The following story was written by a legendary Australian athlete of his experience during the 2019 Sprint and Standard Distance World Championships in Lausanne. John's story is truly inspirational and is also a testament to how fantastic the triathlon family in Australia can be. Read on to understand John's sheer determination and appreciate his message explaining the person you are, is defined by the actions you take when life throws you hurdles.
A message from John:
In September 2017 I retired from my 33-year career as a police officer to concentrate on two things: my family and being the best triathlete I could be. I spent some of my retirement funds on a new bike (Canyon), Aero helmet, racing tubes and tyres.
In April 2019, I received an email from Ms Alex Fehon, Team Manager - Triathlon Australia, I had made the Australian Team for the 2019 ITU World Championships in Lausanne Switzerland.
Over Winter I trained hard and in August my wife, Jenny, and 8-year-old boy, Samuel, jumped on the plane to Switzerland for the World Championships to be followed by a 4-week holiday around Europe.
It was the last race and second last wave of the entire ITU program. This did not faze me. I had a sleep in on the morning of the race. A leisurely breakfast and was calm and confident on the start line. I certainly did not expect to win but I was hoping to come top 50 in the 147 field. Looking at times of previous races, it was doable.
I am a lousy swimmer, and this proved true on the day. The lake was choppy, and I never got my rhythm. I went from slow to slower and was way at the back of the pack when I came out. It makes it easy to find your bike in transition when everyone else has left.
I exited transition and immediately started to push my Canyon as hard as I could. I felt great and the legs were pumping. I loved the course and was on fire as I completed the first 20km loop. Statistics later showed I overtook 49 of my competitors on this first lap. I was on target to do the same for the second as I continued to overtake people in the first 12km’s of the second lap.
It was at the 32km mark when disaster struck. I came up behind a small group of riders. My Garmin shows I was travelling close to 40 km/h along the straight stretch of road leading to the turnaround point. I moved well to the left to overtake. As I reached the tail end rider, this person moved left directly into my path. Not their fault. They had no idea I was coming. Rather than brake I moved left again. In hindsight, I wish I had braked. Directly in front of me was a small concrete square kerb with yellow poles in the middle of the road. A pedestrian safety barrier for people crossing the road. I don’t remember hitting it, but I do remember I screamed.
I’m not sure how long I lay on the road. Not long, but long enough for a volunteer to find me and he was kneeling down asking if I was okay. The first thing I noticed was my right shoulder was fluid. By that I mean unstable and I knew instantly something in there was broken. Also, surprisingly, I wasn’t feeling a great deal of pain as long as I didn’t touch or put weight on it. The visor of my helmet had been shattered on impact. It was later discovered that I had fractured my right clavicle, index finger on my right hand and shattered a bone in my right elbow.
My first thought was to keep moving because I didn’t want to seize up. My right arm/shoulder was useless to me and so I grasped the left side of my chest with my right hand for some stability. I remained in this position for the rest of the race.
I thanked the volunteer for his care and got back on my bike using only my left arm. I started to pedal but only made it 10 meters before I realised this was not going to work. My front wheel/tyre was damaged, and the bike was impossible to ride, especially with only one arm. I got off the bike and started to run, pushing the bike. I looked at the Garmin and figured I only had 8km’s to transition and 10km’s after that. I had run Marathons and half marathons before. Hell, I was an Ironman. If I could run 42.2 km’s, I could run 18km’s, albeit with a broken collarbone.
At this point, the only thing I wanted to do was finish. I didn’t come half way around the world not to finish. I was wearing green and gold. I didn’t want anyone to think Australians were whimps, or soft, and could not finish a race. Where I came in the race was not a consideration. I just had to finish.
After about 1km of hearing my cleats clash on the bitumen with every step, it occurred to me I might run faster without them on. I stopped and took them off. Clasped them in my right hand against my chest and set off again in bare feet.
I got to the turnaround point and started back down towards transition. It was about the 34km mark where I met Marcos. Marcos was a triathlete from the Bahama’s. He had raced the day before in the Sprint distance. He was sitting on the balcony of his apartment watching my race when he witnessed my crash. He saw me go down and later told me he thought I was dead. He got up and ran inside to get his mobile to call someone. He raced back out onto the balcony and saw that I was up and moving. He could not believe it so ran back inside, put on his runners and left the hotel to come and find me to see if he could help.
By the time he got to where my accident occurred, I was gone. He ran up the road after me for a short period but figured I must have stopped somewhere, or someone had taken me for help. He crossed back to the other side of the road and was starting to walk back to his hotel when he saw me running down the towards him. He could not believe it.
Marcos started to run beside me asking if I was okay. I assured him I was and continued on with only one focus, to get to transition. Marcos ran alongside of me for a short period then disappeared. I had no idea where, nor did I care really. I had only one focus, one thought, one mindset. Get to transition before cut-off.
Unbeknownst to me, I was being followed by Triathlon officials on a motorcycle. Marcos went back to the officials and asked if he could help me. Gaining assistance from outside can lead to disqualification, but Marcos implored them that it was obvious I was not going to win anything and without some help, I may not make the cut-off time. They agreed to allow Marcos assist.
Marcos came back to me and said he was in a hotel about 1km down the road, he would race ahead and take his front wheel off his bike and give it to me to replace mine. That way I would be able to ride the rest of the way to transition.
Marcos took off at speed and I continued on my way. It was not long before Marcos arrived with his front wheel. He changed wheels for me, and I gave him Jenny’s phone number so he could get his wheel back.
With that, I got back on the bike and slowly started to ride my way back to transition with my left arm precariously on the handlebar touching the front brakes so very gently every time I needed to slow down. Marcos shouted out some final words of encouragement to stay upright, mostly for me I am sure but in part concern for his wheel.
What was of comfort was I had two pushbike police officers, one on either side of me, should I have started to fall. One thing I knew for certain was if I did fall, it was going to be to my left. There was no way I was going on my right-side.
I descended the 4km’s back to transition without incident and made it in and racked my bike with my two chaperones beside me. I got my runners on and started to make my way towards the run course. I had 3 obstacles. The first was the medics. The officials had radioed ahead and advised I would need assistance and an ambulance. They stopped me in transition and started to usher me towards the ambulance. I told them I was fine and didn’t need an ambulance. I told them I felt better than I looked (which I didn’t). They let me go.
My next hurdle was Jenny who was waiting for me at the transition to the road. She knew something had gone wrong as I had not returned at my expected time. As the time ticked over, she became increasing worried when she received a phone call from Marcos. He told her I had an accident but that I was okay and on my way (and could he please have his wheel back).
When she saw me enter transition and the amount of pain I was in, she immediately burst into tears and that was the condition I found her in with the most worried look on her face, tears streaming down her cheeks. I assured her I could (I didn’t know if I could), I told her I was fine (I wasn’t) and told her it was only 10km (may as well have been 100 km the way I felt) but I kissed her and continued on.
As I exited transition my coach was waiting for me. He asked if I was okay and was I sure I could keep going. I told him I wasn’t stopping now, and I would see him at the finish line as I hobbled past, arm still clutching my chest.
What was of further inspiration was my friend Jo from my triathlon club who had competed the day before. She and her son Ham were waiting for me on the run and also knew I was in trouble given the time I had taken. On seeing me, Jo said she would run the 10km with me to keep me going but the official on the bike behind me told her if she did this, he would have to disqualify me for receiving outside assistance. But what I can say is that every time I came around a corner or started a new section of the run loop. Jo or Ham were there cheering me on. They didn’t run with me, but they weren’t far away.
I staggered my way past the 4.5km mark and felt some comfort the halfway point was close. I asked the official on the bicycle (who was still following me) how long I had to cut off. He told me 3 minutes.
There was no way I could make 500m in 3 minutes (my average when fit is 4.25 min/km). I was hobbling at 9 ½ mins per kilometre. I nearly cried. In fact, I did……again. I tried to pick up the pace. I moved with as much gusto and effort as I could muster. I am unsure if this translated into pace, but I was not going to give up.
As the seconds turned into minutes, I was expecting the official to tap me on the shoulder and say: “Race over.” I was dreading it and I was trying to show I was doing everything possible to make it in the hope he would take pity on me. The tap never came and with about 100m to go to the turning point, I looked over my shoulder and he wasn’t there. I am not sure where he went but I knew he wasn’t going to stop me, and I breathed a sigh of relief.
As I approached the turnaround point, I saw a sea of yellow spectators with Australian flags to my left. I knew they were the Australian Team officials. Although I had had email correspondence with Alex Fehon, Team Manager, and seen her at the official functions, I had not spoken to her or any of the officials personally.
A chorus of: “Are you okay?” and “Can we help?” rang out from the Australians. I replied I was good and turned to start the second lap. As I ran past them for the second time, I yelled out; “I may need that Doctor at the finish line.” I immediately heard a male voice yell out: “I’ll be here.”
Those words still make me emotional as I recall them. It was the safety net I needed. The security blanket wrapped around me and for the first time since the accident, I knew I was going to be okay. There would be an official Australian contingent of people who would help me. Those words helped save my race.
About 1km out onto the second lap I was passing the main café area and I saw another sea of yellow t-shirts. This time a group of Australian athletes who had competed and finished. They saw me coming in the green and gold and I could see the look of concern on their face. They all got up and walked to the barrier and started pounding the boards and yelling out: “Go Aussie. Go Aussie.” The words again were inspirational, and I thanked them as I went past.
It was up near the Olympic Museum that I was jarred to my knees for about the 5th time by the broken ends of my collar bones touching. As I went to get up, I couldn’t. I was motionless. There was no one around. No athletes, volunteers or spectators. I was alone and I have never felt more alone. I was broken and felt overwhelmed. I started to feel very sorry for myself. For the first time I was asking: “Why me? Why did this have to happen in the biggest race of my life. What did I do wrong. Why did I deserve this.” I sobbed. I was heartbroken and spent. I had nothing left in me. I had nothing else to give. I sobbed some more.
After a period of time, what little strength I had started to return, and I slowly got up off the ground. I took a step towards the finish line. The determination returned and the will power to finish came back in waves. I had not come this far to stop now. How pathetic would it be not to finish with only 3km’s remaining? I have never had a DNF against my name in any triathlon and I wasn’t going to start now. Certainly not in the most important race of my life. The race where I was representing my country.
I got back down onto the main road, was a bit disappointed when I had to turn left away from the finish line before running a few hundred meters and doing a U-turn which meant I was on the way home. What did not disappoint was Ham who was sitting under a tree waiting for me to come down and again sang out words of encouragement.
As I closed in on the last drink station, I was fully aware I must have been one of, if not the very last athlete on the course. As I got closer, I saw it was no longer a drink station but rather one person standing on the side of the road holding two cups whilst everyone else was packing up around him. I stopped and drank the liquid in both cups and thanked him for waiting. I was close to home.
For the second time, I entered the finishing arena and the Australian official contingent were there as promised. Waiting for the very last Australian (me) to finish the race. They sang words of encouragement and I picked up my Australian flag to carry across the finish line.
I entered the finishing chute and I saw my little boy Samuel, JT and Grace Hointink cheering me from the side line. I saw the finish line and made my way across it. I finished in a time of 4:04:48. I came 148th out of 148 finishers in my age group.….but I finished.
Immediately on crossing the line, I dropped my Australian flag as dark spots started to cross my eyes. I knew I was going to faint and the thought of falling all the way to the ground and maybe landing on my broken shoulder horrified me. Using the left side of my body I leant against the barrier and for the first time in about 3 hours I started to feel comfortable with no pain as I slipped into an unconscious state.
All of a sudden, the raging red fire of pain gripped me and pulled me from whatever slumber I was heading towards. A volunteer had seen me slipping to the ground and had raced over, grabbing me under the right arm and tried to lift me up. I could do nothing but scream in pain. It was not their fault. They were not to know the injury I had and what their actions had caused within me.
I remember being put in a wheelchair and the finishes medallion being placed around my neck. I was wheeled into recovery where I received first class care by the Medical Staff and, as promised, Dr Todd Shatynski the Australian Doctor. Alex Fehon was there as was Jenny, still in tears. Jenny never left my side as I was transported to the hospital where, again, I received first class medical attention. I was released from hospital later that night.
We were able to continue on our European holiday. I found it not to be that difficult really. Especially when your wife and son lugged around all three suitcases and the three backpacks between them. Occasionally I was able to help lift a small suitcase up a flight of stairs……
As I write this, I still look back on my race with a sense of disappointment. Hopefully that will pass with time. I’m proud I finished but I wanted more than just to finish. I wanted to achieve against fellow competitors who were the best from around the world. I wanted to be the best I could be. Instead, I must be happy with being the best that I could on the day. 147th out of 147 is an achievement all things considered.
Triathlon, as with life, is not always about the person who comes first. As often as not, it’s about the person who comes last. The person at the back of the pack who has tried their hardest and given it all. We all hit hurdles in life. What defines you as a person is not hitting the hurdle. It’s what you do when you hit it. You can choose to stay there, or you can choose to get up and keep going. On this occasion, I chose to get up and keep going.