Ironman triathlete mending from broken neck
AP Sports Writer
BOULDER — Ironman triathlete Tim Don carries a constant reminder of the accident with him — besides, of course, a neck that can only turn to the left and the fading marks from where screws painfully dug into his forehead.
It’s tucked away in his wallet: A driver’s license that features a photo of Don wearing a halo device to stabilize his broken neck.
“Insane, right?” the British-born Don said, laughing, as he flashed his license. “I didn’t think they’d take the picture with me like that. Now I’m always asked about it whenever I show my license.”
A few days before the 2017 Ironman world championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, last October, the world-class endurance athlete nicknamed “The Don” was on a training ride when he smashed into a truck that pulled in front of him.
Three months in a halo, two months in a hard collar and lots of physical therapy later, the 40-year-old’s mission remains straight-forward: Get back to Hawaii and finish what he started.
“I’m still living the story of my broken neck,” said Don, who figures he needs a top-four finish at Ironman Hamburg in Germany on Sunday to secure a spot for Hawaii, a race that’s regarded as the Super Bowl of his sport. “But no one is going to feel sorry for you, because when the gun goes, we all have our stories.”
His, though, is a painful tale.
He was in elite shape heading into the world championships last season in Kailua-Kona for a race that combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon. That May, he set a world record at an Ironman event in Brazil, finishing the course in a blistering time of 7 hours, 40 minutes, 23 seconds.
Don was on a nice leisurely bike ride — for him anyway — in Hawaii to wake up the legs. He was in the cycling lane when a white pickup truck turned in front of him. Don’s first reaction wasn’t so much about personal safety before slamming into the side of the vehicle.
No, it was about the new racing wheels on his specialized bike.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to need a new tires now,’” said Don, who trains in Boulder.
That’s the last thought he had before waking up on a stretcher about 20 minutes later.
“I was in a neck brace and my shoulder hurt, but I was still thinking, ‘I can get through the swim, I’ve just got whiplash, and once I’m on the bike I’ll be OK,’” recounted Don, whose recovery was chronicled in a documentary titled “The Man with the Halo” that was directed by Emmy award-winner Andrew Hinton and commissioned by Don’s sponsor, the Swiss-based sportswear company “On.”
Then, the MRI returned. A fractured vertebra high up in his neck.
There went the race. Possibly, his career.
He was flown back to Colorado and presented with two options: Fuse his vertebrae, which might restrict his swimming and biking, or wear a halo device that consisted of a vest, stabilization bars and a carbon ring encircling his head with multiple screws tightened into his skull.
The halo won out.
“I wasn’t fearful, because I knew I could race again,” said Don, who competed for Britain in the triathlon at three Summer Olympics, with his best finish 10th at the 2000 Games. “But at what level? I was trying to be optimistic about it. But there was that thought I might not get the full range of motion back in my neck.”
Early on, he was in discomfort and the pain medication was making him sick. On one occasion, he even went out to the garage to get an Allen wrench and take the screws out himself.
His wife stopped him.
Don couldn’t recline to sleep. He couldn’t shower on his own. He couldn’t even pick anything up.
When he ventured out, he was asked all about the halo. That was sometimes followed by if he had seen the film, “Bleed for This.” It’s based on the story of world champion boxer Vinny Paz, who broke his neck in a car crash, wore a halo and rose to prominence again. His comeback story was dramatized in the 2016 film starring Miles Teller.
“I’m basically trying to do the same thing — without Hollywood and all the glamour of boxing,” said Don, who had a fifth screw added to his halo midway through because it was getting too loose.
On Jan. 3, Don had the halo removed. For another two months, he wore a hard collar to protect his neck. His fitness was back at square one even though he was squeezing in some training against doctor’s orders.
“I was like, ‘How am I going to get there?” said Don, who’s raced twice in Hawaii and is still searching for his first podium finish. “Everyone was racing and training for two hours or more a day. I’m doing 30 minutes on the bike at (a low level). That was pretty hard.”
Hawaii and competing in that October race has kept him motivated. He trained in the pool with a snorkel since his neck could barely turn. He rode as much as possible with his fellow training partners on his left because he still struggles to turn the other way.
“His story is amazing — how he went from Olympian to reinventing himself in the Ironman to having this tragic accident,” his manager Franko Vatterott said. “Now it’s ‘Tim 3.0.’ He amazes me every single month, because he always has some sort of breakthrough.”
His first test: The Boston Marathon. He wanted to see if this entire endeavor was realistic and set his goal at finishing in less than 3 hours. He went 2:49:42.
Next test: A “70.3” triathlon in Costa Rica last month. He won by nearly a minute .
Now a crucial test: Hamburg. He’s so far back in the point standings that he figures he must do well in order qualify for Hawaii. His wife and two kids, who are in England as he trains, will meet him there. He’s optimistic even if he estimates he’s only 85 percent and sometimes bothered by an aching hip.
“That’s all I’m trying to do — get back to Kona,” Don said. “For me, it would be closing a chapter. It would be an emotional day. A hard day, but very emotional.”
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