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The comeback kid

Today is the five-year anniversary of a car accident that almost ended Dawn Reiss' life. Now she tells about her painful journey to become ...

By DAWN REISS
Published December 5, 2005

[Times photo: Max Bittle]
Dawn Reiss had aspirations for the Olympics. Then a near-fatal car accident turned her life upside down and made most physical activity painful. She told herself she would compete in a Crystal River triathlon to prove she had made a comeback. On July 30, she kept that promise.
Dawn Reiss, staff writer

CRYSTAL RIVER - My heart beats faster. I stand on a beach, surrounded by nearly a hundred women all waiting for the same thing. Our feet scratch the sand as we jump around, flailing our arms and shaking our legs. Our bodies are etched with black permanent markered numbers.

My pulse quickens with a mixture of fear and excitement. I know the time is near.

Nearly five years ago I promised myself that I would do something to prove I'd made a comeback after almost dying in a car accident. Participating in a triathlon seemed like the perfect way to do it.

* * *

Flash back to 2000. I don't remember getting hit by an oil tanker while sitting in the back seat of a Chevy Impala. I was an intern for the Sporting News , on the trip of a lifetime.

Everything, in fact, had been falling into place for me.

After graduating from Indiana University in May 2000, I had interned at th e Fort Worth Star-Telegram in Texas. Then, just after returning to Chicago to apply for full-time jobs, a Sporting News editor called with an offer: get paid to drive with two other reporters to every NFL city and for four months live out of hotels while writing about life on the road, the games and people we met along the way. I had one day to decide.

It was the biggest no-brainer.

Two weeks later, on Sept. 1, 2000, we started in Oakland, Calif.

We drove more than 25,000 miles (and only had three speeding tickets,) crisscrossing the country to see as many as three games in a week with excursions that included San Francisco to Atlanta in four days.

We were nearing the end of our road trip about 11:30 a.m. Dec. 5. It was a Tuesday. The night before, we had covered the Monday night game, a Kansas City domination of New England at Foxboro Stadium, in coach Bill Belichick's inaugural season with the Patriots.

It was a clear Massachusetts day, and I remember getting into the back seat of the burgundy Chevy Impala. I was typing on my laptop when I heard a squeal. Everything went black.

The next thing I recall was opening my eyes in the hospital.

No one is really sure how long I was unconscious. What I'm told is that my car swerved from the left lane into the right, to avoid a vehicle driven by an older lady who spun out of control in front of us. Only there was an oil tanker in the right lane and there was nothing the truck driver could do except brake and rear-end us.

The tanker tipped, spilling 8,500 gallons of oil over our car and the two-lane highway. My seat belt saved me from flying through the windshield but started strangling me after the entire trunk was crushed and shoved forward into the back seat where I sat. I am told that the tanker driver took out a pocket knife and cut off the seat belt to save me. But I don't remember anything. It's like a blank spot on a VCR tape. Nothing.

I awoke in the middle of a CAT scan. I didn't know where I was or what had happened. Doctors told me I had been in a bad accident and that everything was going to be okay. I went unconscious again.

The hospital wouldn't tell my parents if I was alive or dead. My dad and boyfriend, at the time, flew in from the Midwest. My mom didn't because she couldn't bear the thought of me being gone. Besides a few scrapes and a slight concussion, my fellow reporters were fine. The next day they got into a new rental car and left for Miami to finish the road trip.

When I awoke again, my dad and boyfriend were sitting in my hospital room. My face, neck, arms and shins were badly bruised and bleeding through the bandages, my vision was blurred and my jaw was a bit crooked. I had three broken ribs, a punctured lung, a concussion and lots of internal bleeding.

Those first days are hazy. But I do remember a doctor telling me there was no medical explanation why I survived. I didn't care, I was just happy I did.

I was in the hospital in Foxboro for only three days when they released me. It was too early. On my flight home, I screamed as I felt two more ribs breaking from the air pressure on the plane.

When my flight landed in Chicago, I was rushed to the hospital again. There was nothing that could be done. Doctors usually bind people with broken ribs, but because I had a punctured lung, they couldn't. They were afraid pneumonia would set in. It was a tough Christmas that year. I couldn't do much. The more days that passed, the more intense the pain became.

As a 23-year-old, the last thing you want is to have your parents do anything for you. I had been an athlete in college. A rower. A walk-on who had worked my way up to the Division I Varsity 8 boat at Indiana University. I had pushed myself to the limit, ripped with well-defined muscles.

My senior year, I went to an elite indoor rowing championship, called Crash-B's, where rowers compete in a 2,000-meter indoor rowing competition. It's pure power, and the best scouts come to watch. I finished 59th fastest out of 267 international, collegiate and U.S. National Team rowers. The U.S. Olympic committee sent a letter stating I had been selected as an alternate to the Olympic rowing camp in Chula Vista, Calif.

My goal was to train on the side while pursuing my career, in the hopes of becoming an elite, possibly Olympic rower. During the road trip, while the guys were nursing hangovers, I ran the hotel stairs, jumped rope and did other plyometrics.

But when I got home to Chicago, I just wanted to be able to go to the bathroom by myself. It was humbling beyond words. My mother became my keeper. She had to undress and bathe me. It hurt to breathe, to eat, to move. One of the doctors I saw told me I might not walk right again and running would be a struggle, if it was possible. For three weeks I lay at home in the fetal position not doing much.

I slept most of Christmas that year, despite my love of my family's massive Italian holiday gatherings - think My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

A few weeks later, I begged my doctor to medically release me early. I was told I could go to the Super Bowl only if I was medically cleared. He sympathized with my plight. I wasn't ready, but I had to go to the biggest sporting event in the world. So the doctor relented.

* * *

I was so determined to find work and be independent that four months after the car accident I was working. I landed my first full-time job at th e Dallas Morning News , only to go through a company downsizing after 9/11.

When I took the job, I didn't realize how badly I was still injured. Several doctors told me it would take five years to truly heal.

I thought it would be faster for me. Bruises began to appear. I had scars all over my body, especially my stomach, where the laptop was smashed into my body. I developed a slight hump in my back, a curve in my spine.

I wanted to sleep all the time, and doing any physical activity hurt immensely. After almost a year of physical therapy, I started getting worse rather than better. One doctor suggested back surgery. Another wanted to do injections in my back, but after examining me said I'd need at least 30 on an almost weekly basis.

Finally, a doctor I saw at Baylor Regional Medical Center helped me. She told me about a woman named Frankie L. Burget who owned an alternative medicine business called Windsong Therapy. It was a place she had sent other patients as a last-ditch effort before surgery. Burget's myofascial release therapy changed my life forever. The therapy removed structural misalignments through gentle stretches and mobilization to eliminate abnormal tension in and around the body's connective tissues, muscles and organs.

What I later learned from Burget is that after any type of trauma the body responds by forming adhesions, tiny strong collagen fibers that lie "cross-links" in random patterns. They are the building blocks to healing, but can also exert tremendous tension on the tissues where they form.

When my ribs started healing in an irregular manner, these fibers became intertwined in my ribs and back. Unable to properly heal, the scar tissue began building up, causing a hump in my back, decreasing my ability to move while causing excruciating pain.

I saw Burget once or twice a week for nearly three years. Gradually I began to feel my back again. I could move. My 6-foot-1 frame that had "collapsed" began to stretch back out again. I felt as if I had been frozen in time and the ice had begun to melt. I knew something was going right the first time I slept through the night in nearly four years, instead of waking up in pain. I was able to walk and not hurt.

Soon, I walked, swam and taught water aerobics as a form of exercise and did limited weight training. But my once-fit body had packed on the pounds from the years of limited activity. I had tried to keep moving, because it's always better to move than not. But it wasn't enough.

In the back of my mind, I remembered the promise I made to myself after the car accident. Five years was fast approaching, and I needed to do something.

* * *

I had been working as a St. Petersburg Times sports reporter for several months when I put my plan into practice.

I joined the Times in April 2004 and covered my first triathlon in Crystal River as a reporter that summer. Inspired, I picked my poison. I've always thrived under pressure and knew after watching the triathlon that it was the perfect plan. I had been working out at the Sporting Health Club for several months, but knew I needed to kick it into high gear.

Severely out of shape, I started taking a spin class, where people ride indoor racing-style stationary bicycles. Running a half mile seemed out of the question, and I didn't even own a bike. In the back of my mind, I wasn't sure if doing a triathlon was even possible. Maybe too much time had gone by. But I figured it didn't hurt to try. I'd at least be in better shape.

For the first few weeks of spin class, I struggled to stand up and pedal upright. Down and up. My butt was sore. I jiggled everywhere. I looked in the mirror. This was going to take even more work than I had thought.

The hardest part wasn't pushing myself, but dealing with the residual pain I sometimes have from the car accident. There is good pain and bad pain; from being an athlete, I know the difference. But then the image of Lance Armstrong would flash in my mind and would quiet the banter in my head. In the scope of everything, what I had gone through was minor.

I talked to triathlon guru Chris Moling, the race director for the Crystal River events. I knew I'd need at least six months to get ready.

I picked the Crystal River triathlon series because it was a short sprint race, on a flat course that consisted of a quarter-mile swim, a 10-mile bike and a 3-mile run. My plan was to worry about the run. Train five days a week, use weights. I'd always been a good swimmer and I figured I could coast on the bike if I needed to, just as long as I could make it through the dreaded run.

I thought about doing the July Fourth triathlon, which is the biggest in the series. But I didn't feel ready. I opted for the twilight triathlon on July 30, because unlike the other three triathlons, this one started at night.

But first I needed a bike. A co-worker kindly donated an old used bike, but a few things on it were broken, and after a quick check at the bike shop, I realized it would cost more to repair it than to buy a new one for a couple of hundred dollars.

I opted to rent. Finally, with less than two weeks before the race, I had a bike.

But like the runaway bride, I got cold feet and bolted to Key West. My boyfriend was flying in from Cincinnati and the last thing I wanted to think about was the self-made promise that now loomed over my head.

I went to Key West for my five-day preparation of snorkeling, boating and Duval Pub crawling with my boyfriend. Groggy, I returned the night before my race.

I awoke race day energized with nerves but ready to go. It rained the entire day. As my boyfriend, neighbor and I drove to the race, lightning started. Less than a half-hour before the official start time of 7:30 p.m., it stopped.

I paid my entry fee and watched as one of the race workers Sharpied my body with several black No. 95s.

Men raced first. We watched on the Gulf of Mexico as they ran in with their blue caps bobbing. It was low tide, and the water was less than 2 feet deep in some places. Then the women started. We stood on the beach in our red caps as the countdown began. It was 60 seconds, 45, 30, 10 and beep as we charged into the murky water.

The low tide covered us in seaweed and made it impossible to swim in some areas. I pinwheeled my way out in a sea of arms and legs. We grasped for the next scoop of water, half swimming, half walking in the pelting rain.

We followed the buoyed course that made a triangle pattern with the beach as its base as we swam on a diagonal out and back again. I placed in the top third of swimmers, just as I had hoped.

I dashed through a marked beach lane through a freshwater shower and into the transition. My once-dry socks, shoes, shorts and dryfit shirt lay soaked as I scrambled to dress. The water sloshed in my shoes as I struggled to keep my slippery shoes on the pedals as I balanced on the bike. After three tries, I klutzily made the wheels spin, as a group of my friends, boyfriend and neighbor cheered me on.

Reeking of fishy gulf water, I pedaled faster than I ever had into a head wind. The rain came at us parallel to the ground, pricking my skin and eyes like needles. The 5-mile mark turnaround brought relief by putting the rain into my back as I pedaled back in the twilight.

A few people passed me. Then a few more. As I pedaled in, the men and faster women runners began streaming back out on the road in the opposite direction. I was too nervous to stop for water at the stations and opted to rack my bike in the transition area instead.

Exhausted, I took off running with my legs numb and tingly. Half running, half walking, I continued. The first mile took forever. As I began to feel my legs again, I picked up the pace. Runners coming in cheered the pack going out.

It was hard to tell what was rainwater and what was sweat as my legs moved on the path. A few more runners passed me. My heart felt like it was going to explode. As I reached the finish line shoot, a local police officer ran and cheered us to the end. I crossed the finish line as my boyfriend reached out to hug me and my friends raced up to where I stood. I breathed a sigh of relief. I had finished in 1 hour and 31 minutes, 47 seconds.

Even though my time wasn't very fast, I am happy. I wasn't last and I didn't quit. More important, I kept a promise to myself, and know just how far I've come.

--Dawn Reiss can be reached at 352 860-7303 or dreiss@sptimes.com

[Last modified December 5, 2005, 12:06:34]

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