A fire captain’s death during triathlon training brings unfathomable grief, an outpouring of kindness, and a remarkable effort to make the streets of Orange County, California safer for all cyclists.

Despite his detailed planning and preparation, Costa Mesa Fire Captain Mike Kreza never made it to Ironman Arizona in 2018. On Nov. 3, 2018—just three weeks before the event—the 44-year-old was off duty on a morning training ride. He was an endurance veteran at peak fitness, having done more than 100 races over the last six years. In his garage at home, he already had his gear and nutrition meticulously laid out for the Arizona trip ahead.

It was a picturesque Southern California Saturday—clear skies, warm fall weather. On Kreza’s schedule for that afternoon was a shopping date with his oldest daughter, Kaylie. But during his ride, at 8:03 a.m. to be exact, everything changed. On a Mission Viejo sidewalk not far from his Rancho Santa Margarita home, Kreza was hit by a van. A 25-year-old man was charged in the crash with driving under the influence of prescription drugs. The Orange County District Attorney’s office added a murder charge against him after Kreza died from his injuries on Nov. 5.

The captain left behind an adoring wife, Shanna, and their three little girls, along with a massive community of supportive family, friends, and first responders. A service to celebrate the 18-year-veteran firefighter’s life drew more than 1,300 mourners from around the country. That memorial was streamed live on the Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Department’s Facebook page, and it has received more than 36,000 views. But “Ironman Mike’s” legacy doesn’t end there. His death lit a fire among his police and fire brothers and sisters to change the way the roads are ruled. They set out to teach non-cyclist colleagues about what it’s like to ride bikes on their streets and tell Captain Kreza’s story, because statistics are easy to ignore—a life lived passionately while serving others is not.

Mike Kreza
Mike Kreza and his family.

A Beautiful Life

Shanna laughs a little when recalling how she and Mike met back in 2000: It was taco Tuesday at a local Mission Viejo Mexican restaurant. She was home on break from her studies at Hawaii Pacific University; Mike’s firefighting career was still in its infancy. “I told my friend, ‘Oh my gosh, look at that guy,’” Shanna remembers, after spying him for the first time. “It really was love at first sight.”

After several years of serious dating, the couple married in 2005. “We were soulmates, and we did have that real love story,” Shanna says. “It was always special.” Their life together included a home with their three girls, Kaylie, Layla, and Audrey, who are now 12, 10, and 7, respectively. A master’s degree and teaching stint for Shanna, and a successful firefighter career and bachelor’s degree for Mike, rounded out their happy marriage—surrounded by a village of friends and close family. As the years passed, the couple began entering running events together—often with the girls in tow. For Mike, those family 5Ks graduated into sprint tris, then Olympic-distance, then half-irons. “He just kept going with it,” Shanna explains.

In 2013, Mike volunteered at Ironman Arizona, and in 2014 he competed in the event—his first full Ironman—with the “Team Kreza” family and friends there to cheer him on. Despite needing more than 14 hours to finish that 2014 race, he crossed the line with a giant smile on his face and a photo of his daughters in hand. He raced the event again in 2016, with his tri fever at full pitch. Between races, he would get his swim and run training in before his 24-hour shifts at the station house began; fellow firefighters remember him on his trainer at 3 a.m. He did this while raising kids, working full time, volunteering in the community, socializing with friends and family, and most of all, adoring his wife. “He was my everything,” Shanna says. “It still doesn’t feel real to me that he’s gone. I wake up with that super gut-punch every morning.”

Mike Kreza
L.A. County firefighter Jon Ladner carried Kreza’s bib to the finish at Ironman Arizona 2018.

Bib #2445

Chris Coates, Battalion Chief with Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Department, got to know Mike well. They worked together often, especially during their time serving as firefighter-paramedics. Coates is not a triathlete, but it was no surprise to him that Mike’s death had such an impact on those in the sport. “We’re finding out about all the lives and people he touched in that community. That’s the kind of guy he was,” Coates says.

One of those he touched was Jon Ladner, a firefighter engineer with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. Ladner was training for the 2018 Ironman Arizona with a friend and training partner who serves in Southern California’s Inglewood Police Department. The buddies touched base with their comrades in Costa Mesa. One thing led to another and the two triathletes received permission from Costa Mesa Fire and the Kreza family to drape a flag over the bike rack at Mike’s spot #2445, along with a framed photo at Ironman Arizona. To Ladner’s surprise, the Kreza family also decided he should carry Mike’s bib during the race. “I was taken back and to this day am still humbled and honored,” Ladner says.

Race morning started off like all others for Ladner, the only difference was he had two time chips. “A flood of emotions started to flow over me,” he recalls. Before the swim start, Ladner remembers Ironman announcer Mike Reilly speaking to the crowd about Mike as a husband, father, fireman, Ironman, and human being. “A moment of silence was given and respected by all,” Ladner says. “A very emotional start to the day.”

When he got to T2, Ladner strapped Mike’s bib to his running backpack. “I am not a runner, [but] as people passed they were very encouraging—some even knew Mike.” Ladner was a bit embarrassed by his performance (he always struggles on the run course), but felt honored to be carrying Mike’s number. Despite cramping legs and a flood of emotions, he refused to tap out. “I was going to finish before the cut off,” he says. “Mike was going to get a finish time no matter how much cost.”

Coming into the final stretch, Ladner heard Reilly call out, “bring home Captain Mike Kreza.” It was—and still is—extremely emotional. “I can honestly say, without Mike’s spirit out on course, the motivation from participants and spectators, the support of my wife and her telling me that there were a lot of people following Mike on the Ironman app from the Costa Mesa Fire Department, I am not sure if I would have made it. It was an emotional … journey for a man I wish I could have met. I know that he kept me going out there and got me to the finish.”

Less than two weeks after finishing Ironman Arizona, Ladner got to meet Mike’s family and friends for the first time. “I cannot thank the Kreza family and the Costa Mesa Fire Department enough for the trust and honor that they allowed me to carry for them,” he says.

Officers Chris Masilon (left) and Jonathan Yepes (right) set up a sting to catch reckless drivers. The initial effort netted 15 citations and a DUI arrest. Photo: Toni McAllister

Aftermath

Two weeks before he was killed, Mike was out on a long training ride, while Shanna nervously followed him on a tracking app. She put out a post on social media that day, asking the community to pray for his safety. Mike avoided busy roads and was very concerned about safety. With the exception of long workouts, most of his pedaling was done on an indoor trainer. “Coming home safe to his family was more important,” Shanna says.

The irony of Mike’s death is beyond comprehension. The driver who killed him pleaded not guilty to the murder charge; he claims he fell asleep at the wheel before crashing, according to court filings. In a further cruel twist, the man was in possession of pills prescribed by a doctor who has now been charged with illegally doling out narcotics to patients he never examined, according to prosecutors.

Mike’s senseless death struck a particular nerve with Anaheim police sergeants Chris Masilon and Jonathan Yepes. They never knew the captain personally, but both are cyclists and have experienced the dangers of Southern California road riding firsthand. In 2009 Masilon was out on a triathlon training ride when he was broadsided by a vehicle. The impact fractured his femur and split his helmet into pieces. He’s known three people within his cycling circle who were killed by distracted, impatient, or impaired drivers.

“There was a tipping point of sorts for me where I was no longer willing to ride on the road because it seemed too dangerous. It seemed like almost every ride I was going on, there was a close call,” Masilon explains.

In 2018 alone, 881 vehicle-versus-bike crashes were reported in Orange County, according to the Statewide Integrated Traffic Records System. SWITRS data is collected and maintained by the California Highway Patrol, and contains all collisions reported to the CHP by local and governmental agencies across the state. Sadly, the report shows that hundreds of cyclists were injured in those crashes—many seriously—and 11 cyclists were killed.

Masilon, Yepes, and the rest of the Anaheim PD are supposed to be protecting these citizens, who ride bikes for fitness, and as transportation to work and to school. “When I learned about Mike being killed on his bicycle, all these pieces of relatedness just hit me really hard,” Masilon says. “I started to feel a real sense of obligation to use my sphere of influence to make a difference for cyclists, to change the conversation around law enforcement and the cycling community, and to impact law enforcement’s understanding and enforcement for vulnerable road users.”

The sergeants partnered with Anaheim PD’s traffic division to promote safer cycling. A social media push and a Public Safety Announcement were launched. Masilon and Yepes spearheaded an Anaheim PD bicycle safety operation, and more are in the works. The initial sting netted 15 citations and a DUI arrest.

Masilon says all these efforts are designed to “educate from the inside out”—to help fellow officers better understand what it’s like to be riding on the road. “When we sat down to plan the safety operation, we sat down with the motor cops. They are like the vehicle code gods,” he explains. But most of those “gods” aren’t cyclists. They don’t know, for example, what it’s like to be whizzing along one of Southern California’s premier twisties, where it’s impossible to sit on the shoulder. Talking through various cycling scenarios was eye opening, Masilon continues. “You see the lights going on in their heads, ‘Oh, ok, I get it.’”

When the safety operation finally took to the streets, Masilon and Yepes suited up in their off- duty bike gear and pedaled the streets of Anaheim while motor cops watched for drivers who violated traffic laws—particularly laws that pertained to sharing the road.

“As Jon and I organize more of these operations, we hope to get other police agencies in our county to pick this model up and join us in monthly cycling enforcement days,” Masilon says. “Of course, why stop in our county, though? Departments all over the country should be taking this on. Maybe something like a National Vulnerable Road User Awareness/ Enforcement Day.”

Be Like Mike

There’s been tremendous community outpouring following Mike’s death. On March 9, Yepes and Masilon organized an Orange County bike ride for the fallen captain that attracted more than 100 cyclists. It was just another way to raise awareness about road safety, the sergeants explain. In February, fire service instructors from New York, Texas, Arizona, and across California volunteered their time to raise money for the Kreza family. The two-day training event was coordinated by a firefighter from the Newport Beach Fire Department, an agency that neighbors the Costa Mesa Fire & Rescue Department. A Kreza Family Trust was established by the Costa Mesa Firefighters Association, and a GoFundMe campaign for the family has raised more than $231,000.

In a statement to the community following Mike’s death, Shanna said, in part, “Mike’s love for life has touched people across the globe.” His girls and wife had found comfort “in knowing that their daddy, their favorite guy, their best friend, had such a positive impact on so many people. We should all honor Mike and be more like Mike … love real big … .” That message has inspired a “Be Like Ironman Mike” Facebook page, which now has around 1,000 followers.

Finally, Mike’s fire family made a promise to him during his dying days, which they repeated during his memorial: “We will always watch over Shanna and the girls.” Shanna seems overwhelmed with gratitude, but her emotions are still so raw. She tells me about photos she took at Mike’s many races. She pauses, recalling the gear and nutrition that he neatly laid out in their garage for Ironman Arizona. “It’s just the way he left it,” her voice cracking, “like he’s still going to go.”