70.3 US Pro Champion Meredith Kessler was leading Ironman 70.3 Eagleman on the bike when she was blindsided struck by an oncoming age group athlete who had crossed the double yellow line. Kessler crashed, was knocked unconscious and sustained head trauma and other injuries. She is now on the road to recovery and we checked in with her.
Slowtwitch: Meredith we are glad to talk to you, and I mean we are glad to be able to talk to you.
Meredith Kessler: Ditto Herbert! I am elated to be able to talk to you as well…as we know, bike accidents usually do not end favorably and I swear there is something greater out there – whatever it may be – that wants me present longer – very thankful for still being in tact.
I say we here going forward because I really am just the technician in my job. There are so many people that support me and I could not be more grateful for that. Having suffered 'moderate brain trauma' and contusions to my ribs, we are beyond fortunate to be able to be in a position where we can evaluate my health and make conscience decisions on what to do going forward.
There are so many people I want to thank that have helped me be in this position to talk to you; it would take up too many pages to name each one in this piece but I think of each and every one of them daily. My husband especially for being by my side every day, my parents, sister and in-laws for their unwavering support and concern, my coach, Matt Dixon and the purplepatch family for always believing in me, my friend and strength coach Kate Ligler and PT Chris Daprato for fixing my body, all the neuro doctors who have helped pamper my brain and friends and family who cared for me while I was like a ghost walking around on planet mars.
ST: So how are you doing?
Meredith: Like a new person this week especially. The brain is returning back to the land of planet earth about 2 weeks post crash. Been doing ample cognitive testing and time with brain docs - had a brain MRI and CT scan to make sure the brain is not bleeding etc. Totally will be fine - this is all part of our job description for sure like I said - gotta KCCO - keep calm, carry on - it will all come together!
ST: Are you calm?
Meredith: I am indeed – I'm alive and still going to be able to do what I love – this is a true blessing as we see accidents like this go a completely different route all the time.
It is probably a good thing that I do not remember the impact of being hit, waiting on the side of the road or getting to the hospital. The road to recovery requires you to be calm and patient; you can't think about what could have been but how grateful you are to be in a position to continue on my triathlon journey. You do have to move forward and not get stuck in the details of the accident, which can be quite overwhelming.
The path to improving is never easy and this time was no different but I always have in the back of my mind that our bodies are resilient if we give them time and proper care. We are very happy with how things are progressing now – understandably the first week was a physical challenge. It is heartbreaking to not be able to do anything and all you want to do is sleep, lay there, very out of it from the ill effects of the head trauma. This is how I was the first week post crash. I am grateful to my friends and family that came to help me that first week, kept me eating and drinking, smiling and taking me to baby showers and birthday parties. You have a lot of emotions you are dealing with when experiencing this type of incident and inevitably it would be easy to enter some dark places as that is part of the process but I have always believed that a positive mind transfers over to a healthy body. There was no need to shed one tear over this as if you look at the big picture, what could of been and all around you at the support and genuine care – nothing could take me to anything but a happy place.
ST: Can you do anything right now, or is it all about waiting?
Meredith: Week 2 post crash I was able to swim, bike and run very slowly on my own indoors which really was a small miracle. I was able to teach my Velo SF classes and get back into a rhythm the best I could muster. My ribs were really killing and cognitively I was off, foggy and slow. I have a fantastic physical therapist who does these intense treatments and work on the injured areas, like I had when I broke my spine last year, and he is a god sent. His work is painful as all get out but expected and I was well aware that the process would get worse before it got better - which it did. Part of my job as an athlete is to deal with pain management at times and work through the pain in order to heal and prosper. I put myself in this mindset in order to do just that.
If we take a positive spin here, it was 'good' timing on crash as I was on a mid-season break when it happened thus lower intensity training anyways. Now almost 3 weeks post crash I really am like a different human – I can’t even believe it. I am back into my training routine for the most part as I'm able to be back in purplepatch squad swims and running outside versus a treadmill. Most importantly, drip-feeding intensity and harder work back into the swim, run and bike especially now that I'm so much more cognitively acute and aware which has been great. The doctors would like me avoid outdoor riding for a bit longer until we go through more testing. I am well aware the importance of not hitting my head anytime soon! I explained to them that this wasn't a problem as I embrace and love indoor training anyways as Velo SF where I do most of my cycling training. Even if I do mostly indoor training leading up to my next race – that is OK - we will take it!
ST: What do you recall from the incident?
Meredith: You know what, as creepy as it sounds - I don't remember a thing. The last I remember I had 3 miles left on the bike and was happy, felt great and was excited be in the lead and to run. The next thing I know - I came to, alas screaming in the hospital hours later when nurses were putting needles up my arm, which killed obviously. This amazing pro gentleman, Jim LaMastra, that I had passed right before the crash unselfishly stopped his race and stayed with me after I crashed. He had mechanical troubles so he was just going easier I think. He was holding me on the side of road until medical help came to take me to the trauma hospital. He then came to the hospital to talk to my family thinking I was far worse than I was since he saw the worst of it all by far. I'm forever grateful to him for his help and have spoken with him personally. He really is like a guardian angel!
ST: Had you ever met him before?
Meredith: I knew of Jim as I had met him the year before at Eagleman. He actually lives where I grew up and we have been in contact over email; hopefully I will train with him when I am in Columbus, Ohio! It turns out that I grew up swimming with his wonderful wife – small world. He feels it was meant to be to having an unfortunate race with his mechanicals, so he would be there when I crashed to take care of me until the ambulance arrived. He really is amazing.
ST: Jim sounds like a nice guy indeed, but your crash sounds very scary.
Meredith: Ah yes, I know it sounds very dramatic and I so wish it didn't! I understand that this case was high risk and the worst case trauma concussion aka moderate brain injury I am told. It is scary to think about being blindsided by an age group male going the opposite direction and landing directly on my head with my eyes rolled back into head and many hours before I came to. It is nutty to think about how a few seconds here or there, this could have been avoided but it is life and you can’t avoid these random scenarios. I know the age group male who made this wide turn over the double yellow line is regretful. I have to give him a massive thank you for taking time to come to the hospital, with flowers no less, and tell my family, as I was still out of it, that it was his fault. That took a lot of courage and I very much appreciate his candor, I know he didn't mean it and of course I forgive him wherever he may be! Thank you!
ST: How tough do you think it will be psychologically to come back from this?
Meredith: The truth is, you never know how tough it will be until you get back on the race course no matter how mentally ready you are. I crashed in August of last year, breaking part of my spine and ribs. I worked hard to get back to where I thought I was in race shape for the 70.3 World Championships. Unfortunately, a steady dose of Advil for six weeks along with a hectic schedule made my body very susceptible to the heat and dehydration. I was absolutely terrible in that race! Even though I felt I was race ready, my body was not in a position to compete on the level needed in a race environment.
ST: Are your doctors good with you racing again or anytime soon?
Meredith: We have had ample CT scans and brain MRIs as well as constant cognitive and reactionary testing and evaluations from some top neuro doctors at UCSF. The brain has improved tremendously since the accident and we of course know the brain isn't something to take lightly. As I mentioned, it is agreed that a hit to the head would not be good so I am not going to ride outside until I get the OK. The doctor said that may not be until race week and my bike is still being repaired from the crash. I plan on racing Vineman and Lake Stevens in July.
However, I do know the risks of another blow to the head so you have to weigh the dangers versus just getting on with your life – you can't live in fear or you would never leave the house. As triathletes we all have to release the stress of crashing off our shoulders, which we do.
ST: On a much happier note, you grabbed the win in St. George in early May. Did everything click on that day?
Meredith: St. George is a magical place – I always loved it when it was a full Ironman so we knew the half would also be such a pleasant experience. As we know, no triathlon race is perfect; you can always look back and point to things you could have done better as we have learned to expect the unexpected and troubleshoot as needed! On this particular day, it was a tremendous feeling where all three disciplines were coming together against a strong field of competitors.
Arriving in St. George, I already felt at ease and was high on life! We had been up very late Wednesday before the race as my sister gave birth to a wonderful, healthy baby boy named Chase. It was special to hold my nephew for the first time. We then sprinted to the airport, flew to Las Vegas, drove to St. George and went to an event at a local bike shop. Things did not slow down the next few days as we were trying to dial in my bike, train, fuel, get to scheduled interviews, appearances, sponsor obligations, meetings, drug testing, spend time with family and celebrate our wedding anniversary while we were at it! In the blink of an eye, race day came and it was such a rewarding experience to be a part of such a championship caliber race – I will never forget that amazing week of my life.
ST: US Pro champion does have a nice ring.
Meredith: You are kind – it really is an honor to represent the US in that capacity and a title that will never be taken for granted. After three crashes in the past year, the victories naturally are sweeter; heck, being able to swim, bike and run, no matter what the result, is a victory!
ST: That weekend was also your 5th wedding anniversary. Did you have a chance to celebrate? Or did you wait until the racing was done?
Meredith: Aaron and I celebrated with a dinner at Outback with his parents the night before the race – that is our usual pre-game meal! We have happily done this the last 4 years since we have been in St. George on prior anniversaries! We chose this life and enjoy what we do. We celebrate in our own way, even if it is not the traditional way to commemorate one's anniversary. We had a nice proper anniversary dinner with tasty vino at a favorite gem of restaurant when we returned to San Francisco - all good!
ST: How did you and Aaron actually meet?
Meredith: Aaron (AK) and I are high school sweethearts! In addition, my mom was AK's first grade teacher and I’m pretty sure she hand picked him for me back then! AK and his family have been in my life for a long time – 20+ years of bliss.
We dated all through high school and college then moved out to San Francisco together 13 years ago. We love our life and friends out here who are like extended family. Aaron and I were engaged over 2 years I remember as we had 11 wedding each year thus couldn't fit ours in until later- It has been a wild ride and it never gets old!
I never thought our relationship could get closer than it already was – but when the accident happened a few weeks ago, I think I was reminded again how fortunate I am to have AK in my life as my partner as that trauma brought us even closer together. His timeless love, patience and genuine care is relentless and he truly enriches my life.
ST: You are great friends with Hillary Biscay. Where did that all start?
Meredith: Ah yes, Hills! Great interview by the way with her recently which showcased the amazing fact that she just completed her 60th Ironman! She has #61 this weekend in Austria – I can’t wait to watch her shine virtually!
Hillary and I met several years ago through a mutual friend and we hit it off from the start – she has been in my life every day since then and for that I am beyond grateful! Hillary is someone that will be in my life forever – she is the most genuine, unselfish and motivated person I know. She inspires so many and I truly believe that she has the most mental fortitude that I have ever seen in an athlete. I'm so proud of her business venture, Smashfest Queen, all while racing professionally and coaching and mentoring an abundance of athletes amongst many other things. She is such a wonderful and cultivating person – she enhances so many lives – including mine!
ST: All well with sponsors?
Meredith: All wonderful! The sponsor - athlete relationship is one that is only productive if it is mutually beneficial. You have to work at it, help them sell product, and they will be happy to help you compete; it is a business but you develop great relationships along the way – my favorite part of it all! They have been supportive in my recovery because they all are quality companies with caring people, not just gear and money providers. It sounds cliché but it would be tough to be a pro triathlete without quality partners to help you in good and bad times!
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Meredith: I would love to take the opportunity here to tell you that we are coming out with a series of manuals, hopefully in August, at www.lifeoftriathlete.com. The goal is to shave minutes, weeks, months, years off of a triathlete’s journey to reach his or her goals. There are tons of manuals about training but there is nothing on the market that details everything but training. This includes off-season, nutrition, hydration, organization, business, taxes, sponsorship, adversity, etc… I want to give to people the knowledge that I have learned through 10+ years in triathlon, as a struggling age grouper working full time, and as a professional. If we can help people alleviate some of their struggle to achieve their triathlon goals, we have done our job!
Thank you so much for this opportunity to chat with you Herbert! It is so appreciated – we all value what you and Slowtwitch do for our sport and our gratitude is never ending for all of you. All the best with the twins, your family, life and training!
ST: You are too kind and you are absolutely welcome.
You can follow Meredith Kessler on Twitter at @mbkessler