Besides great genetic gifts, it takes incredible work, focus, dedication and competitive drive to rise to the rank of a two-time Ironman winner. Jordan Rapp devoted all this passion on his path to wins at Ironman Canada and Ironman Arizona last year. Then, a few days after a promising 7th place finish at the Abu Dhabi Triathlon this March, a hit and run driver smashed into Rapp while he was on a training ride in California preparing for Ironman 70.3 California. In a split second, the Princeton grad, talented engineer, happily married man almost lost his life. And for several months, the brilliant rising athletic career he had worked so hard to build was a very large question mark.
This past weekend, Rapp failed to defend his Ironman Arizona crown. And his fourth place finish against some of the best triathletes on the planet might not have been his best performance in regard to speed. But as it served notice that he could compete once again with the likes of sub-eight hour Ironman Timo Bracht and two-time Hy-Vee champion Rasmus Henning and ride and run with the likes of 2009 Ironman Hawaii runner-up Chris Lieto, Jordan Rapp was very properly overcome with emotion. The tears that ran down his face at the finish as he was hugged by his parents and wife Jill Savege were simple gratitude that his gift was back.
This basic story has been told twice in Hollywood. In the 1941 comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan a boxer who was mistakenly killed before his time was given a second chance back on earth. In the 1978 remake called Heaven can Wait, a pro football quarterback killed in a freak accident is given a second chance to straighten out his life. In 2010, the real life protagonist is triathlete Jordan Rapp, who had no major life mistakes that needed redemption, but nonetheless faced a daunting comeback from severe injuries that threatened his brilliant, rising career.
Slowtwitch: Irrespective of your final placing, was this your best performance?
Jordan Rapp: I wouldn’t say it was my best performance.
ST: Your best day?
Jordan: It is hard to say it was my best performance when I was unable to do my first one hour run until the middle of September. I felt that lack of run mileage on Sunday for sure. The way I started the run, I thought maybe I might have run 2:48. But reality took over and showed me that it wasn't possible after a bike in that kind of wind.
ST: It was a nasty, shifting cross- and headwind.
Jordan: Yeah, a big bad wind and a lot of fast guys around me. The guys I was racing – Timo Bracht, Rasmus Henning, Chris Lieto and Joszef Major -- made it hard work. And the bike wasn't in the most ideal conditions. And so that first 15k of the run, I was right on pace to run a 2:48 marathon. Maybe even a little bit faster.
ST: Which would have been your fastest Ironman marathon by far. You ran 2:55 to win this race last year.
Jordan: Then all of a sudden, I went from running 4:02 per kilometer pace to 4:20. Instantly. It was quite dramatic. My legs just said that’s all there is. It was just the [lack of training] mileage. You can't fake mileage on the run.
ST: What were your injuries?
Jordan: I had a broken shoulder blade. A broken collarbone that they plated and screwed. I had a broken something you might describe as an arch bone in your face, in your cheek. And I had plates around my eye and across my cheek to make it look like my cheek wasn’t sunken in. Then, you have three jugular veins on each side of your neck and I severed two of them on the left side. I had what doctors call a dissection, which is when the interior of your artery gets damaged. It just sort of peels away. I had that on my right side as a result of my head getting snapped in the crash. Then I just had a lot of glass that just basically ground deep into my skin. I was pulling pieces out for weeks after I got out of the hospital. They said I’d probably pull some of them out the next couple of years. They would sort of float to the surface eventually.
ST: Did you have any doubts you could return to the same high level as an athlete?
Jordan: Doubts? Oh yeah. More than that. I would say when I was in the hospital the big question was ‘Do I want to ride my bike and risk having this happen again?’ For probably two weeks the answer was no. I called the guys at Zipp [where he works as a design consultant] and I said ‘Y’know, maybe I’d like to come in and design wheels and not ride my bike so much any more.’ They said ‘OK. That’s fine. We’ll hire you tomorrow if you want.’ But I took some time to think about it. They were great guys and I’d love to work with them and I think they’d love to have me there. But ….
Rapp left that thought unsaid. But the fact is his passion for the sport overcame the trauma and the fear and he started back on a long and uncertain road back. When he was laying in the hospital, there was no timetable, no script that told him it would all turn out OK.
Jordan: I was in the hospital for 18 days. And I think that maybe two and a half weeks after that, the plastic surgeon said they thought I could go to the gym and do some no impact stuff.
ST: You had to tread lightly to make sure your fragile bones and tendons and arteries would not relapse.
Jordan: So I just did the stair climber, the rotating stair case. That was my favorite. I did a lot of step mills. During rehab, I was doing step mill until the end of August. I would do a half hour step mill. Then I would run 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then 20 minutes.
ST: For a man who loves the bike because it takes you to so many beautiful places every day, riding indoors on a machine must have been torture?
Jordan: It took three months before I could bike outside because I was on blood thinners because of the damage to my arteries. The doctors said ‘You can’t ride outside.’ So I rode inside on the trainer, but not a lot.
ST: What was the timetable for recovery?
Jordan: They said it could have been as little as three months and as long as a year for the artery to heal. I said ‘Well I’m not going to ride the trainer for a year.’ I didn’t really enjoy riding the trainer, But it only took three months.
ST: Still the trainer was better than nothing?
Jordan: I couldn’t really run. I couldn’t really swim. Just ride the trainer. Or do nothing, and there was a lot of that too.
ST: What changed your outlook on riding?
Jordan: I think now I have changed a little. I take better precautions. I have flashing lights on my helmet and on the front of the bike and on the back of the bike all the time. Jill [his wife Jill Savege] comes with me a lot. I’m a lot more careful. I drive to a lot of rides now. If I do time trial stuff, if my head goes down, Jill is riding behind me. That is the only time I’ll do it. She is driving with hazard lights on. If someone drives by, she will honk or they would see her.
ST: How did you get over the nightmares and return to regular riding?
Jordan: I didn’t really like training in California. There were a lot of bad memories. I was so afraid. Then Jill and I went back to Penticton. I like to say nothing bad has ever happened to me there. It is probably my favorite place and the roads are so quiet. I just got back out riding on the Ironman course and my favorite rides.
ST: The crash cost you your Ironman Hawaii debut. What races are you eager to take on in 2011?
Jordan: I think it will probably be 3 or 4 years before I go to Hawaii again. I love Ironman Canada. People always ask me about going to Hawaii. But going back and being at Ironman Canada will be a goal for me every year. I certainly know that in 2012, which will be the 30th anniversary of Ironman Canada, I’ll be there. Next year I will do long course ITU Worlds in Vegas in November. I think that course has 9,000 or 10,000 feet of climbing and I think that will be my race. And I want to do Ironman Canada in 2011 so I can come into the 30th as the defending champion.
ST: Given the limitations imposed by your injuries, how much training were you able to do for Arizona?
Jordan: I did a two hour run on the trails in Malibu. And it was the best one I've done there. And I think that was the way my run started Sunday, with that kind of run speed. But I just didn’t have the finish. I did had that one two-hour run all year. But I did a lot of riding. I did the Angeles Crest century ride that had 10,000 feet of climbing. Dan [Empfield] said he didn’t know anyone who had gone under 5 hours there. I did that loop in four and half hours. I felt ready. On the bike today, I felt awesome.
ST: How did your race develop?
Jordan: There was a lot of back and forth on the day. I think I was maybe 8th out of the water [in 51:57], maybe 4:30 down after the swim. Then I finished the bike in the lead [with second-fastest split, 4:22:38] Timo Bracht and I pulled into the dismount line together. I had been hoping I might lose him. You never want to start the run even with a guy who was a sub-8 hour Ironman finisher. I thought: Is Timo still there? Oh boy! You don't want him around.
ST: You finished in 8:16:45, 3 minutes 10 seconds slower than your course record win in 2009. Your bike was 4:22:38 – sevens second slower than 2009. And your 2:58:02 run was 2:17 slower than 2009. But you did it on a much tougher day this year.
Jordan: I think I swam a little slower than last year [51:57 versus 50:49] I think last year conditions were much better. I feel that I for sure would have gone faster if we were racing in last year’s conditions. I think I could have gone 8:08 or 8:09. But I didn’t know if that was enough. I didn’t know how much these guys had in the tank after Kona. [A lot, apparently, as Bracht broke Rapp’s course record by 6 minutes] And I didn’t know how motivated they were going to be. But I knew if those guy were closer to the front after the bike, they were going to close it out.
ST: What were your emotions at the end?
Jordan: Once I got about a mile out from the finish, I was starting to tear up a little bit. I knew when I hit the finish chute it was overwhelming. I saw Jill and my parents and even just running down there I started crying. I mean it’s one thing when you’re out there running and racing. But once you get into that finish line it isn’t a race any more. It is a momentous event, an incredible experience. I just didn’t really realize how big a feeling it was for me until the end. To finish is always a powerful thing. But after what I went through to close it out – it was great.