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MAN OF STEEL – A JOURNEY FROM ICU BED TO THE IRONMAN WORLD STAGE

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Tuesday, October 29, 1991 – 07:50am. The moment that changed Rob Paterson’s life forever. 

Rob, aged 25, was midway through a 40km training ride down the Hume Highway when he was sent flying from his bike by a semi-trailer travelling at 110km/h. Fifteen minutes later Rob was in an ambulance on his way to Wodonga hospital. Immediately, he was rushed to the operating theatre for an exploratory laparotomy.

One minute training for an upcoming triathlon, the next minute on the operating table with his life hanging in the balance.

Having heard he’d come off his bike, Rob’s wife soon arrived, expecting only a broken arm or leg. Instead she was welcomed by doctors preparing to operate, mere seconds away from opening Rob’s abdomen.

“He might not make it”, they told her.

Two days (and more than 20 units of transfused blood) later, Rob was flown to The Austin in Melbourne where he spent 4 weeks in ICU. He was placed in an induced coma, underwent dialysis because of his failing kidneys, was treated for collapsed lungs and had to be resuscitated on 3 separate occasions.

Rob’s injuries were devastating and numerous – a depressed fracture of his skull, 7 breaks in his pelvis, and a dislocated elbow causing severe nerve damage to his hand. Worst of all, Rob suffered vertebral fractures at the T5, T6 and T12 levels, the lowest of which damaged his spinal cord to the point where he lost movement of his legs.

Here was a successful triathlete that pushed his legs further than most would care to imagine. Now, he would never push his legs again.

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Some might say Rob’s grit and determination can be traced back to his upbringing. As one of seven siblings raised in a housing commission area with an absent father, Rob became self-reliant from a very early age. Once a junior representative rugby league player, karate and surfing soon became his passion. At age 16, Rob moved out of home and ‘went off the rails’ for a period, leaving school in year 11 and eventually moving from Brisbane to the Gold Coast. There, Rob met his future wife, and the two of them moved to Melbourne.

Rob may have lacked a father figure in his formative years, but one man – his karate coach – made a lasting impression. He did this by introducing Rob to the sport of triathlon. Years later (and now living in Albury), Rob ran a gym and was competing in triathlon events. It was at this time that Rob’s fortunes took a turn for the worst, ‘waking up’ 3-and-a-half weeks after that fateful ride to find himself in The Austin ICU.

Whilst the road to recovery was extremely challenging, Rob never experienced an emotional breakdown. He chose to focus on short-term goals that would surmount to getting his life back on track, the first of which was getting out of rehabilitation as soon as possible. After 12 weeks on his back in an external pelvic fixator, Rob headed to the gym to regain lost strength. He flew through his rehabilitation program and was back home 3 months later, 9 months ahead of schedule.

Never one to indulge in self-pity, Rob chose not to surround himself with people of that mindset. With the great support of family and his innate determination to succeed, it wasn’t long before Rob was back training triathletes and getting himself fit in the gym and the pool.

That is not to say that adapting to life in a wheelchair wasn’t an emotional challenge. Rob admits to being horrified by his own reflection in shop windows the first time he went out in public in his wheelchair. Still today, Rob confesses that the accident isn’t something you ever get over fully. He misses the rush of adrenalin he used to experience in karate and other contact sports. He also loved to surf.

It wasn’t until 2 years ago that Rob returned to competitive sports. Having watched a friend compete in several triathlons, Rob set his sights on the IRONMAN event in Busselton, WA. The para-athlete version of the event features a 3.8km swim (unchanged), a 180km ‘bike’ leg in a modified hand-cranked cycle (the handcycle), and a 42.2km ‘run’ using a more conventional race chair.

He trained for over a year, pushing himself to his physical limits through exhausting sessions lasting as long as 6 hours. When the day finally came, Rob got off to a good start – completing the swim leg in one hour and twenty-four minutes. Unfortunately, partway through the bike leg Rob’s shoulder flared up. Knowing full well how important his arms were to every aspect of his life, Rob made the heart-breaking decision to pull out of the race.

Nevertheless, not even the disappointment of having trained so hard and failed could stop him. Little more than 6 months later Rob successfully completed his first full IRONMAN triathlon in Cairns, QLD. Being the qualifier event for the World Championships in Hawaii (and with only 1 spot on offer), Rob came second in his division, missing out by one position. Rob plans to return to Cairns later this year to again try to qualify for the World Championships.

“One way or another, I’m going to Hawaii… I’ve already bought the tickets.’”

 On the 14th of June, 2015, Rob Paterson won the Cairns IRONMAN in a time of 13 hours and 45 minutes. He will compete for the World Championship in Hawaii in October this year.

 By Jordan Bade-Boon

To support Rob in his quest to compete in Hawaii visit his mycause page at: https://www.mycause.com.au/page/105811/robshawaiianironman2015

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