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They say a setback is just a set up for the comeback. And if you ask any triathlete who has had to return to fitness after injury or illness, they’ll probably agree that having to hang out in a low place only fuels the fire to hit that high once more. While all comebacks are impressive, some stand out as simply otherworldly. Here’s a look back at the stories of three pros whose remarkable grit and unrelenting resolve continue to inspire us all to finish the fight.
The athlete: Chrissy Wellington, four-time Ironman world champion
The setback: In 2011, Wellington crashed during a training ride in Boulder, less than two weeks prior to the Ironman World Championship. While Wellington addressed the crash on Twitter, writing that she was “…battered, bruised, and bloody. But still full of fight,” it wasn’t until much later that she revealed just how injured she was. Not only did she have torn pectoral and intercostal muscles, but an infected abrasion on her leg landed her in a Kona hospital to have the wound scrubbed and redressed.
The comeback: Visibly ailing on race day, Wellington fought through the pain (and an uncharacteristically slow swim) to make up a nine-minute gap on the bike and work her way to the lead, holding on for her fourth and final Ironman World Championship victory. She later detailed how she endured the mind-over-body battle, saying she repeated the words of Rudyard Kipling to get her through. “Everything hurt so badly,” she said. “But you can’t let your head drop for a second. Not a single second. I kept recalling the words of Rudyard Kipling: ‘Keep your head, keep your head. Fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds of distance run.’”
The athlete: Matt Russell, multi-time Ironman and 70.3 champ
The setback: On Oct. 14, 2017, Russell was riding amongst the leaders in the Ironman World Championship, hovering close to 28mph when his world went dark. After colliding with a van on course, he flew head-first through the vehicle’s side window, lacerating his neck muscle and external jugular vein, exposing his internal jugular. “It was millimeters,” he said of the proximity to bleeding out. “If that would have been lacerated, I wouldn’t be here right now.” Russell’s lacerations required at least 100 stitches to close, and he also dislocated a rib and suffered a head injury in the horrific accident.
The comeback: Determined to “finish what he started,” Russell began training again as soon as he was cleared by a doctor. Still in a great deal of pain, Russell raced his way back into shape, ultimately finishing third at Ironman Mont Tremblant in August 2018, gaining a wildcard entry to Kona. The following October, he made an emotionally-charged return to Kona to gain a sense of closure, eyeing a top-ten finish. In the race of his life, Russell exceeded that goal by placing sixth. “As soon as I crossed the finish line, the emotions really came out,” Russell said. “I never felt so alive and for so many reasons.”
The athlete: Kevin McDowell, 2021 Olympic silver medalist
The setback: Tapped as a rising star of the sport as a teen, McDowell was at the top of his game when a Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis in 2011 derailed his career. At the time, 18-year-old McDowell was already racing around the world, seeking an Olympic berth, and set to attend the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs on an athletic scholarship. Upon his diagnosis, he returned to his home outside of Chicago to endure a grueling 12 rounds of chemotherapy.
The comeback: While McDowell dove back into elite racing mere months after completing treatment, he later admitted that approach was far too aggressive. He struggled for years to readjust to the rigors of elite training and to rebuild his fitness after chemo zapped him of his endurance stores. Staying the course and avoiding the temptation to quit the sport several times, McDowell hit his stride in the recent Olympic quad and was ultimately selected for the Tokyo team. What happened next came as a surprise to even McDowell himself: His sixth-place finish in the men’s race was the best by an American man at the Olympic games, ever. Days later, he was part of the U.S. mixed relay team, which picked up a silver medal. After a decade-long emotional (and physical) roller coaster, the Olympic experience finally brought him full-circle. “This is what kept me fighting,” he said after the race. “I visualized this stuff. I trained for those things. I said that one day I could be back, because that was my goal since then.”