SEATTLE — The stares don’t bother Andre Kajlich anymore.
It’s been more than seven years since he had both legs amputated — one at the hip and the other above the knee — after being hit by a train in Prague, and Kajlich decided a long time ago that in order to enjoy his lif
e, he couldn’t concern himself with the perceptions of others. So go ahead and gawk when he takes off his prosthetic legs before hopping into a swimming pool, or do a double take when he cruises by on a racing wheel chair, towing a kayak toward Green Lake. He’s way beyond letting that get to him.
“I know I looked goofy as hell,” Kajlich said of his kayak towing. “But if you’re going to do what you want to do, you’ve got to get over that. Not caring at all has really been beneficial. The sooner you get over that, the happier you’re going to be.”
The other reason Kajlich do
esn’t mind the stares is because now, as he zips across the pool at the University of Washington’s Intramural Activities Building, or blows past bicyclists on his handcycle, he’s turning heads because of his ability, not his disability.
Kajlich, a 32-year-old from Edmonds, had company on
a recent ride, so he left the headphones at home, and admitted it was fun hearing the reactions as he breezed from his Green Lake home to Discovery Park.
“Are you serious? Wow,” says a woman driving through Magnolia. Another man, moving at a pretty good clip himself on a road bike, can on
ly shake his head as Kajlich passes him with ease. Cranking his handcycle up the brutally steep hill that bisects Discovery Park, Kajlich receives nods of respect, not looks of pity.
And this ride is just the beginning. After this it’s laps in the pool at the IMA, all part of a six-day-a-week regime that will get Kajlich ready for something he could have never imagined even a year ago — the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. For those unfamiliar with triathlons, Kona is the pinnacle of the sport, a grueling test of endurance that is made up of a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on a bike (or handcycle in Kajlich’s case), and a 26.2-mile run, which Kajlich will do in a racing wheelchair.
Kajlich was a darn good athlete prior to his accident. He managed to letter in five sports at Bishop Blanchet High School in Seattle — “I was a bit of a dabbler,” he explains — and not long before his accident, he was a nearing a scratch handicap in golf. But time and time again when well-meaning people, like his mom, Patti, would suggest he get back into sports after his accident, Kajlich balked at the idea. He had taken up swimming soon after the accident as a way to get himself in shape, but otherwise sports had lost their appeal.
“With other sports, I didn’t really want to do them,” said Kajlich, who works as a research study assistant at the University of Washington’s Department of Rehabilitation Medicine. “If you had a certain ability, you don’t want to do a sport and suck at it, but do it just to do it. That didn’t really appeal to me.”
But last August something changed. Less than two weeks after his father, Aurel, passed away, Kajlich was in Irvine for the national conference of the Amputee Coalition of America. While there he made friends with a group that was planning to do a half-Ironman triathlon in San Diego that October. Somewhat on a whim, Kajlich, who had recently purchased a used racing chair on Craigslist, agreed to do the swim and wheelchair portions if someone else would do the handcycle portion — he didn’t yet own a handcycle.
Kajlich found he enjoyed the physical challenge, as well as the chance to meet and bond with people who had similar disabilities. He them asked himself, OK, what’s next?
He set his sights on a completing a half Ironman on his own, but first he did an Olympic-length triathlon (about a quarter the length of a full Ironman) in Eugene, Ore., this spring. And after competing a triathlon on his own for the first time, Kajlich, the self-described dabbler, was hooked on one of the most demanding sports there is.
“I met cool guys after doing the first one, some guys that are in similar circumstances to me,” he said. “That aspect of it, that camaraderie is important. Also, it causes me to face head on a lot of the personal struggles that I’ve had in my life.”
On an afternoon that could only be described as Texas-in-summer hot, Kajlich’s family — wife Mariani, mother Patti and sisters Anya and Bianca — sweated it out in the sun while waiting to catch a glimpse of Kajlich approaching the finish line of his first half Ironman. Given his limitations in experience, as well as equipment — he was still riding a heavy out-dated handcycle — no one knew quite how Kajlich would do, but certainly the expectations weren’t high.
Then a strange thing happened. The family was waiting to see the first handcycle triathlete pass by so they’d have an idea when Kajlich would be coming, but instead they saw Kajlich leading the way.
“Everyone was nervous for him, because he didn’t really have any experience doing it and nobody knew what to expect,” said older sister Bianca Kajlich, a TV and movie actress. “We were waiting at the finish line, and I’m not doing anything — I’m hanging with my mom and my sisters — and I’m dying it’s so hot, it’s like 110 degrees. So we’re waiting, we kept waiting for the first guy in the racing wheel chair to cross the finish line so we knew my brother was coming after him, then the next thing we know someone’s saying, ‘Here’s Andre, here’s Andre.’ My brother beat everyone, it was so amazing.”
Kajlich’s win, though surprising and inspiring, wasn’t official. The handcycle Bianca bought for him the year before, despite being slower than the newer cycles, didn’t conform to the rules, so he wouldn’t be recognized as the winner. The top two finishers in the race qualified for the World Championships in Kona, and while the racer who finished behind Kajlich took the spot he would have earned anyway, the next two finishers, Jason Fowler and Marc Aten, both declined to accept the second qualifying spot, which was then given to Kajlich.
The weekend was important for the Kajlich family not just because of what Andre accomplished. It was the first time all three children and their mom had been together since they scattered Aurel’s ashes at their Lake Wenatchee cabin the year before.
It was pretty emotional, because it’s been a long road leading up to this, starting with his accident, then losing our dad, and kind of going through all of this together as a family,” Bianca said. “To be able to have this moment together with our family was awesome.”
And those closest to him say Kajlich’s foray back into sports has been a very good thing.
“This guy was born to do athletic stuff, so the fact that he’s back into it and doing it so successfully is really good for his mental state,” said his wife, Mariana. “He’s much more focused and perseverant.”
Bianca described her brother’s face that day as that of “A kid coming in from playing outside. The look on his face was relaxed and excited. We’re starting to look at each other like, ‘Maybe he’s really good at this.'”
They weren’t the only ones to realize Kajlich just might be pretty good at this triathlon thing. Carlos Moleda, a former Navy SEAL who lost the use of his legs in 1989 while serving in Panama, was the king of the sport before giving up triathlons to focus on handcycle racing after winning his third Ironman World Championship in 2005. Moleda first met Kajlich at the race in San Diego, then, like everyone else, he was blown away by what he saw on that sweltering afternoon in Lubbock.
“Halfway through, it was like, ‘Dude, he’s in second place,'” Moleda said. “We expected him to be toward the back. Then he came into the transition and we thought, ‘They’ll catch him on the chair,’ because some of those guys were really good. And here comes to the finish line, and there he was in front. It was awesome. He’s young, he has a lot of potential.”
Moleda is helping Kajlich build a training regime that will prepare him for Kona, and has also provided Kajlich with a better racing chair. And through the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Moleda is helping get Kajlich a faster — not to mention compliant — handcycle he can use for the Oct. 8 Ironman in Kona, as well as next month’s U.S. Paratriathlon National Championship in New York, a race that could lead to bigger things, like a trip to Beijing for this year’s Paratriathlon World Championships, or to London in 2012 where triathlon will be a demonstration sport at the Paralympics — it will become a medal event at the 2016 games.
“I saw that potential the first time,” Moleda said. “I’m trying to help him as much as I can. People did that for me in the beginning, they saw I had potential in athletics, and you can’t do it alone. So I’m at the point in my career where I’m trying to give back.”
For five days, beginning next weekend, Kajlich will do a little giving back of his own. For the second straight year, he and Bianca will serve as volunteer camp counselors at the Amputee Coalition’s Paddy Rossbach youth camp. Kajlich called last year’s experience at the camp a life-changing experience.
“I was 24 when I had my accident,” he said. “I can’t imagine growing up, going to grade school and high school facing those difficulties. Meeting my peers still helps a lot, and I’m 32 now, so for a kid it’s just awesome that they get to get together and just be normal kids for a week. When they all get together it’s a lot easier for them to be comfortable.”
Kajlich and his sister have big goals for the camp, somewhere down the road they’d like to help it expand to the West Coast. In the short term they’ve donated time, money and created awareness. Bianca even got L.A. Galaxy star Landon Donovan, her ex-husband who is still a close friend, to agree to come to the camp this summer.
“She told me how much it changed her life and how important it is to her, and I know how important it is to Andre, so therefore it’s very important to me too,” said Donovan, who was in town for last week’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal against Sounders FC.
And even Donovan, one of the best soccer players in U.S. history, can’t help but marvel at Kajlich’ recent accomplishments in triathlon.
“It’s pretty impressive,” he said. “To think back however many years ago, to think of the situation he was in to where he was now, it’s pretty cool. He’s a resilient guy. He’s a very bright guy, he’s a very determined guy, and Bianca always told me that anything he wanted to do, he was going to do. This has motivated him and you can see he’s succeeding. I’m happy for him.”
Wait, we need to go back for a moment.
Back to the months following Kajlich’s life altering accident in order to understand how he got to this point, on the verge of some pretty remarkable athletic achievements. To understand how he became so self-confident that, on his website, willgodo.com, he posted a video that features, among the clips of him swimming and racing, shots of him falling repeatedly while trying to navigate a couple of stairs on his prosthetic legs.
Even though Kajlich didn’t spend much time wallowing in self pity, there were, naturally, some tough times. The one that stands out the most, seven years later, was a hunting trip with friends about 10 months after the accident. Being outdoors with friends, doing something he had done before losing his legs, battling the difficulties of little things like getting on and off of a boat, led to a cathartic moment.
“I was in the hotel room that night, and for whatever reason I was extremely upset about it, I was just going over it in my head, going, ‘Why, why, why?'” he said. “And in a way I was taking comfort in the sadness. At that point I just sort of said, ‘You can be productive about this or you can wallow.’ Literally since that time, I haven’t been sorry about it or upset or sad about the loss of my legs one time. I completely conquered that, and that’s made things a lot easier.”
As Kajlich remembers it, they didn’t bring home a single duck or goose that weekend, but he made a much bigger kill.
“That’s sort of where I slaughtered that demon,” he said. “I don’t know if we came home with anything, so only the demon was killed.”
Prague, Czech Republic
We end at the beginning. In the city that changed Kajlich’s life, on more than one occasion. It was in December of 2003 that Kajlich, then a biochemistry student at the Institute of Molecular Genetics, somehow suffered the horrifying accident that cost him his legs. Kajlich doesn’t remember the accident, and the investigation came up empty, but what is known is that, after a night out with friends, he somehow ended up getting hit by a subway train.
Despite the mystery that still surrounds that night, Kajlich no longer worries about finding out exactly what happened.
I don’t,” he said. “And part of that might be out of convenience, because I was out partying with friends, and I don’t know how stupid I was at that moment, and that played a role no matter what. We still don’t know who else might have been involved, the investigation really found nothing. For me there’s no reason to speculate, because I’m never going to know unless that’s something you find out when you die, which if that’s the case, then I’ll take it. I don’t dwell on it. I definitely would like to advocate being personally responsible. I put myself in a position where I couldn’t take care of myself the way I should on a moment-to-moment basis … As far as dwelling on it, I’ve moved on, there’s no changing what happened, so as far as that’s concerned, it’s never bothered me not knowing.”
After returning home to Edmonds for rehabilitation and further surgeries, Kajlich was driven by a singular goal: getting healthy and independent enough to get back to Prague to continue his studies. Eventually Kajlich made it back, and the second trip turned out much more productive than the first, in particular because that’s when he met his wife.
Mariana, a photographer from Romania who was in Prague teaching English, met Kajlich through a mutual friend, and from day one never saw him as anything but normal.
“You meet someone who is very whole emotionally and intellectually and so on, and you ask yourself, ‘Is it worth not exploring this because there is a physical flaw, or do you stay and deal with it?'” she said. “That’s what makes us work together. I’m not really aware of it, I don’t see him differently.”
And she’s not kidding. Double amputee or not, Kajlich gets the usual husband treatment at home. When he says he can’t find his black gym shorts, Mariana replies with a sarcastic, “Well what do you want me to do about that?” So up the stairs Kajlich scoots to search for his shorts.
Shorts found and handcycle ride in the books, it’s off to the pool to continue the training. No one, especially Kajlich himself, knows what to expect when he goes to Hawaii this fall, but after everything he has done both in life and in his newfound sport, nothing he does going forward should come as a surprise.
“I’ve learned one thing for sure,” Patti Kajlich said. “And that’s to not underestimate Andre in anything.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.