By Chris Koutavas
Lukas Verzbicas, zooming through the Garden of the Gods National Park, began to pedal faster and faster. He got low in the saddle of his bike as he began a descent. Realizing he was traveling too fast he squeezed the brakes but it was too late: “I just heard a big loud bang and I was on my back looking towards the sky, the sun glaring deep into my eyes.”
Twenty-four hours prior, Lukas’ life was littered with what now seem to be warning signs. The plan was to leave Chicago and head to the Olympic Training Center out in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While on his way to Midway Airport, he hit almost every traffic light. Fear began to set in his mind about missing his flight; however, he brushed off this fear and the nervousness melted away.
Upon arrival to the airport, Lukas’ flight to Denver was delayed. After the first delay, his flight was delayed two more times after the passengers boarded. Finally finding time to relax in the welcoming yet surprisingly uncomfortable seat of an airplane, the captain made an announcement that the “big storms over Denver would prevent us from landing.” The now annoyed and angry passengers demanded takeoff.
Several hours later, the plane began to descend from the Denver sky. In looking back, Lukas remembers landing with the plane shaking and there being a field of tension, which he could feel from the passengers around him. After the plane touched down on the wet Colorado ground and Lukas went through the monotony of luggage pickup, Luka found himself in the middle of what he recalls as the worst storm in which he has driven.
He went to bed peacefully, yet anxious, and ready to start training the next morning.
Now, it is the afternoon of July 31, and Lukas Verzbicas preps his bike saying to his father/coach, “I will win a Gold Medal in four years at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.” They were both in a very excited mood as they waited for the three other athletes to arrive at the Garden of the Gods National Park. Once the three other athletes arrived and prepped their bikes, Lukas’ father explained the workout to them. The goal was to do five loops around the park nice and easy: just get the feel of the bike and still feel fresh for the rest of the day.
For an experienced triathlete like Lukas, this tasked seemed too easy. Once the pack took off, Lukas rode with the group for the first lap around the Garden of the Gods holding back his competitive nature. However, his competitive spirit took over and he began to press a little bit. This caused the group to separate into two packs (only one other athlete chose to match Lukas’ move).
Lukas felt great, sort of like a high, and as he approached a hill he would get up of out the saddle and dance on the pedals. At this point, the pain from the lactic acid setting in was no match for the endorphins flowing through his body.
Three more laps had gone by and Lukas only had one more left. It was at this point when he made the decision to drop the only rider still hanging on to him. Lukas reached for his gear shifter and put his bike into a higher gear. Trying not to slow his cadence, Lukas began to peddle faster and faster.
When Lukas looked back he saw that he began to gap the other rider. He was now alone as he approached a descent with a 180-degree turn around at the bottom. After executing this descent successfully four times in a row he trusted himself even though he was now traveling at a much higher velocity.
As Lukas approached the turn, he realized that he was traveling too fast and reached for his brakes, but it was too late. He recalled the event, “I hit my brakes then, but as I was riding at over 25 mph it was too late. All I saw was a guardrail in front of me and then as I inched closer and closer to it time seemed to go slower and slower. It was at that moment that I started seeing in tunnel vision, which was something I’ve experienced only during some of the most difficult and fastest of my races near the finish line. It was like my life flashed before me, sort of like some of the biggest emotions I’ve felt over my life I experienced in those last few seconds before I crashed. And then I just heard a big loud bang and I was on my back looking towards the sky with the sun glaring deep into my eyes.
“I must have gone into a state of shock because for the first few seconds I didn’t feel anything and I tried getting up but only went a few inches before I felt as if something slammed me back down on the ground. Then the pain came; when I started breathing I could barely take a breath. That was the scariest part at the time.”
Luckily, Lukas’ father was riding in a car not too far behind. Instinctively, his father called an ambulance after seeing Lukas motionless on the ground. Lukas had a hard time recalling any events immediately after the accident.
An X-ray revealed a broken spine from thoracic four to six and cervical seven, six broken ribs, a collapsed right lung, and a broken right collarbone. Surgery was the only option; however, there was a 33% chance of fatality.
He woke up six hours later with his mother at his side; the surgery was a success. His left leg was very weak but he was able to move it slightly, his right leg was completely paralyzed. The doctors told his parents that he would probably never walk again.
Two weeks passed and there was no improvement with his condition. Lukas’ mother just needed some time alone, so she headed out to climb Pikes Peak, which has an elevation of over 14,100 feet. She brought with her a few empty bottles and when she reached the top, she filled them with some spring water.
The next day she made Lukas drink all the water before he was prepped for surgery. Then, miraculously, moments before his surgery, he had a little twitch in his right leg.
Now, Lukas is at about 85% and still running and training hard for his goals, which have not changed since the day of his accident. “Through it all, my dream since I was a little kid (to become a gold medalist in 2016) has not wavered and I’m back on track now, but now more powerful. I have gained more mental strength than I could imagine, learned very important life lessons, and am so much more intuitive now. In a way, I am thankful for it because I believe everything in life happens for a reason: there are no accidents and through this I could not only change myself but show others that they can overcome as well.”