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After a near fatal car accident in July 2004, doctors weren’t sure Brian Boyle would ever walk and talk again, much less regain consciousness. Thirty-nine months later, he was crossing the finish line at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. The Welcome, Md.-native had just graduated from high school when a dump truck collided into him after he was driving home from a swim practice.
The then-18-year-old Boyle suffered massive internal injuries and lost 60 percent of his blood. He died and was revived eight times on the operating table before doctors put him into a drug-induced coma. Over the following months and years, Boyle rebuilt his body, his mind and his life. He got into St. Mary’s College, competed on the swim team and ultimately fulfilled a childhood dream of completing an Ironman in 2007. Boyle recounts his incredible journey in an upcoming memoir, Iron Heart, which is scheduled for release this fall, and on his blog at Brianboyle.wordpress.com.
Q: What sparked the idea to compete in an Ironman?
A: I watched it with my parents growing up. I first saw it on TV when I was 5 years old. I thought it was scary, but fascinating. It became a dream of mine.
Q: You’ve been involved in sports most of your life. Are you a hyper-competitive person?
A: I was super-competitive in high school. I got into competitive sports in sixth grade, playing basketball. I always wanted to work out—to get healthy and fit. I was reading nutrition books in middle school, always trying to watch my physique and perform at my best.
Q: Did that mindset help speed your recovery?
A: After the accident I was 100 pounds lighter and in a wheelchair, so I was immobile. That was hard for me to deal with psychologically. I wanted to improve, but it was a long slow process to heal. People were trying to be realistic with me about my odds because of the extent of my injuries. But saying to me that I can’t do it just makes me want to prove I can. It drove me to work harder.
Q: Did you always have the goal of competing again?
A: I had small goals: learning to talk again; learning to tie my own shoes; getting on my feet; learning to walk again; walking without a cane. After rehab, I started walking on the track at a local high school. Two months later, I could jog a mile. Around then, I decided I wanted to get back in the pool again. Once I started going to the pool four to five times a week, that got me back into thinking about competitive swimming again.
Q: How did you manage to get back to form?
A: I was on the swim team [at St. Mary’s College] during my first semester of my freshman year, but I got sick. My lungs were still very weak. I decided to stop swimming and start bodybuilding to regain my strength and power. That’s really what I was lacking. Within a year, I was up to 230 pounds and benching 375 pounds.
Q: How did you make the transition to the Ironman?
A: I still had that dream. My three dreams were: go to college; swim on the team; and do the Ironman. I had already completed the first two. I went to the Ironman website [in June 2007] just to see what I’d need to register for one. I figured I’d try for one in five to 10 years. To my surprise, I got a call from [Ironman Executive Producer] Peter Henning because he wanted to know more about my story. He offered me a slot if I could get the medical approvals and could complete a half Ironman to prove I could handle that kind of event.
Q: What was your introduction to half-Ironman like?
A: That was harder than Kona. I got approvals in July and the half Ironman was in Michigan in August [of 2007]. I had been bodybuilding, not training for something like that. I did a few weeks of training on the treadmill and stationary bike. I didn’t even own a road bike. Cannondale sent me one a few days before I left for Michigan. I had one 30-minute ride on it before I had to get on the plane. I’d never used a road bike before. I had to learn how to get on and off the bike and use the [clipless] pedals. I figured, if I could get on the bike safely, I’d just use mindpower to get from one transition to the next. It was brutal.
Q: Kona was that October. If the half was so hard, how did you make it to the finish at Kona?
A: There was an incredibly positive energy there. It was painful, but it was the good kind of pain. Not the pain of rehab. Everyone at Kona talks about the heat and the wind, but I loved all of that. For me, it’s the pain of feeling alive.
Q: What were your goals after Kona?
A: After I crossed the finish line at Kona, I said, “I had 6 weeks to prepare for that race. What if I had 6 months or 6 years?” It would be awesome to get back to Kona and qualify on my own, the same way everyone else does. That’s what I’ve worked hard at ever since. Hopefully, I’ll be able to accomplish that at Ironman Louisville in August.
Q: What if you don’t qualify in Louisville?
A: There’s always next year.
A version of this article originally appeared in Competitor Magazine – Chicago.