Categorized | Multi-sport, Sports

Vlieks returns to Honu to close a chapter

(Dawn Henry profiles a triathlete who had to fight back to compete at the 2011 Ironman 70.3 Hawaii)

When age-grouper Dirk Vlieks dipped his toes in the waters of sparkling Hapuna Bay to begin the 2006 Ironman 70.3 Hawaii, he was at the peak of his game.

He had been participating in the sport for 10 years. During that time, he had completed eight Ironmans, including the 2005 Ironman World Championship, which he’d qualified for in the 30-34 age-group at the 2005 Ironman 70.3 Hawaii.

Living in the San Francisco Bay area with his wife, Kelsey, Dirk returned to the Big Island in 2006 to race Honu again, hoping to re-qualify for Kona. But as Dirk sped out of T1, he was about to meet a far larger destiny on the road to Hawi than another trip to the Ironman World Championship.

A paragon of good health, Dirk had no idea that what awaited him under the Hawaiian sun would be a fight for his life involving race officials and volunteers, his wife and medical personnel from Hawaii to California, not to mention Dirk’s own determined nature.

Dirk was racing toward Hawi when he began to feel dizzy. At first he thought it was just a by-product of his effort on the hot course. He expected the dizziness to pass. Instead, it got progressively worse.

Dirk was forced to pull to the side of the road. As he did so, he noticed a race official riding past. It turned out to be head referee, Jimmy Riccitello.

Dirk Vlieks

Dirk motioned to Riccitello, whose motorcycle escort immediately pulled over. Dirk lay down in the grass on the side of the road. He did not know what was wrong, but sensed his condition was serious.

He told Riccitello, “I think I’m dying,” and asked him to tell Kelsey he loved her. This is the last thing Dirk remembers until he woke up in a hospital in California weeks later.

Riccitello and his motor driver called for help. Dirk was transferred to the medical tent at race headquarters where a neurologist just happened to be visiting, and was able to provide initial recommendations for care.

Walking by the medical tent, Kelsey spotted Dirk. She found him fading into a coma, his left side paralyzed.

Kelsey arrived just in time to accompany her husband by ambulance to the North Hawaii Community Hospital. From there, the Vlieks were flown, via helicopter, to a hospital on Oahu. But the prognosis was stark.

Kelsey was told that Dirk had suffered a stroke on the highway and might not survive. Apparently blood had flooded his brain stem and, even if Dirk did survive, the doctors were concerned that he would be severely disabled.

With so many unknowns, Kelsey asked the doctors to do “whatever you can to save him.”

Dirk made it through the first 24 hours. He woke up Sunday afternoon and lifted the spirits of his loved ones by immediately asking, “What was my swim time? Who won the race?”

But Dirk was far from being out of the danger zone. He spent the next six weeks in a neural intensive care unit, fighting for his life.

Ultimately, his health improved enough for him to be transferred to a medical facility near his home in California. Doctors determined that a malformation had caused the bleeding in his brain. Several months after the stroke, Dirk underwent surgery to remove the malformation.

Kelsey suffered another scare when the malformation turned out to be a tumor, but the good news was that it was benign. Dirk was on the road to recovery.

Next for Dirk and Kelsey were hours and hours and hours of challenging occupational, physical, speech and cognitive therapy. Kelsey says it was difficult to watch Dirk work to recover the most basic life functions, including learning to drink, eat, walk and talk.

Kelsey remembered her active, outdoor-loving husband and felt the burden of having made the decision to ask the doctors to save his life.

But Dirk was, in Kelsey’s words, “pretty motivated.” He says he was “just stubborn.”

Kelsey would drop him off at the rehabilitation center in the morning and leave Dirk responsible for getting himself home. There was public transportation available, but Dirk says “I hated taking the bus.”

He began to walk the three miles home from the rehabilitation center. Then, he began to run.

“I just wanted to go faster,” he says.

Within a year of the stroke Dirk was competing in local 5K and 10K runs.

Dirk says he fell back on the athlete in him to motivate himself through his therapies, timing every part of his recovery, breaking it into small steps and marking his forward progress. The sport of triathlon, so much a part of his life before the stroke, was never far from his mind.

Dirk began to swim again using a water belt. “I couldn’t put my face in the water. I would drink up too much water,” says Dirk, who used to laugh with a friend that the water level at the pool would go down while he was swimming because he’d swallowed so much of the water.

“Swimming was the most challenging [of the three sports to regain],” says Dirk. “It takes a lot of coordination. And the breathing – when I do freestyle with my head in the water, I still drink water.”

Dirk learned to bicycle again the same way many of us learned as children – he used a mountain bike and practiced in the grass. His initial goal was to make it around a local baseball field without falling off.

Eventually, Dirk was able to cycle along a bicycle path closed to cars. But he had a fall on the path that tested his resolve. There were also other things in life besides triathlon to keep him busy, took, including their twin 3-year-old daughters.

Dirk says he stayed away from the bicycle for over a year. But, last summer, near the Vlieks’s new home in Mystic, Conn., he decided to compete in a sprint triathlon. He completed the race and his success motivated him to think about returning to Hawaii to compete again in Honu.

The 2011 race would mark five years since the stroke. Dirk decided that the time had come to try again.

Days away from the start of the race, Dirk says he has no fears about returning to the scene of the stroke. He says there is no risk of another hemorrhage and his main challenge will be to pace himself to make it to the finish line. He still lives with the changes the stroke has brought to his mind and body. He has double-vision and his left side can become weak if he overtires it. His balance is unsteady.

“There is a perception that I’m all better,” Dirk says. But even though he’s ready to challenge himself with a 70.3 triathlon, he knows he is not the same person who signed up for the race five years ago.

He says his “former self” is a person that knows how to swim, bike and run, and Dirk reaches out to that memory as he moves forward again in life and sport. While he says he doesn’t expect to be the same person as he was before the stroke, that memory of himself has been “a good placeholder.”

Even though the Big Island is the site of such a fateful moment for the Vlieks, both assert the accident has not tarnished their connection with the island. They have good memories of being a part of Honu and the Ironman World Championship events before the stroke.

And the Vlieks believe the island, and the people they connected with here, made the difference for Dirk on that fateful morning five years ago.

Kelsey says so many essential things went right that they allowed Dirk to live.

“We were watched over that day. Everything came together. The accident could have happened anywhere, [such as] when Dirk was out on his own on a 100-mile training ride,” she said.

Instead, Dirk was assisted by race officials and medical personnel, and Kelsey was on hand to make difficult decisions during those first crucial hours after the stroke.

Kelsey says that she hopes Dirk’s 2011 race will mean something to the medical staff who worked so hard to keep him alive.

“I believe it’s so important to go back and say thank you,” says Kelsey.

And so the Vlieks return June 4 to continue a date with destiny, to close a chapter of their lives and create new memories as they move forward.

* Ironman 70.3 Hawaii is Saturday, June 4 on the Kohala Coast of the Big Island. Course includes 1.2 mile swim / 56 mile bike / 13.1 mile run.

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