Meet age-group triathlete Zac Cover, who came back from a head-on SUV collision to compete in Ironman Florida.

In 2007, Zac Cover was cruising home from an 80-mile training ride, minutes from his house in St. Augustine, Fla., when an oncoming Jeep drifted across the center line and into the bike lane. Cover, then 26, and his Kestrel Talon were no match for a head-on SUV collision. After taking a Medivac to Shans Hospital in Jacksonville, Cover woke up in the ICU.

Cover’s scaphoid bone in his right wrist was crushed to the point that he couldn’t even hold a pencil. A severed nerve in his left shoulder rendered the whole arm useless, and his right leg was completely shattered. But nothing hurt more than breathing.

“I couldn’t take deep breaths because I could feel my broken ribs grinding over each other in excruciating pain,” Cover says. Every bone in his rib cage was broken, two of which had ripped through his chest before doctors removed them permanently. The rest were reconstructed with plates and screws. He coughed up nearly 3 pints of blood from his deflated lungs in one agonizing night. The universal response from doctors who saw his X-rays was, “Is this person actually alive?”

Despite a grim prognosis, the only thing on Cover’s mind was whether he’d be able to compete in Ironman Florida eight months later.

Before the accident, Cover was a firefighter EMT, overseeing water rescues along the St. Johns County coastline. He spent eight years diving out of helicopters and recovering bodies lost at sea, in addition to putting in 20-plus hours a week of triathlon training. He was a born athlete: Everyone in his immediate family was a collegiate swimmer, while Cover played NCAA Division I soccer as a goalkeeper. But his fitness level was at a lifetime peak in 2006 as he trained vigorously for Ironman Florida—until one freak accident changed everything. Now he could barely press the call button tethered to his hospital bed.

Cover underwent 18 surgeries and had an electronic stimulator put into his spinal cord to offset his chronic nerve pain. Doctors doubted his chances of ever walking again, but he persisted with daily physical therapy. Sometimes he pushed the rehab so hard that his progress was counterproductive, not allowing his body to properly heal. “You can’t have that athlete mentality through that type of therapy,” he realized.

After two years, Cover was able to walk. Then he began to lightly jog and swim. But the hardest part was getting back on the bike.

The Open Road Bicycles shop in Jacksonville tried to ease Cover’s apprehension by throwing some fluorescent tires on a mountain bike. “I probably should have had a diaper on the first few times I rode,” Cover says.

Cover, who tackled his second Ironman in Louisville on August 26, will never be 100 percent. He has what he calls a “new normal.” He has a spinal cord stimulator to deal with chronic, daily nerve pain. Sometimes when he swims, he can’t feel his right hand, and his rib and brachial plexus damage causes his chest to get sore from the pounding of long runs. He also can’t sit on the bike without his arm going numb.

Yet six years after the crash, Cover is finally an Ironman. He completed Ironman Florida in 2011 with a wide grin and a time of 12:36:06, beating his goal by nearly 30 minutes. “I set out to do this a couple of years ago and had a bump in the road,” Cover says. “I didn’t care if it took me 25 hours; I was going to prove to myself that I could do it.”

Note: Cover can now call himself a two-time Ironman finisher after completing the 2012 Ironman Louisville triathlon in a time of 11:56:39.