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Kevin Rhinehart doesn’t remember much about the evening of Jan. 24, 2012. He does recall his son inviting him for a workout. He also has a sense that at some point, he felt very tired. There’s a blip of a memory of noticing his face felt, as he puts it, “weird.” But that’s pretty much all he can remember about that night. In the ensuing days and weeks, friends and family would fill in the blanks: the ambulance ride to the hospital, the quick use of tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) treatment to bust the clot in his blood vessels, the doctor who said he was lucky to be alive.
A piece of plaque had dislodged from his arteries and traveled into his head, where it blocked blood flow to the brain. What Rhinehart had experienced was a serious ischemic stroke. According to the Centers for Disease Control, someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds. Every four minutes, someone dies of stroke. Indeed, Rhinehart was lucky to be alive—but he didn’t feel very lucky.
“Because [the stroke] was on the left side of my brain, speech was impossible, and the right side of my body was seriously impaired,” said Rhinehart. “I could read, but I could not identify letters. I had trouble writing, standing, swallowing, balancing, and had to sit in a wheelchair.”
The aftermath of his stroke was devastating. Rhinehart was forced to quit a job he loved and give up hobbies that once brought him immense pleasure. His loved ones encouraged him to find new pursuits that fit his post-stroke life, but everything felt empty and void of joy.
“I thought my life was over,” Rhinehart admitted. Though he diligently attended rehabilitation appointments to re-learn how to walk, speak, and dress himself, his days were otherwise fairly empty. When someone asked him to volunteer at an aid station for the 2015 Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, where he lived at the time, the idea sounded appealing. If anything, it was a way to get out of the house for a day.
The experience turned out to be much more than that. That day, while handing out drinks to athletes on the run course, Rhinehart was struck with a sudden pang of inspiration: I could do something like this.
“I honestly don’t know what had gotten into me,” Rhinehart laughed. “I had been a mediocre swimmer, my bike trips were short, and I despised running. But I wanted to prove my post-stroke life would count for something. I wanted to be something like an Ironman.”
Feeling passion for the first time in more than three years, Rhinehart rushed to hire a coach. At first, he could only run 20 yards at a time, interspersed with walking. He still had a right drop foot and his fingers were uncooperative—both lingering effects from his stroke—but each day, the gross motor skills required for swimming, biking, and running seemed to improve.
Two months later, Rhinehart entered a super-sprint triathlon on Thanksgiving Day. Within six months, he had completed two half-iron distance triathlons. And a year later, Rhinehart became an Ironman in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on the same course that sparked his joy.
“I finally have passion again,” Rhinehart said of his post-stroke life as a triathlete. “Pre-stroke, I loved my work as a psychotherapist, and after work, I was an electric bass player. Now, I could reinvent myself as a stroke survivor and triathlete, and give hope to other stroke survivors.”
This transformation sparked another passion project for Rhinehart: Stroke Survivors CAN, a foundation that sponsors the athletic pursuits of stroke survivors.
“You don’t have to compete in triathlon,” Rhinehart said of his work in encouraging stroke survivors to be active. “But you do need to find something more to live for, and to challenge your limits. So many times, I hear from stroke survivors that they think their lives are over. I thought this myself, too. But there needs to be a reinvention of your life.”
Serving as an example of this reinvention is what keeps Rhinehart running. “I’ve found my passion once again. I participate in triathlon to give other stroke survivors hope, to show them that their lives are not over. There will come a day where you are not living for yourself alone. There are other people who need you. Let’s get after it.”