing prodigy.

"I was about 5 years old when I went for my first sail," she tells Olympic Channel.

At 16 Tess finished as first female in her class at the Australian Nationals in 2012, 23rd at the Open Worlds (1st in her Youth Girls peer group) and her course to the top of the sport looked to be clearly charted.

Until a freak accident almost ended her life.

In early 2012, Lloyd was competing in a youth sailing regatta in Brisbane Australia with sailing partner Lewis Duncan.

"A windsurfer trying to avoid a collision with us lost control," she says.

"The nose of the board hit me on the left-hand side of my head, which neither of saw coming, I was unconscious in the water."

Out cold, floating face-down, Duncan jumped in to haul her out, saving her life, he later received an award for bravery.

Lloyd's parents were on the water in a speedboat that day and rushed to rescue her.

Tess was taken to hospital in an ambulance, still unconscious.

"I had a fractured skull that was pushing into my brain, so they had to do a major operation that night," Lloyd continues.

"They shaved half my head, then I was put into an induced coma."

"When I woke up I couldn't remember anything" - Tess Lloyd

Tickets to Tokyo: Tess Lloyd (left) and sailing partner Jaime Ryan smile after making the 2020 Olympic Games Sailing Team. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Tess Lloyd Accident

"I have a big plate in my head with about 10 screws which I can feel and it's a bit numb," says Tess Lloyd, remembering the day she woke from the coma.

"They weren't sure how long I would be in that induced coma for or what sort of person I would be when I woke up," she continues.

She had been in the coma for almost three weeks.

"Mum and Dad were sort of told that I wouldn't really be the same person, after having this sort of brain injury."

The doctors said she may never walk or talk again, and sailing?

No chance.

Eight years later she's defied all odds and realised a childhood dream by qualifying for Tokyo 2020.

Tess in hospital after the operation. Picture courtesy of Tess Lloyd

"I usually don't talk about this"

A brain injury this serious can be devastating.

Some never speak again, some never walk again, some never leave the hospital again.

Most don't - or can't - go back to sports.

"When I woke up, I didn't really know what was happening and I didn't know what had happened to me," she says.

"I ended up being in the coma for about 2 1/2 weeks because they just kept dragging it out, so my brain had more time to recover," Lloyd continues.

"I couldn't communicate so I wasn't talking and I could see everyone's faces and I sort of knew who they were, I knew Mum and Dad but I couldn't really say hi because I couldn't get the words out."

When we ask how she got through it, what the recovery process was like, it takes her to a place she doesn't like to revisit too often.

"My brother Jack helped me through it" - Tess Lloyd

"I usually don't talk about this," she says.

"My brother Jack helped me get through it, because before my accident my brother was recovering from a brain tumour."

"Then this happened to me. Jack is all better now and achieving his own goals.

"What Jack went through proved to me that it is possible to overcome something like that. Mum and Dad were both really supportive."

"I had a lot of rehab to get my speech back and I lost about 15 kilos."

"I was seeing a physio every day and had someone helping with my speech which helped my language slowly come back. It took a while and it was quite strange to recall words, just trying to get it all out, which was really frustrating."

With the support of her family, Tess came through, and it wasn't long before she wanted to get back on the water.

The hard road to recovery

"It was just really hard."

"I had realised just how long the road ahead of me was. When I was in hospital, I wasn't thinking about that too much because I was still sort of in a different world."

"When I got back home, I went to school and I realised how difficult it was going to be. I ended up doing my final year of high school over two years because it was just too hard for me to manage all the subjects."

When we ask Lloyd about life growing up, she immediately starts talking about sailing, which has been part of her make-up from the get-go.

"I was about 5 years old when I went for my first sail," she says.

"I grew up in Melbourne. I started sailing in a minnow at Parkdale Yacht club, it was my very first club, and Sorento Sailing Couta Boat Club became my second home and is now my sailing base."

"I was sort of the sporty one, I did hockey, running, triathlon, cross country, swimming, basketball, so a bit of everything but sailing was my main sport."

"I was about 5 years old when I went for my first sail." - Tess Lloyd

Tess Lloyd in action. Picture courtesy of Tess Lloyd

"I am also a member of Royal Brighton Yacht Club where I got into the 29ers, and that’s where my skiff sailing began."

The thought of going to the Olympics was there from an early age too.

"I sort of understood what the Olympics were at 9 or 10 years old.

"When I started sailing the 29er skiff is when I really wanted to go to the Games because that was an Olympic pathway class."

No fear

But how hard was it to be away from sailing after the accident?

"I really wanted to get back," she says.

"Everything else was so difficult, so I really wanted it back in my life but the doctors were all a bit hesitant. We came to the conclusion that I would wear a helmet when it was really windy which I still do."

10 months after the accident she was sailing again, back in her element.

"It was really natural." - Tess Lloyd

"When I did get back to sailing it was a little bit scary, but it was really nice, because it was something that I was quite good at."

"It was really natural, and it wasn't much of a struggle like everything else."

"Then when they announced that 49ers FX, were going to be in the Olympics, I was really excited!"

Rio 2016: Rising tide for women's sailing

The Women's skiff 49erFX was introduced as a brand new event for the Olympic Games for Rio 2016.

Women's sailing was expanded with big steps taken towards gender equality in Brazil, and there were more medals up for grabs.

Four years after the accident, Lloyd felt inspired.

"Finally, an all-female skiff class had come out at the Games," she said.

Yet despite a successful campaign leading up the Olympics in Brazil, Lloyd did not make the Australian Rio 2016 team. No FX team was sent from Australia.

She was devastated, but determined, and still only 22.

Better things would follow.

The Australian watched Brazilian pair and 2014 world champs Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze delight home fans by winning the event's first ever gold medal at an Olympic Games.

New Zealand's Alex Maloney and Molly Meech claimed silver.

Lloyd had set her new goal: Tokyo 2020

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Tess Lloyd Tokyo 2020

Lloyd has only been sailing with current 49erFX partner Jaime Ryan for two years, but they go way back.

Ryan was actually there the day of that horror accident in Queensland in 2012.

"It was just devastating," Ryan told the Sydney Morning Herald.

"I remember seeing the ambulance and realising something has happened, it's never a nice feeling."

I think she's probably come back even stronger. - Jaime Ryan

"For it to be so serious, it really shook sailors right across the country and I still think it's been one of the worst accidents in junior sailing.

"It was a remarkable recovery and I think she's probably come back even stronger."

Ryan was born in 1994, Lloyd in 1995, making Ryan the slightly more experienced sailor, and also has Olympic experience - she took part in the women's 470 class at Rio 2016.

They were an instant fit and quickly became a winning team.

‘We are quite different," Lloyd says.

"Jaime is mature and composed, really good to have on the boat, just keeping everything quite level. I think I'm quite good pushing the team, I have a lot of determination and she's really good at organising everything.

"Jaime is good keeping everything on track, is very intelligent and has a huge amount of past experience from the Rio 2016 Olympics."

"Jamie's really in charge of keeping the boat going fast and she's taller and heavier and stronger than me," says Lloyd.

"I'm at the back of the boat, trying to make those decisions and obviously she's a part of that as well, she asks me the right questions to sort of put a good plan in place.

In February 2020 a strong showing at the Worlds where they held 4th place for a time guaranteed Australia a berth at the Tokyo Olympics, set to take place in 2021.

"I really thought that this time we proved ourselves," Lloyd asserts.

Sailing Olympic qualification: Relief

"We still have a lot of potential and we are only just improving. We really bonded together and we had good improvement over the last year. I think even now that the Olympics have been delayed, its actually quite an advantage."

When the call came that Lloyd and Ryan were confirmed to represent Australia in the 49erFX class in Tokyo, they could breathe again.

"We got a phone call not long after the 2020 49erFX World Championships. It was a really big relief, I was quite nervous and obviously I didn't want to miss out on the games," beams Lloyd.

In the midst of the coronavirus chaos, they at least have the luxury of knowing that they will be there in Tokyo come Games time.

"Jaime Ryan and I qualified for the Games before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement.

"It was quite a big relief for us, as some other countries are still actually trying to qualify for the country spot."

She could relax - a little.

But unfortunately in lockdown she won't be able to visit her favourite pillow.

Olympic medal miracle?

Knowing Lloyd's story, an Olympic medal in Tokyo would be nothing short of a miracle.

So is that an aim for the team?

"We try not to talk about results, just focus on the process and the steps we need to take to get there," she answers.

"But I think we are both really excited to try and get a medal."

"Together, as a team, we can make it to the podium. I think we've really bonded over the last year and a half and we really complement each other.

"We both have different skills, I think it's good that we can bring them together."

The sailing star is also inspiring the next generation:

‘I've done a few speeches and courses with the Victorian institute of sport. Schools come through the facility and I speak with the kids.

"I either talk about my accident or sometimes I won't even talk about that and just talk to them about what it's like being an elite athlete.

"I like sharing my story and I hope it helps." - Tess Lloyd

Adversity is a word that this sailor knows a lot about, we ask her what advice she has for others facing tough times.

In the middle of a global pandemic, her answer resonates in our world right now:

"I think for me it was a lot about goal setting and just having steps in place to achieve them."

"I think adversity is something that actually can help you work harder towards a goal. It makes you more determined and always try to take positives out of it."

Tokyo 2020 team