TAMPA, Fla. (FOX 13) - Countless heroes have stepped foot on the quarter-mile track on MacDill Air Force Base, including Lauren Montoya. Most days, the 27-year-old can be seen running laps and building her strength while calming her mind.
“It's absolutely therapy for me," she told FOX 13, "to be able to go swim or go run. Just take my mind off of things."
There was a time, not long ago, when Lauren thought she might never run again. In 2014, Lauren was stationed overseas when the truck she was riding in rolled over an IED, trapping her inside. Lauren made it out alive, but not unscathed.
“On initial impact, I crushed my heel bone and had pretty extensive nerve and muscle damage throughout my leg," she recalled. "I thought that I just had a couple broken bones."
Lauren’s injuries ended up being much more severe. For the following year, she underwent nine surgeries as doctors tried to salvage her limb. All the while, Lauren knew if she kept her leg, her life would never be the same.
“I knew that I was going to have pain for the rest of my life. I knew that I was going to be on medication the rest of my life or use some sort of assisted device for the rest of my life,” said Lauren. “So, it wasn’t a big leap to try and see what an amputation would look like for me.”
One year after her injury, at just 23 years old, Lauren made the very tough and very brave decision to have doctors amputate her leg.
“It was just a no-brainer for me. I didn’t hesitate on that at all,” she continued.
Six weeks post-surgery, Lauren was running again.
“I've found that everything I did prior to my injury, I can still go out and do now. And I’ve learned new skills and I've learned new sports,” she said.
Lauren didn’t just get back her the ability to run and workout, she also regained her independence.
“To get up in the middle of the night and use the bathroom and not ask anyone for help or to just move around my house independently; to take myself to appointments. Just being able to put on a prosthetic and do stuff for myself was life changing. I felt normal again,” Lauren said.
It didn't take long for Lauren to go from running to competing. In 2018, she entered the Warrior Games. She didn’t just compete, she won seven medals in track and swimming: five gold, one bronze and one silver.
Although for Lauren, it was less about accolades and more about honoring the men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
“A big motivator for me is thinking about the servicemen and women who don’t have the opportunity to come back and to wake up every single day," she said, "and either exercise or go back to work or whatever it is."
Lauren admits not every day is easy. She is still adjusting to her physical injuries as well as traumatic brain injury. Rather than using it as an excuse to do less, she uses it to motivate herself and others with similar injuries to get up and do more.
“You're the only person putting limits on yourself," she said. "Whatever you want to do, get out there and do it and I guarantee there will be someone out there cheering you on."
Lauren is currently training for the 2019 Warrior Games, which is taking place Tampa. The event kicks off on Saturday, June 21 and is open to the public.