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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Racer regains consciousness

Shiri Howell, 17, receives a kiss from her mom, Angie, at Sacred Heart Medical Center on Wednesday. Below, Howell took fourth place at a national motocross competition recently. The East Valley High School senior suffered a  brain injury when she and another rider collided during practice. 
 (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

A young motocross racer recently awakened from a monthlong coma, mumbled a few words and then said “Hi Mom.”

Shiri Howell’s first words touched off a flood of relief for her mother, Angie Howell, who spent many worried hours at her daughter’s bedside at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

“I can’t even describe how excited I was,” Howell said.

The 17-year-old East Valley High School senior and professional racer suffered a traumatic brain injury when she collided with another rider while practicing at the Extreme Motorsports motocross track in Airway Heights. The accident happened just days after she took fourth at a national competition.

Motocross is a sport where motorcycles are raced at top speeds over dirt tracks that have jumps, curves and valleys. Members of the motocross community say Howell is a pioneer because as an amateur she readily beat both male and female competitors while displaying a leadership that influenced the formation of a women’s racing division two years ago.

News of Howells awakening on Friday touched off cheers at racetracks throughout the Northwest, when announcers told Labor Day weekend crowds that their friend and colleague was conscious.

Family friend Pat McConahy was at a racetrack at Washougal, Wash., where his son, Nick, was racing, when he received a welcome phone call. Announcers got on microphones and quickly spread the word.

“I think there were tears in everyone’s eyes on Sunday, because by the fourth week we were very concerned for Shiri,” McConahy said.

Although preliminary CAT scans showed portions of her brain were damaged, Howell is showing the same gritty determination that’s earned her a ranking of seventh among women motocross racers across the country.

“Everything has kicked in because she uses both of her legs and arms. Everybody says she’s just a miracle,” her mom said during an interview Wednesday at Sacred Heart.

After returning from one of two daily physical therapy sessions that will help her regain strength to walk unassisted, she was visibly fatigued, but smiled and conversed a little.

She replied to questions with a slight delay, but with words that were appropriate and occasionally witty.

When asked if she has a favorite college in her future plans, she smiled and replied, “Harvard.”

Optic damage currently prevents Howell from opening her right eye, a condition that doctors hope is temporary.

Soon, the teenager will transfer to St. Luke’s Rehabilitation Institute for more demanding therapy. She admits that she’d rather be home with her Chihuahua, Sammy.

Angie Howell expressed gratitude to the racing community, which raised over $40,000 through an auction and ribbon sale at Extreme Motorsports, and to Pat Mask, a friend she said spent long hours with her and her husband, Matt Howell, at the hospital.

The dozens of cards, balloons and flowers that pack her daughter’s hospital room tell a more personal tale.

“I was just overwhelmed with everyone’s generosity and compassion,” Howell said.

Friends who know Shiri Howell say she has no shortage of drive, which could play a key role in her recovery.

The East Valley High School honor student juggles academics with playing violin in the Strolling Strings Orchestra, amid constant travel to races. McConahy said pulling off those simultaneous accomplishments is rare.

“It’s a very long road to go from the amateur ranks to the professional ranks. It takes years of hard work to develop those skills.”