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It took nearly four hours for Steve Lovelace to complete his first Olympic-distance triathlon, a local race at a park in northern Oklahoma, not too far from the Kansas border. That time put him squarely in last place. Not just among those in his age group. Among everyone. As Lovelace made his way toward the finish line, the race announcer paused the awards ceremony, already in full swing, and boomed to the crowd, “Let’s give the last athlete a round of applause.”
Lovelace picked up his pace from a jog to a sprint. He soaked in the cheers–the loudest he’d ever received. He celebrated.
“I may have come in last, but in my mind, I was the biggest winner of all,” Lovelace said. “That was one of the greatest moments in my life.”
It was, after all, just a few years before, on November 30, 1982, when Lovelace nearly died while chopping firewood with a friend in a remote field near his home in Wagoner, Oklahoma. In what can only be described as a freak accident, Lovelace became trapped when part of the tree split in half, catching him and pinning him between the trunk and the ground. With the weight of the massive tree slab crushing his body, it took two hours for his friend and a local farmer to extricate him with a chainsaw. When Lovelace, then 20, finally arrived at the hospital, the doctors weren’t sure he would survive.
He did survive, but his injuries were extensive: A shattered wrist. A broken back. Both of his upper and lower jaws were crushed, the roof of his mouth split open. The swelling in his back so severe it caused temporary paralysis. The facial damage was so horrific, his appearance so altered, that surgeons used his high school senior portrait as a template as they worked to piece the bones back together.
From one minute to the next, Lovelace’s life shifted from that of a carefree, athletic, college kid to one marred by pain and physical challenges due to his debilitating injuries. For three months, instead of taking classes and hitting parties on the weekends, Lovelace lay bound to a hospital bed, paralyzed from the waist down; his face swollen beyond recognition, shattered bones carefully pinned back into place. His once strapping, 150-pound frame shrunk to 90 pounds. When his doctors spoke solemnly of a life bound to a wheelchair; Lovelace told them he’d walk out of the hospital. Which, he did, but only a few steps, with crutches. The effort exhausted him.
Which is why that last-place finish in that triathlon was so monumental in Lovelace’s world. It took time and plenty of physical therapy, but he re-learned to walk after regaining most of the function in his legs. He took up running, eventually finishing a 10K in 8:45 pace, even with a significant foot drop in his left leg, weakness in his calf, and near-constant sciatic pain. He started lifting weights. He joined a cycling club at the University of Oklahoma. And then, one afternoon while flipping through the channels, he caught the Wide World of Sports broadcast of the 1985 Ironman World Championships.
“That spoke to me,” he said of the race. “I was fascinated. The fire was lit and I set out to do a triathlon.”
Granted, Lovelace knew very little about triathlon. It was the mid-80s, and the sport was still in its infancy, although legends like Scott Tinley, Dave Scott, and Mark Allen were already carving their path towards greatness. “I’d read about those guys in magazines, and they offered sage advice, but none of it was applicable to me,” he recalled. “I kind of had to figure out my own training, and my own way of doing things.”
And he certainly knew nothing about competition among disabled triathletes, now better known as paratriathletes. Around the same time, a Connecticut man named Pat Griskus, an above-the-knee amputee, was making headlines as the first known paratriathlete, ultimately completing 45 triathlons and becoming the first amputee to finish the Ironman World Championships in 1985 before being tragically killed in Kona on a training ride in 1987.
But Lovelace wasn’t clued into Griskus’s triumphs until decades later. Back then, before the dawn of the Internet and social media, information like that was hard to come by, especially when you were living hundreds of miles away. So he never even thought to seek out any special recognition as a disabled athlete. Lovelace didn’t like to make a big deal of things, anyway.
“I wasn’t there to tell my story, I was there to race,” Lovelace said, adding that the buddy he drove to the race wasn’t even aware of his accident or injuries. “My accident and coming back from it wasn’t the reason I was there. I set a goal to become a triathlete. I worked to achieve that goal. I wanted to close the loop.”
Despite his injuries, despite his pain, despite his mostly uninformed training (“I never did a run off the bike. We didn’t know what a brick was back then,” he said with a laugh), Lovelace was determined to finish that race. Using the skills he honed as a young lifeguard, he muscled through the freezing-cold lake swim, then hopped on his second-hand bike, fighting a nasty headwind for much of the 25-mile ride to complete the longest ride of his life. The run, he said, was an eye-opener since his already wobbly legs turned to jelly in those first few steps. He walked, he stopped for a bathroom break. When he heard a car come up behind him, he turned and noticed it was the sweep vehicle. At some point, Lovelace had been passed by everyone else in the race. He was officially the final finisher.
But he pressed on. Towards that cheering crowd of spectators and fellow competitors, none of whom likely had a clue of what he had just accomplished. That he had gone from near-death to paralysis to a triathlete. As he collected his finisher’s medal, his entire body puffed up with pride.
“It didn’t matter where I finished, the point was that I finished,” said Lovelace. “I was a triathlete. So few people in the world at that time could say that.”
Lovelace went on to compete in many more triathlons before focusing more on his family and his career, first as an x-ray technician, then in sales. It was only recently when he began to reflect more on that first race that he realized he was one of the first-ever paratriathletes to compete, and perhaps the first with a spinal cord injury. A true pioneer in the sport.
Now 58, Lovelace, who still lives in Oklahoma, has faced a series of health scares, including a heart attack. He still lives in constant pain and has developed arachnoiditis, a rare condition that stemmed from complications from the surgeries he had after his injury, and his legs have weakened to the point that he uses a wheelchair most of the time to get around. Still, he remains active, now competing in handcycling and hopes to complete the Oklahoma City Marathon, maybe even a sprint triathlon one day.
But, recognizing the fragility of life more than ever, the still humble Lovelace is finally comfortable sharing the story of that race in 1986. Of that determined, but unaware 23-year-old who didn’t know he was making history. He just knew he had to get to that finish line.
“It literally changed everything. The confidence I gained as a triathlete made me stronger. It improved my work ethic, my grades improved, it led me to become the first person in my family to get a college degree,” he said. “I finished last, but I won big time.”