Seven months ago he gave his brother a kidney. Next week he does Ironman.
Ironman, university student, athlete, TriSports.com employee… organ donor: 26 year old Antonio Soto.
Soto is a quiet and dignified lad. His voice floats to your ear on a Latin accent. He is given to understatement. Think Enrique Iglesias combined with Mark Allen. As Antonio and I chat he hands me celery sticks, alternates between looking me in the eye and glancing to the floor.
Antonio’s mother died when he was one and a half. His brother, Gerardo, was only six months. Gerardo contracted SLE or systemic lupus erythematosus, commonly called “lupus”. He fought the disease for years until he was forced onto a dialysis machine for 6 hours a day. For nine months. During the search for a kidney Antonio was initially disqualified as a match. Another donor was found, but fell through since they smoked. A subsequent blood test revealed that Antonio was, in fact, a match to donate a kidney to his brother.
I wondered how Soto’s brother asked him to donate a kidney. “He didn’t”, Soto whispered. “He didn’t want me to donate it.”
“How did you make the decision to give away a kidney?” I’ve never asked an athlete this question before.
Soto glanced back to the floor, pulled another celery stick from the baggy. “You have to know… what is your priority? No sport is as important as my brother.”
The Soto sense of family emanates from Tigre Soto, Antonio and Gerardo’s father. Tigre was a competitive canoeist, a difficult and dangerous sport of negotiating rapids in a highly maneuverable hybrid of canoe and kayak. He sometimes trained with Antonio in the back of his canoe. It is obvious those early days between the Soto men forged tight bonds- the type of bonds rare in today’s families.
This weekend I rode with Antonio- me on the back of a camera moto, Antonio on his Giant Trinity triathlon bike. The ride was a combined photo op/meet and greet for BH sponsored athletes Eneko Llanos and Angela Naeth. You may remember Llanos for his gutsy battle in Kona with winner Chris McCormack. Antonio rode like a gentleman through town then, when we reached the rollers of McCain Loop, he went to the front. The group dwindled. On the narrow, curvy road riders slid off the back in ones and twos. I asked my moto pilot, Adam McCreight, to take us to the front. A 50 M.P.H. acceleration on our BMW moto pulled us by flailing riders. There were only six men in the lead group. I looked at our speedometer. On a shallow climb we were going 27 M.P.H. Uphill.
Antonio was on the front. Llanos on his wheel. Four men hung on. They looked under pressure. Antonio looked quite relaxed.
On November 27, 2011, 12 days from now, Antonio is racing Ford Ironman Cozumel. Seven months after giving away a kidney. How will losing a kidney affect Antonio’s Ironman? “It won’t” he tells me, “The body adjusts. As long as you drink enough water and do the right things, there is no difference.”
Antonio takes another celery stick from the bag. “It is no problem. Just a race…” It occurs to me, I’ve never heard another Ironman say it quite that way.
I tell stories.
My job for TriSports.com is collecting and telling our stories. Here is a typical day:
TriSports.com is the world’s largest online triathlon retailer. We ship swim, bike and run products to every continent- including Antarctica. Because we are the largest in our industry we face the challenge of running a business for which there is no existing business model. Debbie and Seton Claggett, founders of TriSports.com, nearly invented the category of online triathlon sales. At the “pointy end of the bayonet” we create the way this business does business. It’s a challenge since much of what we do, especially in marketing, hasn’t been done in our industry. Some of what we do is create media for ourselves and our vendors. It is a huge “value added” for companies doing business with us.
Gail Leveque, a talented Ironman, triathlete and Director of Special Events for TriSports.com asked me to do a photo shoot with BH Bikes’ top pros Eneko Llanos and Angela Naeth. Llanos won the Memorial Hermann Ironman, Texas in May with a strong 8:08:20. Naeth is an heir apparent to the highest levels of triathlon with a recent win at the 70.3 Ironman event in Boulder, Colorado where she had the fastest women’s bike split. The ride would take in McCain Loop here in Tucson, Arizona, crossing over Gates Pass. Members of our cycling and triathlon clubs were invited to join the ride and photo op.
I photograph rides from the back of a motorcycle. My “moto pilot”, the Euro-term for the guy who drives the motorcycle, is Adam McCreight. McCreight has travelled the world, lived in Oman, Abu Dhabi, Pakistan, Dubai, Qatar and Bahrain. He’s been riding motorcycles since he was 14. This year he took 2nd in the “B” Class Arizona Motorcycle Racing Association Season. In addition to being an excellent moto pilot Adam is an easy guy to work with. He is calm, level headed and soft spoken. Perhaps most importantly, at well over 6’ tall Adam outweighs me, a key factor for a moto-pilot/photographer pair on a camera bike.
Adam uses a 2007 BMW R1200 GS built in Berlin, Germany by BMW Motorrad. The bike has a 2 cylinder, horizontally opposed boxer engine, not unlike the engine favored by Subaru in their high-performance Impreza AWD models. The bike has smooth acceleration from low gears and a comfortable, stable, upright riding position. It’s also quiet so it doesn’t disturb cyclists and allows Adam and I to communicate easily.
The demands on a camera moto driver are unique since we spend a lot of time riding slow next to bicycles and I do a lot of moving around on the back to get different camera angles. The bike must be geared well for low speed stability and the pilot has to be alert to road hazards and keep the bike steady at low speeds. It’s particularly dangerous since the best photos are usually shot from the wrong side of the road 8-10 feet from cyclists. On a rolling, curvy road open to traffic the risk of a head-on collision is high.
Before each sortie McCreight and I have a conversation about what my objectives are for the shoot and about the roads conditions. His primary job is to keep us and the cyclists safe, his secondary job is putting us in position for the best photos. The challenges Adam faces on most of our shoots are different than riding with professional cyclists in the Tour de France who are accustomed to being around camera motos. The recreational cyclists we ride with aren’t used to having a motorcycle ten inches from them at 30 M.P.H. or at 7 M.P.H. on a steep climb. They want to wave at the cameras and get nervous if the moto gets too close. Because of that, and the open roads, we have to allow an additional margin of safety, picking and choosing photo ops during the ride and often giving away the best shots in the interest of safety.
This weekend’s photo shoot also served as practice for shooting the Ford Ironman Triathlon in Tempe, Arizona next weekend on Sunday, November 20. Adam and I scored a rare photo pass for the bike course courtesy of Debbie Claggett. We’ll be shooting athletes from the top pros like Eneko Llanos to our own athletes for our TriSports University magazine section on TriSports.com.
18:52 Hr.s Local, 14:52 Hr.s GMT: NATO No Fly Zone, Eastern Mediterranean.
Major Dave Morris reached between his legs, grabbed the yellow handle and pulled. There was an explosion, an elephant jumped on his shoulders, another on his chest and everything went black.
Morris’ F-16 suffered a bird-strike, a pelican slammed into his intake causing the turbine fan to disintegrate. The explosion tore through his F-16’s quad redundant fly-by-wire flight control system. He pulled the handle on his ACES II ejector seat; the canopy blasted upward, rockets under his seat firing. His F-16 Viper “departed”, leaving controlled flight as it pitched up past its maximum angle of attack, stalled and dropped like the eleven tons of junk it had instantly become.
Morris broke two vertebrae from the awkward angle of ejection. He floated to the ground under his parachute in sudden silence following the chaos of ejecting. There was an explosion a mile and a half away where his crippled aircraft rammed into the ground. He was alone. The sun was setting. He was injured in territory controlled by insurgents. A live NATO pilot, a U.S. pilot, was a powerful bargaining tool.
21:19 Hr.s Local, 17:19 Hr.s GMT: Incirlik Hava Ussu (Incirlik Air Base), Incirlik, Turkey.
Two hundred ten statute miles away five super athletes from the 48th Rescue Squadron of Davis-Monthan AFB next door to us in Tucson, Arizona, pull on their Multicam uniforms, tactical rigs, Ops-Core ballistic helmets and grab their suppressed M4 rifles. They run to a waiting HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter from Davis-Monthan’s elite 55th Rescue Squadron, rotors already turning. The Air Force rescue pilot pulls pitch on his collective, offsetting with his left pedal as the big grey Pave Hawk helicopter leaps into the air to its insertion altitude of 100 feet AGL. It’s the same helicopter I wave to at lunch time when it flies over TriSports.com on training sorties. The helicopter wears a big, grinning shark mouth painted on its nose.
The helicopter flies a zigzag pattern toward the downed pilot’s beacon from his AN/PRQ-7 survival radio. The rescue pilots use the Raytheon AN-AAQ-29A forward looking infra-red (FLIR) system to watch the terrain in front of them in total darkness. The system was developed by engineers at Raytheon here in Tucson, Arizona.
An unmanned MQ-9 Reaper drone has already diverted from its surveillance orbit to Major Morris’ last known position. The Reaper finds Morris with its gimbal mounted infra-red camera, his IR strobe flashing brightly with a light frequency invisible to the naked eye. At the same time the drone’s RWR (radar warning receiver) goes off so does the one in Pedro 86, the HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopter. A deadly SA-7 surface to air missile (SAM) search radar has illuminated the sky, searching for targets. The pilot of Pedro 86 edges his stick forward, falling to 30 feet AGL altitude at over 150 M.P.H. to get under the radar. The ground becomes a glowing green blur through his FLIR display.
“Scalpel 31, I’ve got loud music on the RWR from a SAM site gone active.” The pilot tells the PJ (Pararescue Jumper) team leader on the intercom. “We need to insert about 8 clicks from the objective to avoid targeting. Can you hump it from there?”
In the back of Pedro 86 the elite Pararescue Team, call sign “Scalpel 31”, consults a map and their GPS units. “Roger that Pedro, we can run in. Confirm BEMT (beginning early morning twilight).”
“Ahhh, I have my BEMT as 06:11 local.” The Pararescue team has to run five miles across mixed terrain in the dark with a full combat load to rescue the downed pilot, treat his injuries, and then carry him back in less than 6 hours. If the sun comes up before they can be extracted they must dig a lay-up position and hide until the following night. They aren’t sure the pilot can survive his injuries until then. Despite millions of dollars of technology this has become a foot race for Major Morris’ life.
Pararescue units next door to TriSports.com at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base are among the most elite rescue units- and athletes- in the world. They are a combination of Special Operations soldier, advanced paramedic and endurance athlete unmatched anywhere among first responders. They rescue downed pilots, hurricane disaster victims, lost hikers and accident victims no other rescue team can reach.
02:40 Hr.s Local, 22:40 Hr.s GMT: Grid Zone 37 Sierra, Easting 370327.01 m East, Northing 3873511.8 m North: Syrian Desert East of Salamiyah.
Scalpel 31, the five man Pararescue team running through the night to reach downed pilot Major Dave Morris have run 9 minute miles carrying 45 pound loads, their weapons and their folding extraction litter. Using advanced land navigation and terrain association skills along with GPS, they locate Major Morris, calling him on his survival radio. After a classified verification process to assure Major Morris’ identity and that he hasn’t fallen into insurgent hands the rescue team moves in. A final verification of Major Morris’ identity and four of the PJ’s establish a defensive perimeter while the fifth stabilizes Major Morris and attaches him to the folding litter.
After an hour long jog carrying Major Morris through the desert night Pararescue team Scalpel 31 is at their extraction point. Two A-10 Thunderbolt II’s also from Davis-Monthan orbit over head providing security for the extraction helicopter. Before the sun comes up Major Morris is in the Pave Hawk helicopter on his way home.
+ 24 hours, 09:35 Hr.s Local, 14:35 Hr.s GMT. Undisclosed Location, CONUS (Continental United States).
Half a world away when Major Morris’ wife gets a visit from two Air Force officers they tell her, to her relief, “Your husband’s aircraft went down, but he has been rescued and is going to be OK.” She asks the officers, “How did he get out?” They tell her, “Some of our guys were out for a run and picked him up.”