Lukas Verzbicas lay in his hospital bed almost two weeks after a near-fatal bike crash that left him paralyzed. Unable to move for days, he felt a tiny twitch in his left leg. This was the moment he and his family had been waiting for. From then on, Lukas' small victories continued to come: "I was eventually able to sit up, get out of bed and stand up."
During this initial rehabilitation, even with the progress he had made, Lukas felt frustrated at his inability to move as he had before the accident. World-class athletes build their livelihood on physical endurance — not standing and sitting. He needed to learn a new skill that would become just as important to his success: patience.
For someone who made a career of going fast, patience had been a difficult trait for Lukas to master before the accident. After his injury, every second that he wasn't able to train and compete felt like an eternity. But recovery would still come only one day at a time. Physical therapist Molly Forman, DPT, has experience with the kind of injuries Lukas suffered. She agrees that patience is important in a person's recovery. "Nerves only grow a couple of millimeters a month, so it can take a really long time for them to regenerate, if they can at all." says Forman. "It's all about getting those muscles to find other ways to connect back up to the brain."
But there was still no way of knowing the outcome of his rehabilitation. The uncertainty of his future tested his mental strength. For the first time, he was unable to conquer a physical challenge through speed and strength alone. "I was scared. There was so much I didn't know," says Lukas. "I was going to do all I could to get back to where I was, but I knew that a lot of it was out of my control and that it would take more than just my training."
The uncertainty was soon replaced with hope. As progress came, it was met with surprise and awe by Lukas' family, friends and doctors. His recovery was remarkable for someone who had such a dire initial diagnosis. Lukas was injured on July 31. By August 15, only a few days after he felt the first twitch, he was able to walk on crutches with assistance. On August 21, Lukas posted a video of himself walking more confidently, with minor assistance and a smaller crutch. On September 4th, only five weeks after the crash, Lukas left the hospital, walking out on his own, with no crutch or device.
After he left the hospital, Lukas continued outpatient treatment and began rehabilitation at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. After enough muscle and resistance were built, he began to train in earnest. His reacclimation was carefully planned, with his coaches coordinating their schedules so that the intensity in swimming, running, cycling, strength training and rehabilitation was evenly distributed. Lukas typically spends time on each discipline every day that he works out, concentrating on building his muscle mass and his aerobic endurance. All of this initial post-rehab training, while keeping an eye on his health, was focused on getting him competitive in triathlons again.
Despite the injury, Lukas never forgot how to train. "His strength is really in his aerobic ability, his tempo," says swim coach Will Scandalis. "His stroke rating is higher than other swimmers." Scandalis trains Lukas with the goal of improving his swim time. In triathlon, it's nearly impossible for someone who falls behind during the 300 meters of the swim to catch back up, so being strong in the water is vital. In Lukas' case, a strong swim leg sets him up to stay with the leaders during the bike stage (thanks to triathlon's allowance of drafting, or riding behind another cyclist to reduce wind resistence), and for a powerful final run.
"Everybody's fearful that if Lukas can stay with people on the bike that he will overtake them when he's running," Scandalis says. Regaining the muscle and endurance that he had before was the first big step to getting back to his formerly unstoppable self.
Return to Competition
A little more than seven months after the accident, Lukas Verzbicas made a miraculous return to the sport on March 9, 2013, participating at an International Triathlon Union (ITU) Pan American Cup race in Clermont, Florida. "Just finishing a triathlon was an accomplishment," Lukas says. "I have to remember that I'm different than I used to be. My body, my muscles, even my spine have changed."
At the Carlsbad Triathlon on July 14, 2013, Lukas snapped the tape in the overall elite division in a time that no one expected. Incredibly, he finished the sprint-length race (1K swim, 25K bike and 5K run) in 1:09:32, a pace right in line with previous years' winners. Not even a year after his life-changing accident, Lukas seemed back in fighting form. "It was a huge accomplishment," he says. "It helped me realize that the idea of competing professionally again wasn't a pipe dream after all."
Some people would be thrilled with accomplishing so much after a major injury, but not Lukas. "I will keep moving up till I get to first. I guess I'm almost there, but I can't look at it that way. It's a long road. I don't have the same body anymore, but I still have the same goals. I'm working with a new set of muscles and nerves, and I am just finding out what works again."
The very patience that Lukas struggled to learn during his recovery now guides his training. "It's hard to overlook what I overcame," says Lukas. "But it's hard to be patient. I want to win every race, but I can't. I have to be patient."
That patience will continue to serve Lukas well in competition, and as he sets his sights on an ambitious goal: competing at the Olympic Games in Rio (2016) and Tokyo (2020). From there, he'll no doubt set new goals and continue to push himself to new heights.
"Having gone through everything that I have, the biggest thing that I learned is to not let circumstance or other people dictate your future or your dreams; your vision. As long as you keep going, you'll get to where you're trying to be."
PART I: Lukas Verzbicas: A Running Legend is Born
PART II: Triathlon's Future Faces Catastrophe