Noelle Lambert up against the ‘best in the world’ at the Paralympic Games next month in Tokyo 

  • Noelle Lambert, who will be competing in the Paralympics in Tokyo, plays lacrosse with her team at UMass Lowell. Courtesy

  • Noelle Lambert will be competing in track in the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. Courtesy

  • Noelle Lambert scores a goal in lacrosse with her UMass Lowell team. Courtesy

Monitor columnist
Published: 7/13/2021 4:30:04 PM

The former Boston-area college track coach, recording his prized pupil as she demolished the field at a local Paralympic sprint, had one word for the blur racing below him.

“Dig!” Sherman Hart yelled at Noelle Lambert, the Manchester resident who will compete at the Paralympic Games next month in Tokyo.

“Dig!” Hart said again. “Dig. Dig. Dig. Dig!”

Some coaches know the precise word to use at a particular time, and dig says an awful lot about the path Lambert has taken to emerge as one of the best above-the-knee amputee sprinters in the country. And perhaps the world.

“Turn it up and drive harder,” Hart said, explaining his one-word motivator. “Run faster.”

Lambert has been digging like an excavator since birth, mining for a competitive edge, battling and bothering three older brothers during their sandlot sports careers in the backyard. Noelle’s mother, Judy Lambert, said her daughter is “stubborn and determined.”

That helps her dig. Noelle dug to become an all-star lacrosse player at Londonderry High School and UMass Lowell.

She dug to rehab from the moped accident five years ago that took her left leg. She dug to return to the UMass Lowell lacrosse team after skipping her sophomore season, barely missing a beat and returning to top form.

And she dug to retire from lacrosse and begin an entirely new athletic career. Paralympic officials saw her play lacrosse in college and rolled out the red carpet, asking if she’d consider running in the 100-meter dash in front of the world in Tokyo.

“I thought it would be an amazing opportunity to represent my country,” Lambert said by phone. “There were no expectations, and I knew that if I failed, at least I gave it a shot.”

That shot, it turned out, led to an extraordinarily fast climb and international recognition. Lambert picked up the sport in 2019 and proceeded to beat a national champion in the early part of her short career.

She finished first at the Paralympic Trials last month in Minnesota, punching her ticket for Tokyo. Her time of 16.31 seconds at the World Championships five months ago set the American record.

Now, at age 24, she’s one of the world's top 10 Paralympic sprinters.

We should slow down here and bring in a dose of reality. Regardless of her quick transition, the learning curve to evolve into a world-class runner was sharp. Lambert was terrible early on. Awkward and slow.

And her attitude needed adjusting as well. By her own admission, Lambert, a natural athlete, said, “I never put in that extra work before the accident. I showed up for games.”

This time, in this new sport, with this new coach, she needed to dig deeper. She needed a coach like Hart and knew it.

“He's the best thing that could have happened,” she said. “He transformed me into an actual (track) athlete. We’d do double workouts, and that helped me improve for Tokyo.”

Hart cuts a significant figure in Lambert’s life. He had been a powerhouse coach in women’s college track and field for three decades and only recently retired from coaching after a short stint at a community college in Roxbury, Mass.

At UMass Boston, Hart won four NCAA Division III titles and finished second nationally three times. At Northeastern University, Hart took a program that had been ranked 20th in New England and finished with 20 America East championships in outdoor and indoor track combined.

Now he trains Paralympians. He and Lambert have great chemistry. To the point where honesty, humor, grit and experience have combined to elevate Lambert. Hart poked fun at her the first time he saw her run with a blade.

“I asked her what the hell she was doing,” Hart said, laughing but serious. “We have really worked on it and I give her a lot of credit. She has listened, and if you say run through a wall, she will. She continues to work on her form. Last week I told her that she almost looked like an athlete.”

That was a jab, a joke. Watch a video of Lambert. See the athlete. Many competitors lack technique or coaching or something. They run with their prosthetic legs pushing hard outward, to the side, wasting valuable time.

Noelle moves with a natural running motion. Arms pumping up and down. Hands rigid, slicing through the air, with fingers pointing forward. Blade and foot working together, alternating steps, hard yet smooth.

“I am completely comfortable wearing a running blade,” Lambert said. “It’s rare for me to fall.”

Ever, really. Lambert’s nonchalance while discussing the moped accident on Martha’s Vineyard in 2016 was extraordinary. She said she lost control and side-swiped an oncoming truck.

She said she remained conscious and noticed her severed lower leg. The crash happened on a busy street, so there were plenty of people to call for help. A man tied a tourniquet around her upper leg. During surgery, doctors decided it was in her best interest to amputate above the knee, she said.  

Lambert insists that she emotionally regrouped quickly. Faster even than her physical rehab, which included elite Paralympic training. She has no lingering nightmares, no PTSD.

“I was fine,” she told me. “I had 30 or 40 visitors a day and never had time to feel sorry for myself. I did not want to let the accident define my life and the rest of my life. I had tough moments, but I never wanted to show it, and that is my stubborn self.”

Lambert’s three brothers, all jocks, all athletic, all older, toughened her up and widened her stubborn streak, turning her into what their mother called a “fierce competitor.”

“This was just another obstacle she had to face and she was determined to play lacrosse again despite the challenges in doing so,” Judy Lambert said via email. “Her sense of humor also played a big role in bouncing back quickly. This made others around her feel comfortable, and people soon realized that she was still the same person even though she looked different.”

In some ways, she was better. After the accident, Lambert started the Born To Run Foundation, which raises funds so amputees can afford prosthetics and perhaps compete in organized competition.

Beyond her athletic career, the injury opened her eyes to other matters, like not taking your gifts for granted.

Lambert missed her sophomore season, then returned to the lacrosse field as a junior, still fast, still strong. She scored a goal in her first game back.

A UMass Lowell newsletter said, “The emotional celebration with her teammates that followed represented a culmination of all the time and effort she had dedicated to getting back on the field.”

She’s back. The Paralympics will be held Aug. 24 through Sept. 5 in Tokyo. Lambert is eyeing the podium. She continues to dig deep.

“I know I can be in the top five hopefully in Tokyo,” Lambert said. “But going against the best in the world is a medal in itself. It’s sobering and something to be grateful for. Nothing has been given to me.”

Ray Duckler bio photo

Ray Duckler, our intrepid columnist, focuses on the Suncook Valley. He floats from topic to topic, searching for the humor or sadness or humanity in each subject. A native New Yorker, he loves the Yankees and Giants. The Red Sox and Patriots? Not so much.

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