After the serious accident he suffered in 2012, the American triathlete is fighting to build his new self and achieve his Olympic dream under the guidance of Brett Sutton. He leaves behind his hopes to become both a track-and-field and a triathlon Olympian at Rio 2016.
By Alberto Trillo | Photos courtesy of Lukas Verzbikas
In the European summer of 2012, a 19-year-old dazzled the triathlon world. He became the youngest athlete to win a World Cup and clocked the second fastest time in the run in the Kitzbühel WTS. This man was Lukas Verzbicas, whose 2011 World Junior crown was only ever meant to be a temporary return to the ‘triple effort’ to fulfil a promise to his triathlete friend Kevin McDowell, who was suffering from cancer.
The big boys surrendered to his talent. “He is one of the biggest talents I have ever seen in the sport (…) and I was concerned he was going to be one of my biggest rivals in only a few years,” Gómez Noya said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune.
Lukas did not happen by chance. He had a special gift for the sport. He was the fifth schoolboy in the US to break the legendary four-minute-mile barrier. Lithuanian by birth, he had already beaten Mario Mola in the 2009 Junior World Duathlon Championships aged just 16, three years younger than the Spaniard.
A 180º bend
The brilliance of his talent was blackened on a fateful bend. Verzbicas suffered “several injuries, including a broken thorax, two broken vertebrae, a broken clavicle and a partially collapsed lung,” as he told Competitor Radio.
The neurologists believed he would never walk again. “The medical staff didn’t really tell me anything,” Lukas admits, speaking coolly about the accident from the other side of the screen. Since then it has been nothing but a long road full of obstacles, with positive thinking as his only weapon. Bedridden in hospital, he realised that “it was going to be hard and take a lot of time, but I was always confident.”
The old Lukas
Before he was junior world triathlon champion, Lukas had pledged himself as an athlete to the University of Oregon. His specialisation lasted just two months in the autumn of 2011. “I got slower. I used to train the run along with the swim and the bike. I got hurt more, so I needed to swim and cycle to race faster”.
With the support of his family, he focused on triathlon and the results came in 2012. Despite the expectations he raised, Lukas was still a triathlete in training, lacking “racing experience”, and noticing “really fast transitions, the rough and very physical open-water swimming. I still had a lot to do,” he admits.
Even so, Lukas believes that “hopefully” he would be “where Mario is if I’d progressed well. I’d be competitive among the very best in the world. But if I look back, I think it’s made me stronger.”
The new Lukas
Now, the boyish face remains the same, but it disguises the ten kilos he has gained since he had the accident. “I have pretty much a new body. It’s only this year that I’ve been able to put everything together.” Above all Lukas has learned to be “patient”. Dan Selstad, his physiotherapist, says that “his recovery is more superhuman than running a sub-4-minute mile”.
“After the accident I realized that before I was really talented. Now I have to put more work and effort into it. Now it’s about concentrating and working really hard on my body, rest and nutrition. Before it used to come more naturally,” admits Lukas.
“My physical abilities aren’t the same. I can’t run as fast as I used to, but triathlon is about endurance. It’ll take some time but I know I’m capable of running 29-something with the top guys.”
Lukas looks up to Alistair Brownlee. “In my opinion no one compares to him and to his perfection of having all three down and being so dominant in the race,” he says with admiration. “But it’s going to take some time,” he repeats to reiterate his patience. “Had it [the accident] not happened, something else would’ve happened,” he adds resignedly.
Brett Sutton: a new approach
To get back to the elite, Lukas has placed himself in the hands of Brett Sutton, who has taken on the challenge of returning him to the top. “Brett’s already changed a lot of things in my technique: a different swimming stroke, different position on the bike and even a different running technique,” says a Lukas full of confidence in his coach.
“It will take time but it will pay off in the long run. It’s a very individual approach – not by the book. We’re excited to be working together.” This month he joins Sutton’s group in St. Moritz (Switzerland), which includes the Olympic champion Nicola Spirig in its ranks. The Swiss triathlete encouraged him to join the group.
For now, he is doing around 25 hours a week of training (25 km swimming, 400 km cycling and 50-60 km running) with an emphasis on his strength and technique on the bike, in which “I have improved a lot; I’m a much better rider,” says Lukas.
Depending on his progress, the idea for this season is to compete in some European Cups and more towards the end of the year perhaps some World Cups or, if possible, one or two WTS races, although the U23 World Championships would be a “good way” to begin returning to competition, “taking it step by step”.
Rio 2016 and a dream lost
However, where he really wants to be is in the Rio test event this year, though it won’t be easy. Right now, when he talks about the Olympic Games, his patience disappears. “We are going to do whatever it takes to get there; it’s my dream. I would even rush into it. I like the approach of listening to my body but going to Rio, that’s my only condition.”
And it reappears when he recalls that fateful bend that had several consequences and made one of Lukas’ dreams fade. “If I lost anything it was... I don’t want to call it a dream, of going to 2016 and to be an Olympian in both the track-and-field and triathlon teams. Now triathlon is enough; I have enough to overcome and deal with.”
To achieve it, the American has “a lot of people around me that drive me forward, who have inspired me and I don’t want to let them down. During races a lot of people come to me and tell me that I am really inspirational. It means a lot knowing that I can make a difference in their lives.”
With this motivation, Lukas continues to fight to build a new triathlete self that will make him the man that he was once going to be: one of the best in the world.
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