Zbynek Svehla: a race against time in the hot sun of Hawaii

Zbynek Svehla

Ever since he was a teenager Zbynek Svehla has been a passionate triathlete. Triathlon is possibly the most grueling sports discipline of all, combining swimming, cycling and running, and the sport's greatest challenge is the annual Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. When Zbynek broke his back ten years ago, losing the use of his legs, he didn't give up his dream of completing Ironman. He was at last able to take part in 2001 - using a handcycle for the cycling section, and an adapted wheelchair for the marathon. He went home disappointed, after failing to complete the cycle section within the cut-off time. Last October, Zbynek had a second try, and became the first ever European wheelchair athlete to complete the event. It was an extraordinary achievement. But, as Zbynek remembers, there was a moment, in the heat of the Hawaiian sun, when he thought the cycle section would once again thwart his dream.

Zbynek Svehla
"It was wonderful and I was really enjoying the race and then it came... I got a flat tire. I didn't know what to do. You know, when you're not a hand-cyclist, when you're a normal athlete, you have more opportunities to change the tire and continue the race.

I knew that I was in good time, but I had a flat tire. I was looking around and thought - I have to meet some mechanic and they will help me. I saw a lot of cars, but none of them was a mechanic. When I tried to contact other cars, I was waving and they were waving back - that 'you are good, you are strong' - but I needed help. So I went about twenty miles with a flat tire and finally I met the mechanic car and they helped me to change the wheel, and I could continue the race.

Zbynek Svehla in the Ironman Triathlon
But I'd lost some time and the final ten or twenty miles wasn't easy, especially mentally, because I knew that it was just an hour until the cut-off. I was afraid about the same experience as two years before, that you finish the bike section and they tell you - 'No you cannot continue the race.'

So it was hard, but finally I did it, about 23 minutes before the cut-off. And it was a break-point of the race. You know, you are on the bike, you are at the end of the race field and you are alone on the highway. You are tired of the wind and the sun, and you are alone, and you think that you can't do it.

"And then you come to the transition area, and you did it. You get the cut-off. Then you can run - for me it's wheeling - then you can wheel to town. And there are a lot of people, a lot of crowds, and they are screaming and waving at you. It was a great satisfaction, and I think that the first kilometers on the run section - wheeling - it was the most emotional experience of the race, because it was the moment when I realized: 'You did it!'"