For André Kajlich the world changed when he lost his legs in a crazy accident after a night of partying, but it has not stopped him. No challenge seems to be too tough or too far reaching and André just completed the 2014 Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time.
André Kajlich: Absolutely! There’s no time like post-race time for a chat.
ST: How often do you hear from folks that you inspire them?
André: I probably hear it a lot more than I deserve. I get a lot of love from people all over and feel pretty lucky for that. I just got back from Ultraman Hawaii and it was incredible. All over the island I would get a honk and a shaka as people drove by. It doesn't get any better than that.
I’ll admit that sometimes, like it did just after returning from the Big Island, some one will tell me I’m so inspirational for I guess just shopping in a wheelchair. I can’t say I love that as much, but I believe they mean well so I just smile and say thanks.
During races and endurance events, I probably feed more off other athletes and people’s reaction than they get from me. It’s a big part of why I love doing this stuff so much.
ST: About 10 years ago you had a life changing experience. Does that moment now seem a lifetime away?
André: It really does. I can hardly remember what it felt like to move around normally. It makes me realize both how much I took for granted back then and how incredible the capacity of the mind and body are to adapt to a new normal.
ST: I believe you were out partying with friends prior to the accident. Was that a unique event or part of your lifestyle at the time?
André: It was not just one night that got away from me. I’d put myself in really dumb situations because of drinking and partying far too many times and it caught up with me in a big way. I’m ashamed of that, not so much that I put myself in the situation, but because it was part of a much bigger problem - I was wasting what I had.
ST: How far into that 6 month studying trip in the Czech Republic was that night?
André: That was actually about 4 months into a 3 year stay in CZ. It wasn’t a study abroad program - I was living and fully enrolled at Charles University in Prague.
ST: What happened as far as you can recall?
André: I had moved out of the student housing into a flat with some other students. The girls had planned a big group night out so I cooked burritos for a group of guys before we headed out, to basically crash girls’ night out at a club. It was a late night and after I almost headed back with my flat mates at one point, I continued partying right up until we ate breakfast around 7am. I was far from sober but really can’t say why I don’t remember anything after the last goodbye as we parted ways to head home. One way or another, I ended up on the metro train tracks, right where the tunnel opened up to the platform. There wasn’t anything the driver could do and all but one of the cars ran over me. There were no videos and apparently no witnesses. I didn’t know what had happened until I woke up 3 weeks later.
ST: When the doctors saw you there, what did they tell you about your future?
André: The doctors were speaking with my father since I was in a coma. He is from Slovakia and a physician himself. He flew over immediately after my flat mate Antonio alerted my family. He was able to assess my care. They truly saved my life. It was by very slim margins that I survived, practically a miracle. I was down on the tracks until emergency crews showed up, split the train apart, and hauled me up. All of my ribs on the right side broke, puncturing my lungs. They became infected. My liver was lacerated, I nearly lost my left arm and had other broken and punctured parts that were minor by comparison. One of the most ominous things my family heard, because I lost my left leg at such a high level (the entire femur was lost), was that the doctors thought I wouldn’t even be able to sit down. That would not leave many options!
ST: Was that a worst-case scenario the doctor mentioned or an actual hard sounding fact?
André: I would have to ask my family. I didn’t hear about that one until long after. I had enough tubes, fevers, and daily pain rituals to know I was in bad shape.
ST: Who was with you that evening?
André: Antonio from Portugal, Marcel from Germany, Jakob the big Dane, Rhys from Whales, and many more. I had, and still retain the best group of international friends.
ST: When did you meet your wife Mariana, and how long have you been married?
André: We meet in Prague soon after I went back, and just had our 6-year anniversary.
ST: What about Mariana caught your attention? Or was it the other way around?
André: Mariana came over with my flat mate one evening because the school had messed up her housing and she needed a place for a couple nights. When she walked in I had about every text book I owned spread out on the kitchen table, Biochem, Molecular Biology, Nuclear Chemistry - I think she was impressed. I was drawn to how smart and witty she is. She's not nearly as impressed by my racing but at least that provides some balance around here. Of course I would like to do even more, I have ideas and race-lust filling my head. We want to have a family though, so I'm caught between this passion and focusing on being a better provider. We'll see what I can manage to pull off next. I've got some work to do.
ST: Back to the accident. How soon did you return to the USA, and did you get the same medical opinions?
André: I was in the ICU for 2 months in Prague. When I was transported, I still couldn’t sit myself up in bed. When I arrived to the Seattle hospital, the major improvement was the flow of information. Besides some language issues, the whole doctor-nurse-patient relationships are pretty old school in Czech Republic. Over here I finally knew what was going on. As an example, one day in Prague I woke to the noise of them spreading a silver blanket over me, switching me to a portable ventilator, and running me and my gurney down the hallway. I thought I might be dying or heading in for emergency surgery. My parents had just arrived and caught me down the hall where they found out I was just going for an MRI!
The rest of what I heard in the US was pretty discouraging. Doctors and prosthetics were willing to try, but not optimistic that I would be able to walk. One prosthetic laughed out loud (not in my presence) when he heard I wanted to walk. Success to them meant using a wheelchair to get to a sink, but having prostheses but being able to stand to use it. Success to me meant the mobility of an 80 year old lady with a cane. No offense intended to them, but I think pretty close to where I’m at.
ST: I think it took about a year for you to first walk with prosthetics, but it did not come easy I suspect.
André: It’s still the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It takes monumental amounts of endurance, patience, mental toughness, and internal deliberations. I don’t think I possessed a single one of these characteristics. They were born in the process. Optimism is the one thing I luckily had already.
What I don’t think, or expect, most people to get is how important your level of amputation is, so they think I can run. Not having legs is surprisingly a pretty general idea. It gets confused when they see one really fast amputee, who might essentially be missing a couple of ankles and feet. I don’t have those, or any knees, or one hip. So, for a lot of getting around and for all of my racing, I’m a wheelie.
ST: How did the idea to race events come up?
André: My first desire was to return to the Czech Republic and resume my studies. 1 year and 8 months after my accident, I got back and stayed for 3 more years. I felt like I could do anything I put my mind to after that.
When I returned to the US I found a used racing wheelchair, which I was using to exercise. Soon after that some amputees I’d met were heading to a charity triathlon, an event put on by the Challenged Athletes Foundation in San Diego. I did the swim and run and had a teammate who hand cycled. From there I was hooked and 12 months later had qualified for and gotten across the finish line in Kona.
ST: So was long course and ultra distance racing a simple natural progression?
André: For me it was. Some people prefer to focus on performance and competition but it really isn’t for me. I gave up on paratriathlon racing because that is lower on my priorities list. I am curious to see what I could accomplish in the Rio Paralympics but I’m also not willing to trade so much time to training simply to see if I can be the fastest. Ultras appeal to me because they are about the experience and sharing that with a group of people who you get the chance to bond with in a very special way. I’m not saying other sports or triathlons don’t offer that, or are somehow inferior… I simply like this. I remember back when I did the Brazil135 as my first Ultra, I didn’t know much about what I was getting into but that I would either love it or hate it. It’s a very interesting type of love, but I definitely love this stuff.
ST: Of all the events you have done, which one has given you the most memorable impression?
André: Ultraman has given me a real sense of family. It is remarkable what these events can do. On the other hand Brazil135 gave me dreams about still being out there, grinding away inches at a time, for a good while after. So the impact was pretty intense.
ST: I saw a video of you indeed grinding away inches through the jungle. Did you expect anything like that when you entered the Brazil 135?
André: I knew about the singletrack section in the jungle. That’s why I packed the paracord. I figured that I’d just crawl up when I had to and pull the chair up behind me. It was only about a 10k section. The big surprise was the hills. I was very naive about the hills. I mean I knew it was 33,000 feet of gain over 135 miles but I just didn’t realize how steep or how relentless the hills would be. It was absurdly steep up or down for almost all of it except for the last about 10 flat (ish) miles. I looked at as many course pictures and videos as I could before going but they just didn’t show the real grades at all.
ST: And was there the thought of not being able to complete that challenge?
André: There was. At about 24 hours in, I was coming down this mountain and I hit a big rock that snapped a bolt holding my steering mechanism. The wheelchair just had the single front wheel and I couldn’t continue without that, the wheel would just fall over sideways. I was actually feeling relieved because this was my out. I got very cranky and just shot down all the optimism of my crew. It was very unlike me - but that’s what it was. We all decided to take a 20-minute nap on the side of the dirt road. Then we carried on about 5k to the next town. I’d push my chair, go almost straight right, lift the front of the chair back to straight and repeat. It was miserable. At the town we found a motorcycle repairman who was able to grind down the sheared hardware and weld it all back together. It took a couple hours, we sat and ate, laughed a bit and I was totally rejuvenated. When we set back out, I specifically thought I don’t care if this takes a week, I’m finishing this damn thing. Well, it only took 62.5 hours so at that point I was happy with my time.
ST: You just finished the Ultraman race in Hawaii. I think you are the first double amputee to do so.
André: I am. I was the first wheelchair athlete to finish the race, John Maclean is the only other wheelie to attempt it, back in 2006. John is a legend with a groundbreaking list of accomplishments. A lot of us stand on his shoulders. While I do think it is cool to be the first in Ultraman, I don’t care too much about comparing myself to others. What enjoy is exploration, keeping it fresh and these journeys into the unknown. I fully expect other athletes to surpass what I’m doing. It’s just like other areas of life like the sciences or arts. When your start at a higher level because of what someone else has already done, you can take it even higher. It is a remarkable quality of humans.
ST: So what is next?
André: I love figuring out what to do next, how to do it, and how to make it happen. It’s completely energizing. I don’t know just yet what that next thing will be but I do have pretty good idea - it was just born yesterday. It will be awesome, if I can make it happen. That’s all I will say.