Greatness may prove elusive for Lukas Verzbicas

Effects of 2012 bicycle crash still holding back star triathlete

Lukas Verzbicas

Lukas Verzbicas, of USA, competes during the 2014 International Triathlon Union World Triathlon Series Elite race, in Grant Park. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune / June 29, 2014)

As he circled Buckingham Fountain on foot late last Sunday afternoon for the second of what should have been four times, when the sun was low enough to be right in his eyes, Lukas Verzbicas lifted his sunglasses and rested them atop his head.

It seemed an odd move at that time in the World Triathlon Series race.

It was, rather, another sign that Verzbicas' blinding ambition for greatness, a level he seemed on the verge of reaching in the triathlon two years ago, is not yet enough — and may never be — to remove all the shadows from the darkest day of his 21 years.

The glasses would soon be unnecessary, as Verzbicas dropped out of the race near the end of the second lap, undone by bowel distress caused by lingering nerve damage from a near-paralyzing bicycle crash on a July 31, 2012 training ride in Colorado Springs.

He never was in the race competitively, more than four minutes behind winner Javier Gomez of Spain before the run leg, then six minutes back after one lap in that phase of a triathlon in which Verzbicas once could crush most of the opposition. In his previous race, the June 15 World Cup in Huatulco, Mexico, Verzbicas was among two dozen athletes who stopped during the bike leg because they were far behind on a brutally hot day.

"He is one of the biggest talents I have ever seen in the sport," Gomez, the world's top-ranked male triathlete and reigning Olympic silver medalist, said two days before the Chicago race. "He was having a great year (in 2012), and I was concerned he was going to be of my biggest rivals in only a few years."

Verzbicas had been a middle-distance running phenom at Sandburg High School, breaking four minutes in the mile and setting a national prep record for 2 miles, becoming the Tribune's Athlete of the Year.

Three months after his 2011 Sandburg graduation, he won the world junior title in triathlon, then entered the University of Oregon on a running scholarship, only to decide by late that fall to leave school, give up track and become a pro triathlete. Everyone in triathlon saw his move as a coup for the sport.

Gomez had been one of the first to send Verzbicas words of encouragement after the crash.

"I was really excited about his career," Gomez said. "And then he has this terrible accident. I felt sorry for him."

The damage to his spinal cord was so bad a neurologist who monitored the case thought Verzbicas would never walk again. He would race again seven months after an accident that hospitalized him for five weeks and race again at his sport's highest level barely two years later.

It seems both a miracle and a triumph. Yet he had wanted to do so much better in the Chicago race, his first triathlon in the area since moving back in May.

"I'm lucky and overall grateful," Verzbicas said before the event, "but I don't want to be defined by being someone who is back from a spinal cord injury more than by my accomplishments as an athlete, regardless of what I have been through.

"I want the story to be about an achievement, not a comeback. Winning a race is more important to me."

The problem is Verzbicas wants to win now. Patience never has been among his virtues.

"He wanted the old Lukas back, and I had to give him the news he wasn't going to have the old Lukas anymore," Brazil's Joaquim Cruz, the 1984 Olympic 800-meter track champion who has coached Verzbicas' running during the comeback, said last week.

"He has a new body. We don't know how far he can train this body."

'He is destroying me'

Another Spaniard, Mario Mola, has become a frustrating measuring stick for Verzbicas.

In 2009, the 16-year-old Verzbicas and the 19-year-old Mola finished 1-2 in the junior division at the Duathlon World Championships, an event with two run legs and a bike leg. In 2012, as Verzbicas was beginning his career as a professional triathlete, he beat Mola in two World Series races. Verzbicas also won a World Cup race that year, beating the eventual fifth finisher at the 2012 Olympics. (In international triathlon, World Cup is one notch below World Series, the top level.)

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