No mainstream sport celebrates the triumphs of regular people who overcome adversity and beat odds to compete like triathlon does.
Triathlon has become life in microcosm, a metaphor that gives truth to the wisdom passed from each generation to the next: work hard and you will be rewarded, have faith in yourself and you will excel; do not falter when an ill wind blows your way.
And so, they arrive at the starting line ready for the test, each athlete with a story made unique by his own motivation and perseverance, some with tales of achievement more startling than others.
There is no better story than Brian Boyle’s.
There is more to it than was revealed by the spotlight NBC trained on him during the 2007 Ironman in Kona, more than the ESPN feature and more than he told Ellen DeGeneres last year.
In “Iron Heart,” the story unfolds through Boyle’s own eyes. Told with the help of award-winning writer Bill Katovsky, himself a two-time Kona finisher, it is riveting.
These are the things that Boyle did not know when his world came into blurred focus one day and he found himself in an intensive care unit bed. He did not remember driving toward home after a summer swim practice. He had no recollection of the massive dump truck that broadsided his Camaro, crushing it from the driver side like a tin can. No memory of being cut from the car or flown to the trauma center. And, pinned to the bed without the ability to move, speak or acknowledge that he was conscious, he had no way to find out.
“I’m alone in a white room and looking straight up at the ceiling. Bright lights shine all around me. My heart is beating fast. I try to raise my arms, then legs, but I can’t move them. My head won’t budge either. I can’t blink or wiggle my fingers.”
And then he realizes a priest is beside him, giving last rites.
Had he not been an 18-year-old state champion swimmer and body builder when the truck struck, Boyle would have died in the wreckage. In the aftermath, his ability to beat the odds could put every bookie out of business. Would brain function recover? Yes. Would he walk again? Yes. Would he swim again? Yes. Run? Yes. Bike? Yes.
Realize his dream of doing an Ironman? Yes.
The word “miracle” is overused these days, but when the full scope Boyle’s dance with death is played out, the genuine miracle of his trip to Kona is underscored.
There’s more to Iron Heart than just the miraculous. There’s also a fair amount of triathlon insanity. What Boyle did three years after the accident was testament to triathlon’s ability to put an exclamation point on resurrection. By any reasonable standard, it was just plain nuts.
The workouts that began as physical therapy had graduated to the weight room and led to a return to the pool. So, Boyle reckoned, why not an Ironman? Not a single triathlon on his resume or a race bike to his name, he sent Ironman an inquiry asking if he could race Kona. An NBC producer sent back this message: finish a 70.3 race and we’ll give you a slot for the big dance. Boyle signs up for Steelhead and then realizes that:
“I’m grossly ill prepared and undertrained to do a triathlon, let alone a half-Ironman in two weeks.
Yes, two weeks to train.
“Yet what feverishly spurs me on is that vision of myself on life support in the ICU. If I had made it through that hell barely clinging to life, just how tough could a triathlon be in comparison?”
Two weeks later he manages the swim, wobbles off on his new bike and discovers life as a “back-of-the-packer” on the run. But he crosses the line in 7 hours and 13 minutes.
On to Kona, and this time he has a whopping two months to get ready!
That story – a 14:42:35 finish – was documented by the NBC camera crews who shadowed him throughout. But the story of Brian Boyle goes on. Last year he posted a 5:09.14 at the 70.3 championship in Clearwater. In July his 2:22:01 was good for an age-group ninth place at the New York City Triathlon.
Brian Boyle won legitimacy in triathlon as a survivor. Now he’s winning it simply as an athlete. And his goal is to post a qualifying time for a return to Kona.