Barriers are a matter of perception and when they are broken, the impossible — as if by magic — is forever possible. Chuck Yaeger did this when he broke the sound barrier, Roger Bannister did it when he ran the first sub-4-minute mile. On Sunday, Dec. 8, Pieter du Preez made the list of barrier-breakers when he became the first quadriplegic to complete a full triathlon — a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile marathon.
Preez, from South Africa, accomplished the feat at the Brusselton Ironman in Western Australia. Examining the full scope of Preez’s accomplishment shows amazing adaptation determination, planning, logistics, and teamwork (assistance is allowed under Ironman rules). A C6 quadriplegic, Pereez has no hand grip or finger movement and limited arm movement, his strength comes from bicep and shoulder movement. Swimming with no tricep movement, he cannot do the overhead ‘crawl’ like a paraplegic swimmer and instead does a ‘double-armed backstroke’. During the open water swim, he relies on a swimmer behind him to ‘tap’ his legs to maintain direction. Two assistants help him from the swim/bike and bike/racing chair transition.
Preez uses adapted ‘grips’ that enable his hands to grab the handcycle peddles. Because his body doesn’t sweat below C6, his team soaks him with buckets of water to prevent overheating.
Six weeks before the race, Preez was thrown another challenge when he broke his arm. Although it healed enough to race, he was weakened by the interruption in his training.
On race day, everything came together and Preez broke the barrier and entered the record books as the first quadriplegic to finish an Ironman. His finish time is a respectable 13 hours, 20 minutes — the broken arm put him 20-minutes short of his goal of sub 13-hours.
Preez’s world class athleticism and barrier breaking is amazing in itself, but in my opinion what truly puts him in “supercrip” (the ultimate compliment) status is he manages to achieve this while holding down a full-time job as an actuarial analyst.
Preez already has his sights set on the next goal, competing and finishing the World Ironman championships in Kona, Hawaii.
Whether it’s traveling beyond the speed of sound, a sub-four-minute mile to opening the world of Ironman racing, breaking through the barrier, opens the door for everybody.
What do you think? Does this help change public perception? Will it help an employer see a wheelchair user as a viable candidate for a job?