When Andy of Laguna Beach, CA takes his place at the start of a triathlon, he’s thinking how thankful he is to be alive and competing again in the sport he loves. That he participates in this type of event at the age of 72 is impressive enough, but that he does so after losing his leg below the knee a few years ago is nothing short of amazing!
In December 2006 Andy was washing his car in the driveway of his Laguna Beach home when he noticed a laundry delivery van dropping off some dry cleaning a few doors up the hill. A moment later Andy looked up and that same van was rolling toward his car–with the driver running next to it! In the moments that followed, as the van hit his car, Andy recalls having the sensation of flying. “My left hip felt like it was pushed against a wall, and then I was floating. I somewhat landed on my back. I raised my right leg and it was just dangling there, hanging by a little bit of flesh.” He screamed, “I’ve lost my foot, I’ve lost my foot!” Andy’s wife, Jeri, a registered nurse, heard the crash and rushed out of the house but almost wasn’t able to find him in all the confusion. He had been propelled from his driveway all the way to his neighbor’s carport, and the van that had hit his car had come to a rest against the retaining wall. Fortunately he landed on the only patch of dirt in the area, for as the paramedics later explained, if he had landed on the concrete he’d probably be much more severely injured or dead. Andy had sustained extensive damage to his right leg, but he was still alive.
Andy grew up in Newport Beach, playing beach volleyball and bodysurfing. He started running during the early 60s, but did not enter the sport of triathlon until the 1980s. An avid runner, Andy had suffered a nagging injury which left him unable to run great distances and he was looking for another way to maintain his aerobic conditioning. A friend introduced him to cycling. He then connected with a group of tri-athletes who got him into a master’s swim program. Andy’s leg injury healed, but he so enjoyed the training that he decided to take up triathlon.
Because Andy was an athlete, the doctors did their best to save his leg. His ankle was fused and a titanium rod was inserted into his tibia to support it. Two plastic surgeons worked to take a muscle from his left shoulder and transplant it to cover the huge hole from the ankle to calf of his leg. He recovered in the hospital for seven weeks. Unfortunately, during the second week a staph infection set in and never went away, preventing his ankle injury from healing. “They call it a non-union of the fusion,” says Andy. “In July of 2007, the doctors told me then that I should consider amputation.”
As he considered the possibility of amputation during the next few months, Andy did a lot of research on prosthetic limbs and discovered that with the new technology available it was possible for him to return to the sport he loved. Because he had competed in the previous nine, he attended the 10th anniversary of the Pacific Coast Triathlon in September 2007, even though he was still on crutches and battling infection. The event happened to be a fundraiser for the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), and he watched above-knee amputee Sarah Reinertson and other amputees running, cycling and swimming. “I tried to get on my bike and my ankle hurt so bad. I couldn’t put any weight on the leg at all,” Andy recalls. “I had given my leg 14 months to heal and the clock was ticking.” Sarah and another amputee known as “One Arm Willie Stewart” – both Ironman finishers – spent some time talking with Andy and both encouraged him to consider amputation.
The following February, Andy had his leg amputated below the knee. He actually felt relieved; the pain and infection were gone, the wound was healing, and he could focus on his rehabilitation and getting back into the sport of triathlon. “Triathlon is a lifestyle,” says Andy. “It is a part of who I am. Competition, for me, is the process of becoming a whole person again.” So, with the support of his lovely wife, Jeri, Andy set out to do just that!
Andy experienced a few “bumps in the road” when he began competing in triathlons as an amputee. He found that his residual limb was not holding up to the rigors of training and competition, and suffered from agonizing nerve pain. Scout Bassett, a fellow CAF athlete, referred him to the staff at SCP where he was fit with a custom NPS elevated vacuum system and he hasn’t stopped since! “It has been a wonderful experience working with a caring and motivated staff,” says Andy. “My dream of running and competing again has come true.”
Almost four years after his accident, Andy competes regularly in triathlons and participates in fundraising events for challenged athletes. Southern California Prosthetics in Irvine, CA has provided him with the technology he needs—custom cycling, running and swimming legs—but Andy’s hard work and perseverance are what enabled him to compete again when the odds were stacked against him. He says the most rewarding part of competing now is that as an athlete he can demonstrate to other disabled persons what is possible, and inspire them to pursue their own goals.