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News | Dec. 13, 2012

Severely injured NORAD athlete makes amazing recovery and comeback to Ultraman Triathlon World Championships

By Lt(N) Al Blondin NORAD and USNORTHCOM Public Affairs

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Lieutenant-Colonel Tony O’Keeffe, a Canadian Forces officer currently serving at North American Aerospace Defense Command in Colorado Springs, placed fourth overall after recently completing the grueling three-day 2012 Ultraman Triathlon World Championships race from 23 to 25 November in Hawaii. That accomplishment alone is noteworthy, and there’s more...

But first, here’s a bit more about the Ultraman.

The Ultraman Triathlon World Championships is arguably the world’s toughest and most exclusive athletic event; limited to only 40 competitors and by invitation only to the world’s top contenders, it is comprised of a three-day, 515 km race, broken into a 10-km ocean swim, followed by 421 kilometres of cycling with 1830 m of vertical climb. This is topped off on the third day by an 84-km run (two full marathons), with 1219 m of vertical climb. Definitely not for the faint of heart!

What makes this tale compelling, bordering on the miraculous, is that 14 months before the competition, Lt.-Col. O’Keeffe suffered very serious injuries to both legs following a head-on collision while training on his bike in Colorado Springs. Initially, he thought he might never walk again, much less run. Both his knees required extensive reconstructive surgeries and a year of physical therapy. Yet, less than three months after he began to run again in September, he not only completed but placed third overall among male competitors during the Ultraman Triathlon World Championships.

While training on U.S. Air Force Academy grounds in Colorado Springs on 22 September 2011, a truck coming in the opposite direction hit O’Keeffe head-on. The impact forced his body into his time trial bicycle’s handlebars and through the truck’s windshield where he bounced off and finally hit the road.

“It was an incredible shock, with the force of the impact, I felt like I had lost both my legs,” he said.

O’Keeffe was subsequently rushed to the hospital. Fortunately, there happened to be an orthopedic surgeon on call who quickly assessed the severity of his injuries and immediately performed critical emergency surgery on his right knee and stabilized his left. He later saw a sports medicine specialist for extensive reconstruction and follow-up therapy.

The extent of O’Keeffe’s leg injuries was quite severe. On his right leg, the lower quadriceps was ripped from its insertion point and his knee compartment had been compromised by a carbon fiber break lever that embedded into his femur. It had to be surgically removed. He had multiple major bone contusions and a torn calf muscle, and had lost feeling in his lower leg. On his left leg, he required a lateral collateral ligament replacement graft from a cadaver, another graft from a cadaver was required to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and his menisci had to be repaired in both knees.

“By the time the fog from the accident cleared, I started believing that I would walk again, but running - competing again - was doubtful,” he said.

By February O’Keeffe finally began to walk unassisted and later in the spring, after a lot of therapy and training, his walking improved dramatically. He then challenged his supervisor to climb the infamous Manitou Incline with him and completed it in 29 minutes.

For the uninitiated, the Manitou Incline is a 1.4 km long, 640 m high, former cable car trail up the side of a mountain in Manitou Springs, Colo., with an average 40% grade, most “normal” people need at least 45 minutes to complete it.

As he continued to improve, Lt.-Col. O’Keeffe started to plan his comeback to extreme running competitions. Now, for most of us who would find a 10 km run a challenge, O’Keeffe is in a completely different category. He started running competitively at 28. Now 51, he has completed 23 Ironman triathlons, competed in the 4828-km Race Across America bicycle event three times, finishing fourth in 2010, and now he has just finished his fifth Ultraman Triathlon competition this year, after placing 2nd there in 2008.

Initially, O’Keeffe planned on competing in an Ironman scheduled for August but he had not been able to run yet, so he decided on the Ultraman Triathlon World Championship scheduled in late November instead. He only started running again in early September.

“I started on a treadmill because I didn’t want to be stuck walking back once I reached my limit. My first run lasted 20 minutes and within three weeks I progressed to 1 1/2 hours, twice a day,” he said.

The more he trained, the more he regained his competitive mindset and started believing that he could, not only compete but, actually win.

“I don’t think we, as a race, have fully evolved yet when it comes to what is possible,” said Lt.-Col. O’Keeffe. “Ultra-marathon running is a mature man’s game and I consider myself somewhat like an astronaut in terms of demonstrating what older folks can do when they take care of themselves. I got through that race, not because I’m physically strong, 90% of the effort comes from above the shoulders. It was painful and I wouldn’t want to ever experience that again. I had to dig deep into my reserves to will myself to go on. I would much prefer to be so very well trained that I don’t have to dig that deep.”

When asked about his next challenge, O’Keeffe said that he learned a lot about himself during the last year. He knows what to do and now has a full year to train and put it into practice. His plan is simply to win the next Ultraman World Championships scheduled from 29 November to 1 December 2013 in Hawaii. After what he experienced during the last year, this goal certainly doesn’t appear unreasonable.

Lt.-Col. Tony O’Keeffe is a RCAF Aerospace Control officer currently serving as the Branch Chief for Operations Integration at NORAD, his spouse, RCAF Maj. Jackie Cowley, is also serving in the NORAD operations division as Air Domain Chief. They were posted together to NORAD in the summer of 2011. Lt.-Col. O’Keeffe said that his wife is his most ardent supporter and crews for him during his races.