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by Elaine K Howley

November 8, 2018

Swimming with the Sharks helped this professional triathlete come back from the brink and rebuild a promising career

Most of us have had the experience of coming back to our sport after illness or injury— that bout of bronchitis that took too long to shake or a sore shoulder that required kicking-only practices for a few weeks. But few of us have been as close to death as Matt Russell. Fewer still have managed to stage as magnificent a comeback as his.

The 35-year-old professional triathlete who lives in Sarasota, Fla., was on his way to a top-10 finish on triathlon’s biggest stage—the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 14, 2017—when disaster struck. Or rather he struck a solid object that would change the course of his life.

Russell was hammering away at 35 miles per hour about 75 miles into the 112-mile bike portion of the race when he slammed into a vehicle that had blindly turned into his path. With no time to react, Russell plowed into the van. The impact left a sickening dent in the side of the vehicle and sent Russell to the North Hawaii Community Hospital in serious condition with a severe concussion and gruesome neck laceration that required dozens of stitches.

Though he remembers the swim portion of that race—one of his best swim showings in an IRONMAN up to that point—Russell says he can’t remember the moment of impact or several hours before it, “which is probably a blessing,” he says.

His prognosis was uncertain at first, but his strength and superlative good health from years as a professional athlete meant Russell had a fighting chance. After multiple surgeries to repair his neck muscles and blood vessels, he was ready to begin months of demanding physical therapy to regain full mobility and function, with a distant goal of getting back to triathlon as quickly as possible.

It might seem crazy to want to jump right back into the sport that nearly cost him his life, but Russell says he still had “a big passion for the sport,” and he turned that emotion into pure motivation. “I loved to swim, bike, and run, and every single year I’ve been progressing,” he says. He knew he still had more to achieve in the sport, and he didn’t want to let an opportunity slip by that he might regret later.

Rather than let this catastrophe negatively impact him, Russell says he was determined to “use it as a positive and come out the other side stronger. That’s the path that I’ve taken. That’s fueled me to try to break through new barriers and hard times and struggles.”

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Recovery and Return

It took him just five months before he was able to resume any sort of athletic training, he says, and he was only able to do a very limited amount of exercise before then because the injuries he sustained had been so severe. “Throughout the whole recovery process, I’ve had lots of taking one step forward and a couple steps back,” he says.

The crash severed the sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle on the right side of his neck—that’s the thick rope of muscle that runs from behind the ear to the clavicle and is responsible for tilting and turning the head. Swimmers use their SCM muscles a lot when rotating the head to breathe in freestyle.

The body has an extraordinary ability to compensate when something goes wrong, and in Russell’s case, the antagonist muscles took over the burden. These smaller, opposing muscles would often cramp because they were working too hard to stabilize his neck. In his first IRONMAN after the accident—IRONMAN Texas in April—“it bothered me so much, I had to stop and stretch,” he says. “I walked for the first time in an IRONMAN.” Although he says he “might have started a little too soon” with racing, each subsequent race got a little better, and he’s pleased with how he’s recovered. “I wouldn’t change the path that I’ve taken to get to where I am now,” Russell says.

In late August, he finished third at IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant, just out of a guaranteed berth at Kona, but a few days later IRONMAN CEO Andrew Messick called to offer Russell a wild card spot. Returning to the scene of the accident was an emotionally fraught experience, but he finished in an astonishingly fast 8:04:45, good for sixth overall and a mere four seconds behind the fifth-place finisher, Braden Currie of New Zealand. Russell was the second American man to cross the finish line. His extraordinary return to excellence was complete.

Through this whole journey, Russell says he’s learned how important it is to never give up. “I think it’s important to concentrate on the things that you can do and not focus on what you can’t do anymore,” he says. In his case, focusing on what he still can do has led him right back to the top of the heap in triathlon.

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Swimming With the Sharks

Russell’s return to the height of the sport has been aided by his swim training with Sarasota Sharks Masters. A road warrior over most of the previous decade, Russell says he’d lived in eight states over the past 10 years. But when the opportunity to move to Florida emerged in the summer of 2016, it made sense for a lot of reasons, not least of which was the strength of the Sharks Masters program. “I didn’t want to move just anywhere,” he says. “I wanted to live where there was a good Masters swim group. The Sharks offer four swims a day, which is pretty unheard of. I don’t know any other place that offers that many workouts in a day.”

Having only learned to swim in 2010 and needing to train at an elite level in three sports simultaneously, Russell found the Sharks’ accessibility very attractive. “I don’t have a background in swimming, so having a Masters swimming group to train with is very important,” he says. “I do all my running and cycling by myself. But with swimming, it’s really important to have that support.” He says the Masters program “makes me accountable and helps me become consistent. It pushes me, and it’s great to have a coach on deck to provide structured workouts,” and feedback on improving technique.

Russell learned to swim shortly before his first Iron-distance event, IRONMAN Lake Placid. A strong cross-country runner in high school, Russell knew the run would be no problem, and he had already claimed a few duathlon national titles, so he felt confident with the bike portion of the race. But triathlon had bigger prize purses. “You can’t really make a living as a duathlete,” he says, “so I decided if I could just get the swim down, I could potentially make a living doing triathlons.”

At the time, he was working as an occupational therapist and living in Boulder, Colo. He trained hard for that first IRONMAN, and finished the 2.4-mile swim in 1 hour, 17 minutes. Not bad for somebody who’d only just learned to swim, but he says “it was really slow. I was the last pro out of the water,” well behind Andy Potts, who led the swim and finished in a screamingly-fast 45 minutes. (Russell finished 11th overall in that race.) Fast forward to IRONMAN Kona 2018: Russell exited the water a shade over four minutes behind Potts. “My swim has definitely come a long way,” he says, crediting Masters Swimming with helping him achieve those gains.

And through it all, he says his family—wife Gillian and young son Makaio—has been a critical support system that allowed him to return to Kona and finish what he started a year ago. His son was just three months old at the time of the accident and bears a Hawaiian name because of Russell’s affinity for the islands. Makaio’s presence has been enormously helpful to his father’s recovery process, and “to focus my energy.” This magic mixture of grit, stamina, support, and talent have combined to help Russell make a mighty comeback.


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