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Four Stories Of Altruism In Triathlons

Four moving stories of race-day altruism.

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Four moving stories of race-day altruism.

The Good Doctor

When Dr. Richard Wall retired from emergency medicine, he planned to spend his days at his condo in Kauai, Hawaii, mountain biking and traveling the world for XTERRA races. Little did he know, his days saving lives weren’t done just yet.

“I chose to race XTERRA Saipan [in the western Pacific Ocean] because it looked to be a real adventure,” recalls Wall with a soft chuckle. “That particular day, I was having a great race being the oldest person in the field and kicking some young butt on the mountain bike.”

The undulating course and thick foliage proved challenging, but Wall was undeterred, focused solely on winning his 65-69 age group. He describes “flying” down the peaks at 30 miles per hour when he made a startling discovery in the middle of the trail, causing him to skid to a stop.

“There was an unconscious racer lying on his back in the middle of the trail. His face was blue under his helmet,” he says.

In that moment, Richard Wall, age-group triathlete, reverted to Dr. Wall, emergency room physician. Within seconds, Wall had repositioned the fallen racer’s head and jaw to open his airway. Wall was in the process of stabilizing the man’s spine when a spectator appeared down the road. He yelled at her to call an ambulance, which arrived just as the athlete was starting to regain consciousness.

“Talk about being in the right place at the right time,” says Trey Garman, vice president of XTERRA. “We certainly felt like there was an angel among us that day.”

The athlete, a Saipan resident, made a full recovery. Wall continues to race XTERRA, and participated in his 16th consecutive world championship in 2013. He has returned to medicine as well, serving as the medical director of Geneva Hospice in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“I wonder at times whether I see myself more as an athlete or a physician,” Wall says, “but both activities really define who I am. However, there is no doubt in my mind which takes precedence in emergency situations like this. I would never forgive myself for making personal glory more important than doing the right thing.”

Role Model

As the youngest competitor at the 2013 Central Florida Race Series, 11-year-old Megan Buchanan felt a little overwhelmed. Though she had performed well in several youth super sprint triathlons, including a seventh-place finish at the 2013 Ironkids National Championship, the Windermere, Fla., resident was taking on a sprint-distance triathlon for the first time.

“While Megan enjoys running, she had not raced a 5K distance prior to the Clermont race,” says her mother, Jen Buchanan. “In this venue there were some hills, and she was not sure how to pace herself, both mentally and physically.”

On race day, Megan maintained her composure as she swam and biked among older and more experienced competitors. Her family loudly cheered her name as she exited transition to begin the run.

Astride the young competitor was 30-year-old Justin Kneer of Winter Park, Fla., who noticed the young athlete was matching his pace almost exactly. When Megan slowed down to drink at an aid station, Kneer turned his head back and told her to keep moving with him.

The two ran together for the final miles of the race, with Kneer offering encouragement and tips along the way. When they crossed the finish line, Jen was puzzled to see a much older man giving her a high-five before disappearing into the crowd.

“Later that evening, I saw her splits and I was amazed,” Jen says. “For her to turn in a 24-minute 5K in her first sprint triathlon was an awesome performance. I asked her how she did it, and she excitedly said, ‘Mom, I don’t think I could have done it without this guy. I was tired and cramping, and he kept me focused and told me how much farther to go. It was really neat.’”

Adds Jen: “As a mother, I am reminded that people are amazingly good. This gentleman demonstrated great sportsmanship and made a positive impression on my daughter.”

Kneer, however, is quick to downplay his kindness: “I love triathlon, and I have a blast while racing. To know I made a positive influence on someone’s day is just icing on the cake.”

War Hero

Fifteen miles into the bike leg of Rev3 Cedar Point in 2011, Thomas Lee wondered if he should wave the white flag of surrender. After changing a flat rear tire at mile 5, Lee ran over a nail, tearing the sidewall of his tire and rendering him incapacitated on the side of the road. With his head in his hands, Lee lamented the poor culmination of his hard work. His first iron-distance triathlon would also be his first DNF.

“Hey, man,” a deep voice boomed, “you OK?”

When Lee looked up, he saw a fellow competitor with a spare tube in his hand. Though few words were exchanged as the two fixed the flat, Lee made a mental note of the Good Samaritan’s bib number when they both rode off in pursuit of the finish line.

“For the next five hours, my mantra was ‘Jim 146,’” Lee says. “I repeated his name and race number over and over for fear of forgetting it.”

Upon returning to his home in Hamilton, Ohio, Lee put his detective skills to work, finding the Facebook page of “Jim 146”—Jim Wilkes of Potsdam, N.Y. Noticing a link to a blog, Lee clicked to reveal an unexpected surprise: “His site was titled ‘Wounded Warrior to Ironman.’ I read about his comeback story from Iraq, where he was wounded and suffered a traumatic brain injury, and his dogged determination to complete an Ironman on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.”

Sept. 11 was a particularly poignant date for Wilkes. In addition to being called to service as a commander in the U.S. National Guard in 2001, Wilkes found himself under attack on that same day several years later, when he was hit in the neck by a grenade while serving in Iraq. Rev3 Cedar Point, also held on that day, was his way of overcoming his physical and emotional injuries.

“I was afraid of not making the cutoffs,” Wilkes says. “I had a wicked headache, my sight was limited to one eye, and the use of my left arm was limited. But when I saw Tom on the side of the road, counting the bikes as they passed, I had to stop. It wasn’t about me. Everyone should finish. Everyone should cross the line.”

Wilkes and Lee remain friends to this day, maintaining their friendship through text messages and Facebook, connecting at races when they are able. They are also supporters of Team RWB, an organization helping American veterans through physical and social activities.

Compassion On Course

Tara Cormier of Fountain Hills, Ariz., signed up for the Mountain Man Half Iron with a very short list of expectations. A DNF was not one of them, however.

“I planned to use this as a check-in to see how my training was going for Arizona,” says Cormier, referring to Ironman Arizona 2013, her first Ironman. “My goals were to do the swim in a set time, then the bike and run were to be a training session in [a specific] heart rate zone.”

On race morning, Cormier checked off her swim and settled into aero position at Mormon Lake Road, a long, desolate stretch of the bike course. There, she noticed a fellow racer in the gravel shoulder.

“I always ask stopped cyclists if they need anything,” Cormier says, “but especially at this race, since there was only one aid station for the entire course. As I got closer, I noticed she was crying, and I stopped to find out how I could help.”

Cormier wasn’t the first person to assist the athlete. The woman had experienced four flats that day, and others had tossed spare tubes and CO2 cartridges to her on the side of the road. But Cormier, the first person to actually stop and get off her bike, learned there was another reason behind the tears. As they sat on the side of the road, the distressed woman shared how she had signed up for Mountain Man in honor of her significant other, who had passed away exactly one year prior.

“After a big hug and letting her know how sorry I was for her loss, I encouraged her to keep going. At that point, a young man stopped to assist. We all knew we wouldn’t make it to T2 before the cutoff, but I said we should get her up and running so she could at least get back.”

Though a photograph of the three was taken upon their return to T2, names and contact information were not exchanged. Cormier hopes the woman is well, and that she will try another race. As for her own experience at Mountain Man, Cormier has no regrets about taking her first DNF: “It’s important to be strong in your character and compassion. A race finish is not more important than helping another human being.”