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Photos: John Segesta
Nineteen-year-old Lukas Verzbicas is one of the most amazing talents I have come across in my 30-plus years in the sport of triathlon. In 2011, he won his second-straight Footlocker Cross Country National Championship, broke the national high school two-mile record by five seconds (8:29.46) and became the fifth high school runner in history to go under four minutes for the mile (3:59.71). That same year, he also won the ITU Junior World Triathlon Championship in Beijing and set his sights on running at the University of Oregon, the nation’s most prestigious collegiate program.
But a funny thing happened after he arrived in Eugene. Young Lukas realized that his true love was for the sport of triathlon. So, he left college and moved to Colorado Springs to be reunited with his dad, Romas, the head coach of the brand new Elite Triathlon Academy.
He dealt with injuries throughout the winter and spring and wasn’t able to qualify to compete in the ITU World Triathlon Series in San Diego (where he could have qualified for the London Olympics), but when he got back to 100% he made an immediate impact. He won the first race he entered, the ITU Continental Cup event in Dallas, running away from 2012 U.S. Olympian Manny Huerta, and then followed that up with another win at the ITU event in Banyoles, Spain where he ran a 30:55 10K off the bike.
On July 31, during the last lap of an interval session on the bike, Verzbicas lost control on a downhill in some soft sand and ended up flying over his handlebars and hitting the guardrail, with the majority of the impact going to his neck and back.
His clavicle was broken in three places, his lung collapsed, he broke his C4 and C7 vertebrae and ended up with two rods and numerous screws in his back. The clavicle couldn’t be operated on until the doctors could clear the blood and fluid from his lungs. The back surgery took six hours, he was in the ICU for three days and, after the back surgery, he had no movement in his right leg.
The doctors had no idea if he’d ever walk again.
Did he question himself about leaving Oregon and becoming a full time professional triathlete? Of course. But he moved past those “what if” thoughts quickly.
“I believe all things happen for a reason,” he says. “In the end, this experience will make me stronger.”
While the doctors dealt with the fluid in his lungs and postponed the surgery on his clavicle for a day, his mom, Rasa, needed to get away to clear her head and headed to the trails. “My mom hiked up Pike’s Peak,” says Verzbicas. “I asked her to bring me some water down from the stream at the top, up at 14,000 feet. She had to carry the water three miles back to the trailhead.”
The next day, after drinking the water from the top of Pike’s Peak, Verzbicas’ right leg moved for the first time since the back surgery. “Everyone on the floor was high fiving,” laughs Verzbicas. “It was like a sporting event. My mom, dad and me and all of the nurses shared a very special moment that we’ll never forget.”
He is out of the hospital now and has immersed himself in rehab. He is running with his neck and back brace on during his sessions on the Alter G treadmill and is putting in up to three hours everyday. Photographer John Segesta joined Verzbicas to capture some images from a typical day. His spirits have been helped by all of the notes of encouragement he has received through email, twitter and Facebook so keep them coming!
“I saw a lot of people in the hospital that gave up, and they should never do that,” Verzbicas says. “There’s always an answer, always a solution if you want it, if you put your mind to it and if you’re willing to work your ass off. I want to prove to people that no matter what happens to you, you can overcome it, do great things and inspire others.”
– Video: Lukas Verzbicas One Month After His Crash
– Video: Lukas Verzbicas’ Road To Recovery
– Lukas Verzbicas Talks About Bike Crash
– Photos: On Location With Lukas Verzbicas
– Photos: Lukas Verzbicas’ Bike Fit
– Fitting Lukas Verzbicas
– U.S. Sweeps Gold In Spain
– Photos: Americans On Top In Banyoles