For most, the triathlon is the ultimate evolution of physical competition. We look at tri competitors as a higher level of beast, the paragon of endurance athletes, the highest level of which is the Ironman competitor. An Ironman is composed of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a rousing finish with a marathon length run. This is the story of one such aspiring Ironman competitor, but it is one that adds another level of challenge to an already challenging sport.
We had the opportunity to interview Brian Boyle at his home in rural Southern Maryland, where we also met his family, including his bulldog and some aquatic family as well. In a home decorated with art of natural wonders and seascapes, we were welcomed with a late morning cup of coffee and some great conversation. It seems fair to establish at the outset, that this article will merely brush the surface of a tale which runs deeply into the emotions of a family struck with trauma, fear and 8 bumps up against mortality. But is it also the tale of a family united in love, caring and incredible strength. It is no wonder that Brian embodies these qualities and thus wins the hearts and support those who follow his story.
Brian began his athletic career as a swimmer 1997 at age eleven, his dedication to competitive swimming continued through high school years as Maryland's state champ his sophomore year. At the peak of college swim training competition, fate reached out and touched him in a cruel way on July 6th, 2004. That touch took the form of a driver side impact from a dump truck on the way home. The force of the collision wrenched his heart free of its moorings depositing it on the wrong side of his chest. It broke most of his ribs, collapsed both his lungs, shattered his pelvis, destroying his gall bladder and spleen. Brian lost 60% of his blood and was placed into an medically induced coma for two months. Emerging from the coma during which his heart stopped 8 times, he underwent 14 operations, 36 blood transfusions, and 8 plasma treatments.
The prognosis was grave - that he would never walk again, if he survived at all. In spite of a medically induced coma, Brian vividly recollects events during his treatment. He accurately recalls conversations held in his vicinity, such as discussions of the course of treatment. Although acutely aware of the gravity of his situation, he silently decided to stage a massive effort not only to walk but to rebuild his athleticism as well.
Once Brian woke up, he was transferred to the Kernan rehab center in Baltimore where he relearned the art of walking. At Kernan the staff were amazed at his progress. His care givers told him time and again, just be glad you're alive this is as good as it will get. He simply refused to give up, "I didn't accept that. I wanted to go above and beyond. I never gave up on the goals that I had before the accident. Which were to go to college, swim on a team and to one day compete in an Ironman Triathlon. Now mind you I never even knew if that was possible, I mean I was hopeful, but I didn't know if it was possible. it was very slow, very difficult, very challenging, very frustrating, but I just kept a positive attitude, plus I had my parents there every day with me. That really helped."
"Learning how to walk again was very difficult. I had lost a hundred pounds in the hospital. But I used to be a body builder so that helped with the strength training aspect. It was so hard, but having such great support is what got me to that final push... to stop thinking about the accident and what happened to me and to get back into life again."
"Before the accident, after I graduated high school, my goal was to do an 'Ironman.' I grew up watching the show on TV. The stories, the athletes, it was just a great show and I was so inspired by it. I wanted to be on that pedestal one day, it was always a goal. But after the accident it was a bigger goal because I had something to prove to myself! It wasn't about an ego thing, to prove to others that I could still do this. It was more like, after the accident I was so damaged. I didn't feel healthy! I was in a wheelchair and I had to use a walker. I had to have support getting around my room, or to the shower, or to the bathroom. It was just a very rough time. Doing an Ironman was the ultimate goal into full recovery."
"I didn't tell anybody."
"The first priority was to get back on my feet, to learn how to walk again. With physical therapy for a few months, I was back on my feet. With more physical therapy, I was not only back on my feet walking, but I was jogging and that turned into running. I went to my doctor and I asked for his permission to get back in the pool."
"My lungs were so damaged from being collapsed, and having all the scar tissue, and from being on life support and the ventilator and everything, that the idea of being in an indoor pool environment, the humidity, and the chlorine and everything might have been too much. I was developing asthma and so with my lungs being so weak I needed to get all kinds of pulmonary tests and respiratory tests. So my gift on the first Christmas after the accident was to go in a pool and swim. This was in 2005, a few months after my accident. It wasn't about being competitive, rather just to have the sensation of being back in the water - weightlessness - I'm a swimmer."
"I got an e-mail from Gary Hall Jr., the Olympic swimming legend. He sent me a goody bag of autographs, swim caps, shirts and letters. This was a big boost. Having the support from my Saint Mary's (Brian's College Team) swim coach was really great. They came here to visit one day and when they left, my mom and I were sitting right here (Brian's family patio), and I asked my mom, 'Do you really think I can do this, do you really think I can handle going on the swim team?'"
"She said resoundingly, 'Yeah, I think you could!'
"A few months after that, I was training every day. I wasn't in school, I was just kind of recovering."
"The year after that I was back on the college swim team as one of the swimmers to watch in the 50 yard freestyle. But, after the first semester, I had to stop because of fluid build up around my heart and lungs, I was still in pretty rough shape, still pretty weak. So, I changed up from swimming to body building again. I've always loved body building and power lifting and I wanted to get my strength back. I was put in touch with Jay Cutler, Mr. Olympia who became my strength training mentor. The short story is that I bulked up to 240 lbs, which of course is definitely not what you want a swimmer or a triathlete to be. But this past May it clicked in my mind that I still had one more goal to do, and that was to do an Ironman."
"On a whim, I contacted the Ironman Corporation in the middle of May, during final exams. I told them my story and asked them if I could register for an Ironman one day in the next few years. It was kind of spur of the moment and I wasn't even expecting them to answer back. To my surprise, Peter Henning, the Executive Producer of the Ironman Show emailed me and left me a voicemail. He said, 'Brian you've got a great story. We'd love to possibly have you on the Ironman show this year if you can do at least one Half Ironman. If you can do it without any medical complication and with approval from your doctor you can have a slot.' I asked him, when's the race? He said late October, and this was in June. That was tough, it was scary! I was nervous and excited at the same time, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I thought, I gotta do this."
"For the next two weeks I did nothing but see doctors and take tests. I passed all of them. The following week I had to go to Benson Harbor, Michigan to do the half Ironman. It was the only Half Ironman in that time period that I could do that would qualify me for Kona. The bottom line was, I officially trained exactly one week for the Steelhead 70.3 race in Michigan. I got my bike a day before I left for the race. People don't really know that, they don't know this part of the story which is ridiculous. I got my red Cannondale CAAD 8 bike sent here and I trained on it one time for 30 minutes. No actually it was two times, once that day and again the morning I left for the flight. It was brutal..."
"The running I wasn't thinking too much about it because running was just running, you just gotta get through it, tough it out. The swimming, it was my background, but the biking... The only training I did for the biking was on a stationary bike upstairs. I didn't know it mattered to be on the road training for a race, I thought you could train on a stationary bike. I thought it would help out. I have learned quite a bit since then."
"I have big dreams, I've got big goals in life and I figure if you don't have dreams, you don't have anything. After all I have been through, I've gotta do something now. As far as short term goals I'd like to get back to Kona on my own ability."
"Mark Allen is my coach, training me anywhere from 25-30 hours a week now. Mondays are a two hour swim, and an hour and a half bike. Tuesday is an hour and a half to a two hour bike, and followed by an hour run in a brick workout, and an hour then a half to two hour swim. Wednesday is the same as Monday, Thursday same thing as Tuesday, and Friday is an easy hour run. Saturday is a longer work out, like a five and a half hour bike ride, followed by a 40, 45 minute run, and a short swim. Just to keep the muscles loose. Sundays are usually a longer run, maybe a two and a half hour run and an easy bike."
"I have been thinking a lot about what to say, and how to say it the right way since I left the hospital. What do you say to someone in the situation in which I found myself? While I was in the hospital I would go around and talk to my fellow patients in intensive care, even if they were comatose. It's kind of like a brotherhood, if you have experienced a tragedy you relate to one another on a mental and emotional level. What I have finally come to terms with is that when I do meet someone who has experienced the pain that I have experienced. The words of advice I give to them are, 'you've been through a beyond tragic event in your life, and it can be tough to wake up and look at the day with a bright outlook. I've found that if you keep your head up and if you keep your positive attitude you can overcome anything. People can sit back after going through a tragic event and they can give up. They can complain about it and be very bitter about life, or they can make a difference, make the most out of life and use what they have gone through to be an inspiration to others... use that as fuel for the fire. Which is what I'm doing..."
About Brian's support system:
Brian's drive to not only survive but to succeed took him a long way toward recovery. But, without his family, friends, and supporters he might not have been able to accomplish all he has. Those who can number themselves on his team are companies such as 4EverFit, PowerBar, Finis, Foster Grant, Timex, Newton Running, Zoot, AltoLabs, TriSwim, Kinesys Sunscreen, Powerbreathe, Nuun, Profile Design, Wigwam, Nathan Active Hydration, Blackwell Research and Zoot. But, Brian has special stories about two sponsors in particular...
While still in a coma, Brian had several dreams/hallucinations. One them involved returning home to be welcomed by all of his family and friends. As he was welcomed home in the dream, he discovered a a brand new Endless Pool installed in his garage. This was odd, in part, because the thought of training for an Ironman wasn't even a seed of idea in his life yet. After Brian came home, he contacted Endless Pools and relayed the story of his dream. They quickly came on board sponsoring him with an Endless Pool, installed in his garage just like in his dream.
Brian's doctors gave him the all clear to tackle a Half Ironman but, there was something missing. He didn't have a bike. He contacted Cannondale (knowing they were a big Ironman sponsor) to see if they could help out. Cannondale's Bill Rudell immediately responded by delivering a CAAD8 road bike and two other promises. Bill's promises were for Brian to be able to ride the, just out of prototyping, Cannondale Slice in the Ironman race and the other promise was to be at the finish line with Brian's dad to see the look on Brian's face as he crossed the finish line. A week before the race, Brian arrived in Kona and was presented the brand new Slice from Bill and the rest of the great guys at Cannondale. At that time, however, Brian's experience level was not adequate for him to attempt using the Slice it was a whole different beast Than his CAAD 8. Brian felt forced to, unfortunately and with much difficulty, turn down the Slice and ride the CAAD8, which he was somewhat comfortable with by then.
Brian put in over 14 hours getting to that finish line. But when he did, he was greeted by a rush of emotion and an overwhelming response from the crowd, his parents, Peter Henning, Bill Rudell and the Cannondale team. Even though Brian didn't ride the Slice in the race, it showed up a few months later on Brian's doorstep as a gift from Bill for the future. A shirt that Brian wore and signed in appreciation for Cannondale now hangs in their official headquarters on their wall of fame.
For the future:
Brian recently competed in the Eagleman70.3 Half Ironman on June 8th in Cambridge, Maryland and knocked two hours off of his overall time. In a surprising twist of events, Brianï¿½s biking ability is now his greatest strength among the three disciplines. Brian is currently training for the Newfoundland 70.3 at the end of July and making efforts to qualify for Clearwater's World Championship Half Ironman this November. He has aspirations of becoming a professional elite level triathlete. You can visit his myspace page Team Boyle to see how he's doing. Expect big things from him in the coming years.