Mystic - On June 3, 2006, Dirk Vlieks, an accomplished triathlete, was 22 miles into the biking portion of a half Ironman race in Hawaii.
As he raced through the lava fields, he began to feel dizzy. At first he brushed it off, but when the dizziness got worse he knew something was wrong. He got off the bike and lay down by the side of the road.
Race official Jimmy Riccitello, who was coming by on the back of a motorcycle, stopped and called for medical attention.
"I think I'm dying," Vlieks told Riccitello. "Tell my wife I love her."
Riccitello told Vlieks to close his eyes and relax.
"Man, you're going to be all right," he told him.
But Riccitello's gut told him "it was really bad."
Vlieks had suffered a major stroke, and subsequent complications almost killed him. He has spent the past five years relearning how to walk, talk and eat and drink.
And although he still has speech and balance problems and experiences double vision, on Saturday, June 4, the 38-year-old Vlieks will return to the Rohto Ironman 70.3 Hawaii race where he suffered the stroke and try to complete the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
"I want to get rid of that DNF," he said, referring to the acronym for Did Not Finish. "As well as finish the story."
Vlieks' wife, Kelsey, said not finishing a race had never been an option for her husband before the 2006 race.
"I've always thought that with his personality it would be best for him to go back and finish that race," she said. "It will be good closure for him."
Vlieks, who was born in Ohio, grew up in Canada and several European countries. At the time of the stroke he and Kelsey, who grew up in Waterford, were living in Northern California, where she worked as a physical therapist and he as a computer consultant. The couple, who moved to Mystic last year, have twin 3-year-old girls.
Qualifies for Ironman
Vlieks was a former college tennis player who hoped to play professionally until a knee injury derailed his career. His rehabilitation program included swimming, cycling and running, so he decided to give triathlons a try.
His first race was a sprint distance event 14 years ago, but he soon moved up to the Ironman distance, which requires athletes to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and then run 26.2 miles.
In 2005 he qualified for the prestigious Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, where he posted a respectable time of 10 hours, 29 minutes.
Coincidentally, he qualified for the race by finishing among the top few competitors in his age group at the then-named Honu Half Ironman, the same race in which he would suffer the stroke a year later.
So the following June, accompanied by Kelsey, Vlieks returned to the Honu race to try to qualify again for the Ironman World Championships.
And he knew he was ready. Two weeks before, he had ridden 600 miles over six days. He was familiar with the course and was looking forward to the race.
Out of the water after the 1.2-mile swim, Vlieks pedaled his bike up the barren Queen K highway.
"I saw him about eight to 10 miles and I told him to put the hammer down and ride as fast as you can," recalled Kelsey, an avid runner and triathlete. "I told him to 'kick it in.' Those were my last words to him."
Soon, Dirk began feeling dizzy.
"I had dizziness before but this was different. I knew something was wrong," said Vlieks, who got off the bike at that point.
Kelsey looks for her husband
Riccitello, a former world class triathlete who now coaches and works as a race official, said he has come upon many people in distress during a race.
But this time was different.
"This guy knew something bad was happening to him. He had a bad headache and he couldn't see. I said, 'I think this guy is having a stroke,'" Riccitello recalled earlier this week from his home in Phoenix, Ariz.
As they waited for help, Vlieks became more and more unresponsive. Riccitello asked passing bikers if any of them were doctors. Vlieks was able to give Kelsey's cell phone number to Riccitello and said to tell her that he loved her. He remembers nothing of the next six weeks.
Meanwhile, Kelsey was waiting for Dirk to finish the bike ride. When friends began finishing ahead of him she assumed he had a mechanical problem with his bike.
She had her mother check the athlete tracking system on the race website to see if she had missed his biking finish.
Shortly after, as she walked by the medical tent in the transition area, she recognized a pair of tanned, shaved legs propped up on a cot.
As a physical therapist, Kelsey knew right away what had happened to her husband when she saw his flaccid left side.
"I said, '(Expletive), he just had a stroke,' " she recalled. She called his parents in California and told them they needed to get to Hawaii.
As she rode in the ambulance with her husband to the hospital, Kelsey said she "wanted to throw up."
An emergency room doctor said Vlieks had a large bleed in his brain and would have to be flown to a trauma center on Oahu. Kelsey remembers the flight as being very cold with beautiful scenery.
"You go into survival mode. You cry but you have to stay with it," she said.
"I was still asleep," Vlieks said, laughing.
At the neurointensive care unit on Oahu, a doctor looked at Vlieks' brain scan.
"I don't think your husband is going to survive. Have you talked about his wishes?" the doctor asked Kelsey.
"They thought he'd be in a 'locked-in state.' I knew he wouldn't want to live severely disabled," Kelsey said. "But I wasn't ready to give up on him."
She said there were some initial signs that her husband "was still in there."
Late that night, when friend and fellow triathlete Chris Hauth said to him, "Dude, I guess we're not riding tomorrow," Vlieks raised his eyebrows as though he had heard him.
The next afternoon he awoke from a coma and began to answer questions by blinking. When doctors removed his breathing tube two days later, he asked "What was my swim time?" He began eating.
"We said, 'He's back. It will be OK,' " Kelsey said.
The optimism was premature.
A few days later Vlieks developed pneumonia and a fever. Fluid began to build back up in his head and a shunt was put in. He would have a few hours of wakefulness before going into a state in which he would be unresponsive, even to pain.
Soon he had surgery for deep vein thrombosis, a feeding tube caused him to go into respiratory distress and he underwent a tracheotomy. He began having panic attacks and would pull out his tubes. He had to be restrained.
On July 9 Vlieks was flown back to California and began his rehabilitation at the facility where Kelsey worked. He had lost 30 of his 187 pounds and was pale with a shaved head. His wife said he looked like the typical traumatic brain injury patient.
She said it was good, though, to be back home and working with her colleagues on her husband's recovery. She said his physical therapist was a friend he had trained with before the stroke.
"I had to start from ground zero for everything," Vlieks said.
After six weeks of rehabilitation, Vlieks returned home. He needed constant attention. Friends and relatives helped Kelsey out, especially at night.
Walking, then running
In August the couple found out what had caused the stroke: a collection of abnormal blood vessels in his brain called a cavernous malformation. There was a good chance it could cause another stroke, so Vlieks decided to have surgery the next month.
Since then he has spent countless hours in therapy, which still continues. While he has made great strides, it takes a great deal of work to see even small bits of progress. Because he still has problems with fine motor skills, returning to his computer career has not been possible.
As for his double vision, Vlieks jokes that he's lucky he and Kelsey's twin daughters are not identical.
"Then I'd be seeing four of the same one," he cracked.
Riccitello and Hawaii race director Diana Bertsh, who have become good friends with Dirk and Kelsey, said the couple has been an inspiration to them.
"Some people let injuries like this rule their lives. But the grace they have shown in handling this situation has been a model for me," Riccitello said. "It makes you aspire to handle tough things in your life the same way."
When Kelsey went back to work about seven months after the surgery, she said her husband would often walk the three miles home after therapy. That's when he began running to get a little extra exercise.
Despite not being able to go in a straight line and swallowing gallons of pool water at first, Vlieks also relearned how to swim.
He got back on his bike but fell off. The bike didn't get any use until last summer, when he finished the Niantic Bay Triathlon.
Despite his determination to go back and finish the race in Hawaii, Vlieks said his days as a serious triathlete are over. He just hopes to enjoy the training and racing he is able to do now.
His focus, he said, is instead on something much more important.
"I want to walk with my girls. Kick the ball with them and ride my bike with them. I want to be a good father to them and a good husband to Kelsey," he said. "I can't do that unless I'm healthy."
While he can't pretend to know what the couple has gone through, Riccitello said he gets why Vlieks wants to go back to the race.
"You never like to not finish a race. I simplify it down to that. You have unfinished business," he said. "When I heard he wanted to do it, I told him, 'Get your butt out here.' "
After Riccitello finishes his duties of monitoring the professional triathletes along the bike course this year, he said, he hopes he will be able to head back up the road to offer encouragement to Vlieks.
Kelsey said she's not worried about her husband.
"I totally trust Dirk. I've been hard on him to get out there on the bike. He's done the swimming and the running. He's strong enough to get through this," she said. "And everyone working on the race will be looking out for him that day.
"It's going to be emotional. But I'll put on a good smile most of the time."
Kelsey and Dirk said they are both looking forward to getting back to the race despite what happened there in 2006.
"Hawaii has been a special place for us," Kelsey said. "It could have been much worse. It could have happened to him in the water or during those hundreds of miles on the bike in the weeks before the race. He was looked after that day.
"So we need to say 'thank you' to this place."
And what will Vlieks do when he passes the 22-mile mark on the bike course?
"I'll just give it a kiss and continue on," he said.