M I S S I O N V I E J O, Calif. Jan. 12, 2004 -- Those who know Anne Hjelle, the mountain biker who was viciously attacked by a mountain lion last week, say they're not surprised that their "top sprocket" is already on the road to recovery.
"She's a little girl of 5 foot 4, but she is a powerhouse inside," Hjelle's father Llloyd said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "She's got a competitive edge and a wonderful personality."
Debi Nicholls, Hjelle's friend and biking partner, fought back tears as she described the attack on Hjelle. Nicholls said that as she tried to get the mountain lion to release Hjelle, she kept telling her friend that she would not let her die.
"Anne is extremely strong and I wanted her to know she wasgoing to have me with her," Nicholls said. "That's all I knew to do was to grab and hold on."
Hjelle, a former Marine nicknamed "top sprocket," was upgraded to fair condition and continues to recover at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo, Calif.
The 30-year-old fitness instructor was admitted Thursday, after being rescued from Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park, where she was attacked by the mountain lion while biking on the wooded trails.
Hjelle's church pastor, Phil Munsey, shared a statement Hjelle wanted to pass on from her hospital bed.
"We are grateful for Debi's [Nicholls] courage and selflessness and to all the others whose valiant efforts saved my life and for the doctors … thank you, we know the process of healing will take time," Hjelle said in the statement.
Hjelle's father has said there are more surgeries for his daughter in the weeks ahead, despite her upgraded state. Her family expects that she will be undergoing plastic surgery for the neck and face wounds in the next week.
"The family is still overwhelmed by the fact that she is still with us," Hjelle said. "We feel it is an absolute miracle," he said. Nicholls said the nightmare began after she came around a curve in the trail and saw that a mountain lion had pounced on Hjelle's back and was dragging her off the bike by the head.
Nicholls threw her own bike at the mountain lion, grabbed Hjelle's legs and began a tug-of-war with the animal, kicking and screaming as the lion moved from her friend's helmet to her face and neck. The animal eventually released its grip after Nichols got help from two other trail riders, men who were throwing rocks at the mountain lion.
Sheriff's deputies later hunted down and killed the 110-pound lion who they believe is responsible for the attack on Hjelle and for an earlier attack that had a fatal outcome.
Cyclist Mark Reynolds, 35, whose body was found partially buried near his disabled bike, had apparently been attacked and killed earlier in the day.
Animal experts say mountain lions will often cover their prey after an attack with dirt, leaves or snow and may come back to feed on it over the course of a few days.
There hadn't been a fatal mountain lion attack in California in 10 years, and they are normally reclusive. But mountain lions can spring into action at tremendous speeds, up to 40 or 45 miles per hour. Authorities say that tissue found in the animal's stomach included parts of a lung and liver that are consistent with those of a human. They are awaitng DNA test results to confirm a match.
Hjelle joined the Christian women's mountain biking group Trail Angels, which is based at Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., about three years ago. Nicholls, who is on the same team, said she prayed to God during the horrific ordeal.
"All I thought of was Lord, please help me to hold onto her leg … give me the strength," Nicholls said.
A fund has been set up in Hjelle's name: 24 Hour Fitness Anne Hjelle Fund Attention: Account No. 8045116954 Wells Fargo Bank PO Box 3488 — Portland, Ore. 97208-3488