When 21-year-old Lukas Verzbicas turned pro as a triathlete, he got death threats. As a teenager, he’d been billed as the next great hope in American running, becoming only the fifth high school star to break the four-minute barrier in the mile. As some runners saw it, he’d betrayed their sport. But according to Verzbicas, triathlon, something he’d pursued since he was 11 years old, was always his true passion. In 2011, he graduated early from high school and set his sights on competing in the sport at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
THE CRASH: Verzbicas had already picked up two Olympic-distance wins on the World Cup circuit when, during a workout in July 2012, he lost control of his bike and slammed into a guardrail. He punctured a lung, broke two vertebrae, and partially severed his spinal cord.
THE DAMAGE: Doctors screwed his clavicle back together and implanted a titanium rod along his spine. But there was nothing they could do for his paralyzed right leg other than hope it would regain movement as his spinal cord mended. “I had to become a new person after that,” he says, “new tissue, new muscle, and new nerves.”
THE REBIRTH: Three months later, when he started relearning how to walk, his muscles had atrophied. Instead of giving up, Verzbicas used it as an opportunity to remake himself. Now he lifts weights four or five times a week, and he’s stronger than ever. “I can’t be the same as I once was,” he says, “but I can be better.”
BACK IN THE SADDLE: Miraculously, two years after the accident, he’s again near the top of the pro ranks. In races this spring, he scored two top-ten finishes.
UP NEXT: In August, he’ll test himself at the under-23 world championships in Edmonton, Alberta. The race will be one more step along what he has come to call his long road to Rio. “It’s been my dream since I was a kid,” says Verzbicas, “and it’s stronger than ever.”