After accident, Kiana Clay finds new ways to satisfy her need for speed

Kiana Clay lost the use of her right arm in a motorbike race in 2006 but has proven she can still compete at the highest levels. Courtesy Spencer Owens

There was too much syrup and too much mud on the day that altered Kiana Clay's journey.

Clay and her parents were running late on the morning of Nov. 18, 2006. She hates being late. Speed is her thing. She was 12 years old, an up-and-comer in the motocross community. She wanted to turn pro by the time she was 16. On that day, there was a race to race in Wortham, Texas, and she was late. Irritated with her parents, she got dressed in the truck, and the family pulled into Sonic for a quick breakfast. Clay got French toast sticks and slopped syrup all over everything.

She arrived at the track only to find more sticky stuff. Mud was everywhere -- human and machine alike were caked. She grabbed her bike and made her way into the slop, hoping to get a feel for the conditions during the five-minute practice session before her race. Instead, she took a spill. The mud was so thick that she needed help to get up.

Too late to get in a practice session, Clay hit the finish-line jump to get ready to roll.

"Because of how muddy I was, right when I landed, my back tire slid out," she said. "Another rider came over and he landed right on top of me and went over my neck."

She woke up a few minutes later on a stretcher. It didn't take her long to figure out she couldn't move her right arm. It took even less time for her to scream.

"I saw the paramedic's eyes widen," she said. And she heard these words come out of his mouth: If you move you might die.

Here's the twist: Kiana Clay needs to move to live.

She lost use of her dominant, right arm that day, but she gained the ability to write -- and draw -- with her left hand. She has gained the ability to play Xbox -- shooting and racing games are her favorite -- with her feet. She jokes that the only thing she hasn't conquered is putting plastic wrap on food.

Twelve years have come and gone, and on Tuesday she will discuss her journey on the "Voices of the Future" panel at the 2018 espnW: Women + Sports Summit. She'll be joined by UCLA softball star Rachel Garcia, Olympic short track speedskater Maame Biney and stand-up paddleboarder Jade Howson.

In middle school, she tried everything she could think of to replace the void her accident left in her life: choir, tennis, track, cross country, art, cheerleading.

"Nothing was doing it for me," she said. "Nothing was fast enough. Nothing was getting my heart rate up enough."

She enrolled in Dallas Baptist University and continued to hang out at local tracks to support her friends. One of them suggested they rig a pit bike she could use to cruise around the track while she was hanging out. The duo tinkered in the garage, modified a throttle and Clay hopped on and took off.

"I was so stoked to get back on that bike. I could not stop smiling. I rode that bike the whole day," she said. "I went through 2½ gallons of gas, which is a lot for a pit bike. For a few months, I would just constantly ride that pit bike."

It took some doing, but she eventually convinced her parents to get back onboard with her decision to ride again. They helped her invest in a new bike and all the best safety gear.

She returned to competition in 2014 and started to qualify for national events. She was invited to championship adaptive events, which led to new connections and new opportunities.

She wound up trading dirt for snow and tapped into a different slice of her childhood.

Next month, Clay is headed to Colorado to begin training in earnest to qualify for the 2020 Paralympics in snowboarding. Before her accident, she was a regular at Big Bear Lake, California, with her parents.

"The feeling of going down the mountain and getting the speed that you can get, it's kind of a flying feeling," she said.

The Paralympics are goal No. 1. After that, she is giving surfing a shot. She has spent a lot of time wakesurfing on lakes, and she's eager to get back in the ocean and figure out how to pop up on the board and how to paddle in a straight line. She's also interested in motivational-speaking engagements.

She's certainly qualified.

Beyond regaining her balance and her bearings after losing the use of her right arm, there's coping with the pain. Always the pain. Some call it phantom pain. But it's real. Her nerves in her arm won't give up on reactivating. It feels like electrocution. It can send her screaming into a pillow.

Then there are the overuse injuries -- she's got arthritis and carpal tunnel -- because she exclusively uses her left hand.

"I'm going to be in pain for the rest of my life," she said. "I'm kind of happy that I have it in a way. I try to never take anything for granted anymore. I'm trying to be happy even in the pain because I know my situation could be so much worse."

She's got motocross and snowboarding and surfing. She's got family and friends. She's got goals and the skills to accomplish them. She's got a message.

"Life is hard, but that doesn't mean stop trying," she said. "Keep going, and if you have big dreams, dream bigger. There's never such thing as too big of a dream."