Winter Park physical therapist Lee Ann Yanni may have a piece of her leg missing from the Boston Marathon bombing. But in its place is a strength that inspires others.
April 15, 2013. Boylston Street. Boston.
Runners cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a long-held tradition for more than a century. They head toward water stations and staff passing out medals with yellow and blue trim.
Boston resident and physical therapist Lee Ann Yanni is one of the 500,000 spectators taking it all in. She wouldn't be running today. She’s there to support a handful of patients ambitious enough to try and finish one of America’s most famous races.
Yanni and her husband, Nick, stand outside a Marathon Sports nearby and begin to make their way around the finish line to congratulate a patient who just finished.
That’s when the first explosion hit.
Lee Ann’s left ear is ringing from the sound as she feels something warm brush against the side of her left leg.
“I look down, and I see my bone sticking out,” Lee Ann said. “I felt like a hose was just attached to the back of my leg, and it was just pouring blood.”
Lee Ann staggers for a moment before hopping on her right foot into the Marathon Sports and falling to the ground. Nick already had run in ahead of her, yanking T-shirts off of hangers and wrapping them around his wife’s leg.
It was that moment — amid the chaos, blood and tears —that a city was shaken to its core.
But Boston didn’t stay down for long. Wounds healed. Communities rose up together.
‘SHE INSPIRES ME’
Four years later, Lee Ann — who now lives in Orlando — has never felt stronger.
Today, she works at CORA Rehabilitation Clinics off Orlando Avenue in Winter Park, helping patients get back on their feet after hip and knee injuries.
It wasn’t that long ago when Lee Ann was doing rehab of her own — mending a leg that was shattered from the Boston Marathon bombing.
Lee Ann had signed up for a race of her own just three months before the tragedy: the Chicago Marathon.
She planned to run in memory of her father who passed away from melanoma in October 2012. The race fell within a week of the one-year anniversary of the last time she saw him alive.
“I had been toying with the idea of doing a marathon,” she said. “I wasn’t quite ready to make that jump, but after he passed away I was like, ‘I’m doing it.’”
Lee Ann had been running races since 2010. She was bitten by the running bug after seeing her husband’s uncle doing one of the Disney runs. She jumped into her first half marathon that October and continued running in 10Ks and other half marathons.
Lee Ann had her sights set on the Chicago Marathon starting line, but now she had a wounded leg to mend. It took months of rehabilitation to get her walking again — let alone run 26.2 miles.
She wore a cast on her leg for a month and followed it up with three months of daily rehab.
As a physical therapist, Lee Ann knew exactly what kind of uphill climb she faced.
“I remember during my first days of rehab I was just miserable,” she said. “I wouldn’t look at my leg for a month. Thank God my husband was my rock, and he would clean my leg and he would take care of me. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have come nearly as far.”
Lee Ann put in the work, improving her scar mobility, range of motion, strength and balance in her left leg. She was eventually able to walk and jump.
“She’s always been a motivated individual,” Nick said. “She got her doctorate when she was 24. She’s just one those people that’s driven. Once she wants to do something she just does it.
“She inspires me.”
‘ONE FOOT IN FRONT OF THE OTHER’
By September 2013, Lee Ann was able to finally run with a compression sleeve on her leg.
She had only about five weeks to prepare for the longest race of her life.
On Oct. 13, 2013, she ran that race, finishing the Chicago Marathon with a time of 5:43:39.
Her longest run before that was only half that distance.
“It was all fair game,” Lee Ann said. “It was a new world to me. I didn’t know what 13.1 would feel like compared to 26.2. Just one foot in front of the other and find that finish line.”
She ran in memory of her father, who watched her gymnastic competitions as a little girl. The father who told her to never give up.
“My dad fought for six weeks,” Lee Ann said. “I can run for six hours.”
Lee Ann returned to Boston and ran that marathon in 2014, ending with an emotional crossing of the finish line to a roaring crowd of Boston spectators. She did the same in 2015.
Now, Lee Ann pushes herself to new limits at CrossFit Winter Park, where she’s been training since late December.
“I’d always been interested in CrossFit,” Lee Ann said. “I’ve just been too nervous to try it. I knew as soon as I did it that I would love it. You feel pretty awesome lifting some of these heavier weights.”
On April 2, she competed in her first CrossFit event. Her team earned 10th out of 18 teams, all while helping raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
She once again did so in her father’s memory.
‘NEVER BE ASHAMED’
Near the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon Bombing, Lee Ann and other survivors met with Dear World, a photography organization that allows people to tell their stories through written words on their skin. One photo showed Yanni with the words, “Never be ashamed,” written across her left leg above her scar.
Not long after, a little girl in Seattle saw that photo and recreated it down to the same color shirt and capris Yanni was wearing.
“She had been an in ATV accident, and she was very self-conscious of her scar,” Yanni said.
The 35-year-old still feels a twinge of pain in her left leg on cold nights or after an intense workout, but she knows she’s capable of far more today than she was before that fateful day in Boston.
“If somebody told me that I was going to go through what I went through and run two marathons within that year essentially, I would have laughed at them,” she said.
In 2018, she plans once again to run the marathon in Boston — the city that took back its finish line.