By Lara Alexander
Ironman competitor Andre Kajlich always enjoyed sports while he was growing up in Edmonds. Yet he never considered himself very competitive until he lost use of his legs, and started training and competing in triathlons with world-class athletes to get back in shape.
Almost eight years ago, while studying in Prague near where his father was born, Kajlich was hit by a subway car in an accident that he has no memory of, requiring the amputation of both legs, one above the knee and one at the hip.
Following the subway accident, he was in the intensive care unit of a Prague hospital for almost two months. He returned to Washington state for numerous operations and more rehabilitation at Harborview and the University of Washington Medical Center. About a year and a half later, he was able to return to Prague to finish his studies, before settling back in the Pacific Northwest.
After the accident, Kajlich began swimming to get back into shape. Then, in 2010, he bought a used racing wheelchair for exercise and the next thing he knew he had agreed to meet up with some new buddies for a triathlon charity event. Within a few months, he was completing the Ironman 70.3 in Texas, a triathlon consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1- mile run.
Using a racing wheelchair for the running portion and a hand-cycle for the bike portion, Kajlich was the first para-triathlete to cross the finish line. He was later disqualified based on equipment issues, but the official winners deferred their spot on the podium to Kajlich, qualifying him for the Ironman that summer in Kono, Hawaii. He went on last year to finish the International Triathlon Union (ITU) in New York, the Ironman and the ITU World Championships in Beijing. In Kona, Kajlich was one of five para-triathletes using a hand-cycle during the race, out of almost 2,000 racers. “We call ourselves The Wheelies,” he says.
“I’m constantly working on improving myself and my life, it doesn’t matter to me if goals are made on the first day of the year or during lunch, I just try to make some good ones and get to work,” Kajlich says. And get to work he has. He trains indoors in the pool and outdoors, taking advantage of the track around Green Lake and the hills around Edmonds, where his mother Patricia Kajlich still lives. (His father Aurel died in 2010.) “I enjoyed growing up here,” he says of Edmonds, “Many people have treated me like a family member with their tremendous generosity.”
When it comes to racing, says Kajlich, “My speciality is going as fast as I can, as long as I can.” In Hawaii in September, he was on his bike for almost seven hours. This year he will be back in Texas, first for the Ironman, to re-qualify to compete this year in Hawaii. Then, he will be competing in the U.S. Nationals, hoping to make the USA Team for the ITU Triathlon World Cup in Aukland, New Zealand. His wife Mariana — a professional photographer — accompanies him to many of his races, helping him to lug equipment around.
One of his current projects is to find funding for his travel and race entries. “There’s a lot of races I’d like to make – around the U.S. and all over the world,” he says. “There’s not a whole lot of precedence for sponsorship in my sport, so I’m trying to figure it out and be creative.”
When he’s not racing, he works in a research group at the University of Washington, as part of the Department of Rehabilitation. He is also working on a golf fundraiser in September for the Challenged Athlete Foundation. “The Challenged Athletes Foundation has been a great supporter of mine and they help a lot of athletes in my situation get gear and funding,” Kajlich says.
If he qualifies for both the ITU and the Ironman triathlons while he is in Texas this year, he will have quite the challenge ahead. The Ironman World Championships in Hawaii are the weekend before the ITU World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, giving Kajlich the chance to win two world championships within a week. “I’m not entirely sure what kind of shape my body will be in for that second race, but I’m going to give it a go,” he says. “It’s a tall order because the guys I’m up against are tremendous athletes but it’s good to have goals and it’s going to be a lot of fun trying.”