It’s Saturday morning, September 15, 2012. Washington Township, Michigan. An idyllic late summer day, 73 degrees. Wind out of the NNW at a calm 4 M.P.H. A perfect training day for the Ironman World Championship Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii a few weeks away in October.
Local heartthrob triathlete Amy Gluck is out training for the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2- mile run that is the most famous triathlon in the world.
Gluck is putting the final touches on her preparation for Kona. Blonde and beautiful, the (then) 40-year old Amy Gluck could grace the cover of any fitness or fashion magazine. In person she is warm and unassuming about her athletic accomplishments. By day she works as a clinical nutrition manager. The rest of the time she inspires the local triathlon community with her drive and humble athleticism while she prepares for another great Ironman.
Amy is up early, as usual, inflating her bike tires and texting training partners. She meets another athlete for their long ride inside one of the local Metroparks where the smooth, tree-shaded winding roads are perfect for cycling. Toward the end of her ride she leaves the park and rides out onto local roads.
Where she is hit broadside by a gravel-hauling semi truck.
Gluck’s bones are crushed, snapped and mangled. Bone fragments, now lethal internal shrapnel, ricochet inside her body. Even though she is wearing a bicycle helmet her brain accelerates inside her skull to smash into the bone, beginning deadly inflammation almost immediately. Her left eye is internally detached. Connective tissues are creased beyond any normal range of motion. But mostly, it is the fatal force of the impact. Based on the reports of the accident the combined forward speed of Gluck’s bicycle and the speed of the semi-truck are equivalent to riding into a concrete wall at about 45 M.P.H. A BBC report on bicycle helmets states that, “If you crash at 15 miles per hour in a normal helmet, your head will be subjected to around 220G [G-force].” But Wikipedia says that, “Very short duration shocks of 100 g have been survivable in racing car crashes.” Gluck’s impact may have occurred at nearly two times those forces.
The next hours are a blur of emergency medical trauma decisions; any one of which made differently- even slightly- will kill Gluck if she manages to live to the next one. Which, in her condition, is unlikely. She is eventually medevaced by helicopter to a more advanced trauma unit, but only after a large section of skull is removed to reduce brain damage from swelling. The skull section becomes contaminated and cannot be replaced inside her head if she lives. Nothing about her condition is hopeful, and the situation is deteriorating. She slips into a deep coma, hovering barely outside the margins of death.
It is a nightmare scenario, every cyclist’s worst fear. The injuries from the shattering impact with the grille of the giant semi-truck are so extensive no one person I spoke to could list them all.
News of Gluck’s accident travels fast in the tight-knit Michigan triathlon community. It’s a community of athletes across all skill levels from Ironman finishers to athletes in their first year of triathlons. And it is a community used to tragedy and loss. There was the death of popular local Ironman age grouper Jon Logan to cancer. A life-threatening accident for triathlete Mike Orris. The sudden death of athlete Sean Tyrrell, the death of Gary Plank, the earlier death of local cycling coach and rider Michael R. Rabe to a drunk driver. Even local running entrepreneur Randy Step suffered congestive heart failure and had heart surgery then came back to be a signpost for not just surviving, but truly living. But Gluck’s accident resonates somehow deeper. In a tragic epilogue another cyclist, 38-yeart old Emily Sands of Dryden, Michigan, is hit and killed seven months after Gluck’s accident on the same roads.
Triathletes- the people who do Ironmans- are a funny breed. They consider themselves somehow exempt from mortality. They are fitter, leaner, healthier. Aside from bouts with shins splints, swimmer’s elbow and road rash from minor bike falls most triathletes believe they are living a healthy lifestyle that contributes to their quality of life and longevity. Amy Gluck’s lethal accident seemed like a morbid alarm clock that woke up the community to their own mortality.
Two things could have happened in the wake of Amy Gluck’s accident, and they would likely happen in the hours while she hovered on the thinnest of lines between life and death. The athlete community could look at Gluck’s horrifying accident and withdraw, becoming individuals living in fear and retreating to a sedentary lifestyle that seems safer. Or, they could rally together and live, even when they were unsure if Gluck would live, and make an unswerving commitment to support Amy Gluck and each other- and not give in to the fear of mortality.
The community chose to rally together and live.
On September 21, 2012, six days after Gluck’s crushing accident and at the low point of her descent into a coma, while she hovers between life and death, athletes who know Amy have a prayer vigil at Henry Ford Hospital. Local ABC News affiliate WXYZ reports the story.
It is an unusual video report to watch. Awkward almost. But one senses there is a transition that takes place right before your eyes- in that video. It is the beginning of the collective decision of the community to band together, to rise above, to somehow turn this tragedy into a rallying point. And to pull Amy Gluck back from the brink.
Against all odds, Gluck does not die. She is, however, far from living. Especially by her standards.
Weeks pass. Amy’s sister Kendi Gluck, a physician herself, told the ABC News affiliate, “It’s like a nightmare and I just want to wake up from it.” Friends take turns at Amy’s bedside. Uncertainty about Amy’s survival remains but the tight bonds within the athlete community only strengthen. These are people used to tough going in the late hours of an Ironman, when it seems like the race will never end and the finish will never come. There is a saying among Ironman triathletes, “If you don’t like how you feel, wait a few minutes, it will change.” The community applies that same mental resolve to endure Amy’s tedious grip on life. It is a community uniquely prepared to handle the wild swing of ups and downs. Outsiders would ask, “What will happen to Amy?” the answer was oddly unanimous. “Don’t count Amy Gluck out.” And they didn’t.
The weeks turn into months. One day- different people suggest different dates, Amy Gluck wakes up. And a new race starts. A race harder than any Ironman Gluck had competed in, and a race with an undefined finish line. Now that Gluck has survived the accident, no one knows where her recovery will take her. But Amy Gluck is back in the race, and her multiple Ironmans were merely a warm-up for the race to get back to who she was before her accident.
There are surgeries. Many, many surgeries. Most sound more like carpentry than medicine. There is an endless procession of setbacks and low points. At times Gluck seems out of touch with reality, talking about getting ready for an upcoming race that doesn’t exist as though the accident never happened. But the nature of brain injuries is that, as they heal the person who suffered them gradually reintegrates into collective reality. Gluck has begun that long mental process along with the grating and painful physical recovery, a recovery that may never end.
On May 14, 2014 I visited Amy at the recovery facility she lived in at the time. It was a comfortable, nicely appointed single story community building that felt like an apartment. I had no idea what I was walking into. Would she be… somehow not in touch with reality? How do you ask a person who has been through a terrible accident and barely lived if they are “OK” now? Would she know?
Amy answered the door and gave me a hug. Unusual since, quite frankly, I never knew her well prior to learning about her accident. I only knew of her. She was wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants and big, floppy socks. Her hair was a messy heap of blonde.
There was something oddly…naked about her eyes. Like she had seen something very bad. They were, however, fully open, as if to suggest an incredible awareness to the unlikely circumstances of her survival. And, to take in all the challenges and possibilities that lie before her.
It was a year and six months since Gluck’s accident.
“Do you remember the accident?”
“I don’t even remember how I ended up where I was riding. I don’t remember anything about the accident. Maybe that’s better.” She speaks quietly between gentle pauses. Each comment from her, whether she is recounting her injuries, recovery or talking about her future, is articulate and well conceived. She is all there. Nothing is missing.
I ask her about being in the hospital and when she woke up.
“I don’t really remember when I woke up. It seemed like a long time. I was kind of in and out.” She says. She seems to diminish the brutality of her ordeal. She says waking from a coma was not like they show it on TV, it does not happen suddenly and all at once.
It occurs to me that blocking out much of what she has been through is not only a physical result of her injuries, but an emotional necessity. Amy had a huge section of her life torn out. She’ll never get it back.
Over the next few months I spoke to many people about Amy Gluck’s accident and miraculous survival, and prospects for more than survival.
Amy Christena, a longtime friend of Amy Gluck told me, “She’s challenging herself every day. To get back to the girl she was. She is something more than a survivor. She never lost her drive. That is why, inside at least, she is still the same person.” Christena is also an experienced triathlete who shared in many of Amy Gluck’s races and successes prior to the accident. “I honestly thought she was going to die. I’m really amazed she lived.” Amy Christena was one of the people who visited and supported Amy Gluck from day one since the accident, and she participated in the dreadful rollercoaster of her difficult and ongoing recovery ordeal.
During one visit Amy Christena asked Gluck how she was doing. Gluck told her she was getting ready for [Ironman] Louisville. “She was very confused. She took all the conversations in the room and merged them into one. I was devastated”. But Amy Christena never counted out the possibility of Gluck somehow getting better.
Through endless suffering and staggering setbacks Amy Gluck did continue to improve. Her ambition and drive to get back outstripped the pace of her physical recovery sometimes, and that was frustrating. Gluck held exactly the same high standards for her recovery as she did for an Ironman performance in Kona. Just recovering was not enough. Gluck wanted back in the race.
On Sunday, January 4, 2015, 2 years, 3 months and 21 days after her accident, Amy Gluck did a triathlon. She participated in the Lifetime Fitness Indoor Triathlon in Commerce Township, Michigan. The race is part of a national series of indoor triathlons sponsored by Lifetime Fitness. And while a short indoor triathlon at a health club is an incredible measure from competing in the Ironman World Championships, it is also a long way from lying in a coma trapped between life and death.
Michael Wilker, General Manager of Lifetime Fitness in Commerce said, “It’s incredible, one of the greatest stories we’ve ever heard, and we’re excited Lifetime could be a small part of it.”
Many of the same people who were seen in the WXYZ news story back in 2012 were at Lifetime Fitness for the event- over two years later “Amy’s Army” was stronger than ever.
College friend Colleen Churchill, a bubbly, adorable physical education teacher chauffeured Gluck to the event from Livonia, Michigan. Churchill’s devotion to Amy’s comeback has been strong. She is one of many foot soldiers of Amy’s Army who never gave up on Gluck’s long run at a comeback. During the event Churchill shared a swim lane with Gluck and rode an indoor bike next to her for the bike leg then ran on the treadmill next to her to the virtual finish line.
Amy Gluck still needs help, and plenty of it. While her story has an inspirational ring to it, her recovery is very far from complete. She can’t drive, she does not live independently, her balance issues from the accident mean she may not be able to ride a bicycle outdoors and even if she could, the trauma to her family and friends from the accident and ordeal of wondering if Gluck would even survive are unbearable. The depth of Amy’s loss is immeasurable, from Ironman competitor to being dependent on friends and family for basic transportation and assistance with day-to-day life. Her loss, despite her survival, is staggering. The trip from Ironman podium to life support is about the widest swing of life experience anyone can imagine. While Amy Gluck is soft spoken about her ordeal, everyone else stands in awe of what she has lost, and her brave, never-ending struggle to try to get some version of it back, even if it is only an indoor triathlon her friends have to drive her to.
When I asked Colleen Churchill what it was like to share the experience with Amy she told me, “Amy’s struggle reminds me not to take anything for granted, to live your life out loud. Amy’s accident changed my life forever too.”
Talk to anyone about Amy Gluck’s story. They all say the same things. “She is incredible.” “She is stronger than I would be.” “She is an inspiration.” “She makes me value what I have even more.” “She has shown us that participating in the sport is a gift and we can lose it at any time.” “When I reach a tough spot in a race I think of her and it makes it easier.” Every athlete I talked to about Amy is inspired by her.
Any other group connected by a common interest would have been shattered by Amy’s tragedy. People would have drifted away in fear, taken up golf or tennis. Something safer. But the opposite happened with Amy Gluck’s friends and the Michigan multisport community. They rallied to Amy’s support. And in doing so, athlete bonds were strengthened. New athletes were inspired and mentored. And athletes looked to Amy’s survival as an inspiration. It is as if the entire community looked to Gluck’s incredible example of trying to go beyond survival and asked themselves, “What Would Amy Do?” The answer is clear; Amy Gluck does more than survive. Amy Gluck gets back in the race.