Jan. 6, 1993: Born in Kaunas, Lithuania
2002: Moved to the U.S. at age 9 with his mother and stepfather
Aug. 28, 2004: Completed his first triathlon
December 2009: Won the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships
December 2010: Won his second consecutive Foot Locker Cross Country Championships
February 2011: Signed a national letter of intent to run for the University of Oregon
May 2011: Graduated from high school after just three years
June 4, 2011: Broke the national high school two-mile record in 8:29.46
June 11, 2011: Became only the fifth high school runner to ever record a sub-four minute mile (3:59.71)
September 2011: Won gold at the ITU Junior Worlds
November 2011: Left Oregon to pursue triathlon full time
June 2, 2012: Earned his first career elite victory at the Dallas ITU Pan American Cup, finishing more than a minute clear of the field
June 17, 2012: Won his ITU World Cup debut in Spain, logging the fastest run split (30:55) and became the youngest U.S. athlete to win a World Cup
July 31, 2012: Crashed his bike on a training ride in Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs, Colo., resulting in a broken collarbone, two fractured vertebrae and a collapsed lung
The Education of Lukas Verzbicas, Part II
Editor's note: What follows is the continuation of the USA Triathlon magazine spring 2013 cover story — The Education of Lukas Verzbicas. If you missed Part I in the magazine, catch up here. When you're done reading about Lukas' journey, get a glimpse inside the life of an elite triathlete with our exclusive photo gallery.
The Education of Lukas Verzbicas, Part II
By Chuck Menke
Photos by Nils Nilsen
The Education of Lukas Verzbicas, Part I
Like most age-groupers in this country, you probably don’t know the name Lukas Verzbicas. You may not even care. You should.
By Chuck Menke
Photos by Nils Nilsen
His fierce competitive streak, that same instinct which runs through Lukas Verzbicas like an iron support beam and compels the world’s top 20-year-old triathlete, was getting the best of him.
It was a clear, sunny day last July under deep blue skies and no wind to speak of. Perfect conditions for an interval training ride through sloping hills on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. Lukas, and a group of other college-aged kids who comprise the fledgling Elite Triathlon Academy, had taken this route countless times before.
Already positioned at the front, Lukas looked to separate. “I decided I wanted to ride away from the group,” he remembered. “Kind of thinking, ‘I’m better than everyone.’”
Careening down a hill with runaway speed, he saw the next in a series of sharp turns suddenly materialize a few yards ahead. His only chance was to take the turn wide but, in doing so, his tires got caught up in the sand along the shoulder of the road. Out of control, his bike slammed into the metal guardrail and his body hurtled through the air, landing down a rocky embankment. His bike, his body — and potentially his future Olympic dreams — were crushed.
Later, in the hospital, the news was sobering: his spine was broken.
In addition to the two snapped thoracic vertebrae, he suffered six broken ribs and a broken right collarbone. Also, his right lung was punctured and would need a gallon of blood drained from it.
He spent the next month in the hospital. His already lean six-foot frame would wither to a mere 108 pounds.
Looking back he says that, in a way, it was meant to be.
His school boy running career was the stuff of legend.
Following in the footsteps of the great Jim Ryun, in June 2011 Lukas became just the fifth U.S. high school runner ever to author a sub-four-minute mile.
Amazingly, he did it in the rain and just one week after shattering the national high school two-mile record by five seconds (8:29.46) at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. Off the track he won back-to-back titles as a sophomore and a junior at the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships.
“He’s a once-in-a-generation type of talent,” says Bob Babbitt, who has been around the sport of triathlon since the earliest editions of Ironman and followed Lukas during his high school running days. “He was the most talented kid I saw (in triathlon) since a 15-year-old Lance Armstrong. He was somebody who could potentially make the Olympics.”
Lukas came to the United States from his native Lithuania just a month shy of his ninth birthday. He rejoined his mother, Rasa, and stepfather, Romas Bertulis, who had both made the trip one year earlier. They settled down in the Chicago suburb of Orland Park, Ill.
(His mother and biological father divorced when Lukas was two years old. Plagued by problems with alcohol, his father passed away in 2008.)
At first, they spoke little English, and life in these United States took some getting used to. In school, Lukas already stood out from the crowd: he tested three grades ahead of his American classmates in math. Though somewhat physically inactive at first, he eventually started playing basketball. Soon he began to discover his preternatural talent as a runner during conditioning laps after practice. With kids of all ages grouped together for the runs, he learned he could easily keep up with the kids six or seven years his senior.
But that shouldn’t have come as a surprise given his upbringing. After all, Lukas virtually grew up at the track in his homeland. Romas, who today oversees the bulk of Lukas’ training regimen, is a former elite-level decathlon coach. Rasa is a past Lithuanian national champion runner and record holder at 3,000 meters, and a top track and field coach in her own right.
When he was 11, Lukas entered his first road race, a local 5k, without any real training. Flying off the start line, the erstwhile youngster was stride-for-stride with the adult pacesetters before collapsing onto the ground at the two-mile mark. He walked the rest of the way alongside Romas.Lukas recalls that, about a week after the race, they saw a flyer on their food tray while eating at a McDonalds. “It was for a local kids’ triathlon, so we said, ‘Why don’t we try this?’ The next day we picked out a road bike. I think it was a Giant.”
The two have been striving to reach the top of triathlon podiums ever since.
And the relationship works. Although his appearance draws to mind Béla Károlyi, another coaching import from the Eastern Bloc, Romas takes a more hands-off approach than the demanding gymnastics icon.
“He knows me very well. He knows when to push and when to hold back,” says Lukas.
“He’s actually not much of a talker,” he adds with a laugh. “I can tell what he’s going to say just by looking at him when I get done with a set.”
The video posted to his Twitter account on August 16 is shocking to watch.
Like a newborn foal, Lukas flops one foot in front of the other as he gingerly makes his way down the hallway of Penrose-St. Francis Hospital in Colorado Springs. Outfitted with a neck brace, and gripping a cane in his left hand, Lukas is steadied by a nurse on either side. Each woman props him up as he teeters back and forth on legs that are disturbingly emaciated.
One year removed from eclipsing the four-minute-mile barrier, he is literally learning how to walk again.
On August 20, he tweets a triumphant video of himself slowly making his way down another sterile hallway. This time he is unsupported by nurses and significant progress is already apparent.
“Lukas’ recovery has been remarkable to say the least,” says Dr. Dustin Nabhan, who guided Lukas through arduous months of rehab at the U.S. Olympic Training Center (OTC) in Colorado Springs. “When we first learned the severity of his injury, we weren’t sure if he would walk again. I am not aware of any athletes returning to the level that Lukas has after an injury of this magnitude.”
The fact that he competed on March 9 against a field of professionals at an International Triathlon Union (ITU) Pan American Cup race in Clermont, Fla. – just seven months after three surgeries and a titanium rod being inserted down his spine – is nothing short of a medical miracle.
Lukas is a prolific devotee of Twitter (@LukasVerzbicas), often sending multiple messages to his 9,300 followers (and counting) daily. It proved to be an important part of his psychological healing process while he was in the hospital. He sent a humorously benign tweet, not uncommon for him, before going on that fateful July 31 ride: “it’s unfair how much better ranch dressing makes a salad.”
His next message the following day, after the accident, imbued a more serious tone: “Just in case, I want everyone to know how grateful I am for every single one of you and all your support. Always remember to dream big!”
“Just in case . . .” alluded to the surgery on his spine the following morning.
Despite an inherently positive mindset, Lukas had moments of real doubt in the hospital. He wondered if his pro career had been cut short, just as it was beginning.
“I definitely considered it (might be over) at first,” he says. “I thought maybe I’m dreaming. I’ll wake up one day and realize it never happened.”
So, as much as social media was an outlet for Lukas to connect with his family, friends and fans (another Tweet: “Every new nurse I get bugging me about my heart beat being too low”), it also formed an alluvial fan of encouragement through the messages that flooded in each day. It wasn’t just the accident that ultimately changed Lukas. It was the love showered upon him in his darkest hour, including from people he had never met.
“I’ve realized how supportive the triathlon community can be,” says Lukas. “I’ve received stacks of letters and books, and people have shared stories about overcoming adversity. Not once in those 30 horrible days (in the hospital) did I get an email saying, ‘You’re just a child prodigy who isn’t going to amount to anything because you fell off your bike.’” “I want to show my appreciation to everyone. Without their positive attitude I don’t think I’d be this far along.”
It’s 2:04 p.m. on a Sunday in mid-February. Snowflakes the size of postage stamps are falling onto the grounds of the OTC.
This is the place where, after the accident, Lukas found himself again. Learned to run on a treadmill again. Realized he could be a triathlete again.
Chase his dreams again.
But today he is far from the OTC, in both mind and body. He doesn’t need Colorado Springs anymore. At least not right now. He is 1,800 miles away, where every day the Florida sun bronzes his skin and bleaches his thick blond hair. He flies along a dirt road in his neon orange running shoes, the kind with three stripes.
Clermont is a modern-day Mayberry smack dab in the middle of the state, a 45-minute drive west of Orlando. The otherwise non-descript hamlet has become a popular training site for top elite U.S. triathletes, mainly due to the existence of the National Training Center. Like migratory birds escaping the Northern winter, they congregate here to hold an offseason camp at the state-of-the-art facility. Crafty veterans and first-year pros alike, from places like Massachusetts and Minnesota. This season more international athletes – from Canada, Spain and the Czech Republic – are taking part, too.
Lukas occasionally works out with the group. He receives sage advice from U.S. Olympians like Jarrod Shoemaker and Sarah Haskins. But, for the most part, he trains alone with Romas in order to focus on his recovery. He puts in just 15-20 hours per week, trying to do as much speed work as possible while he’s still young. But his workouts are intense, leaving him completely spent.
His recovery is still full of ups and downs. His balance is off and his right leg continues to suffer the effects of nerve damage.
“Some weeks are really good and then other weeks the leg gets really tired,” he says.
But the world-class athlete inside of him is still there, busting to get out.
“I was given a gift and it can’t be taken away from me,” he says. “(The accident) taught me a lot of things. It made me mentally stronger. I’m able to cope with more pain. Not just physically, but mentally. I don’t look at a workout as being hard anymore.”
So he is using this year, when there are no Olympic qualification points at stake, to get back on track. He has lofty goals that are shared by many others – including USA Triathlon – who look to him as a new rock star for the sport. He ably wears the badge of someone capable of winning a gold medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Yes, I sense the pressure. But my goal is to be an Olympic champion. That’s all I want and that’s all I know. My parents have been very encouraging, and I use pressure as motivation.”
“I’m a dreamer.”