This is a short story about a remarkable young man, who faced more challenges in completing his first triathlon than most athletes face in a lifetime of racing.
Last weekend I raced the Rev3 in Portland Oregon, winning my age group by around 13 minutes. At a finish interview I described my race to Timex team mate Dave “Scoop” Erickson as the “perfect race” – one of those rare events that occur every 3 or 4 years where, despite all, everything goes very very right. You try every subsequent race to make it happen again, but despite your best efforts you have to wait your time for the “perfect” race to happen again.
Little did I know that a mere seven days would elapse before I would experience another perfect race, of a very different kind, at the Hayden Idaho sprint triathlon.
I found myself as the runner in a team “Brenden’s Angels”, comprising Hayden Price swimmer, Brenden Nichols as biker (with his amazing dad Ken assisting), and me as runner. I felt very privileged being invited to join this VIP Team, especially as at nearly 59 I was almost twice the combined age of the other two members.
Brenden is but 18 years old but has faced more than his fair share of adversity in the last year. After graduating near the top of his high school class, Brenden was a freshman at Carroll College in Montana where he planned to study pre-med, with a goal of becoming a neurosurgeon.
On October 15, 2011 all this was to change – Brenden was a casualty in an horrific car smash on US 12 on the Montana-Idaho border that broke his neck and ribs, collapsed his lung, damaged his brain and led to nearly four months in a coma.
Things looked very bleak for Brenden, and the odds were very much against Brenden even living, let alone racing in a triathlon within 9 months.
Prior to his accident Brenden was the quintessential Ironman junkie – he loved every aspect of Ironman, followed the sport in great detail, decorated his room with Ironman goodies, and was training to race IM himself. It was probably the fact that he was in such good physical condition that contributed to his amazing recovery.
Anyway, Brenden is at the start of a long journey of rehabilitation, a cruel irony given his desire to become a neurosurgeon. The very things he was to study now form the centre of his universe. Brenden has a bright intellect blurred by extensive neurological damage that impedes his interaction with the outside world. He is learning to speak again. He is learning to walk again; and in due course he will ride a triathlon bike and swim in open water again. For now he can make his way down the hall with a walker, ride down the street with a semi-recumbent trike, and swim a modified breast-stroke with the aid of flotation devices.
Conversations are short and simple, restricted to 2 or 3 very slow words, “thumbs up”, some sign language and a wonderful smile that wins friends with everyone he meets. You want to say so much more, but the words are not there, and you can only guess at the frustration locked inside
But through all this you sense that Brenden has an indomitable determination to overcome his challenges, and it would be hard to find anyone with more drive, focus and commitment. An inspiration at the extreme, especially as he retains a strong motivation to compete and complete an Ironman.
So there we are on race day. Young Hayden ready for the swim, Brenden on his semi-recumbent tricycle, accompanied by his dad, then me running.
The race goes well, and in due course around 100 yards from the finish, all Team members join together to cross the finish line. – Brenden walks the distance with assistance, to the enthusiastic cheers of the assembled spectators.
At the awards ceremony Brenden is treated to loud applause when the Team is presented with its winning medals in the VIP Category.
Brenden in every sense embodies the Ironman spirit to triumph over extreme adversity. Seeing him out there giving it a go, his first triathlon since the car-smash despite everything life had thrown at him, was indeed the Perfect Race.