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A long road to recovery for Mr. Triathlon
It’s been nearly two years since the crash that changed everything in the life of John Botelho and Hillarie Denning.
The married couple, and avid cyclists, were on the home stretch of the September 2010 GranFondo cycling race from Whistler to Vancouver when Botelho went over the handlebars of his bike.
His story has been told and retold, and Botelho, who was known as Mr. Triathlon for his efforts in establishing the Island’s triathlon scene, will tell the story and what he’s been through since, to anyone who wants to listen.
On that September day Botelho had moved far ahead of Denning, an equally capable cyclist. Denning didn’t realize her husband of six years had smacked his head and was lying motionless on the Trans-Canada Highway pavement in North Vancouver.
Several cyclists rode past until one, to whom Botelho is deeply thankful, realized his circumstance.
“I fell into a hole on the highway, somersaulted and hit head first. I was mush.”
Botelho was taken away in an ambulance and awoke from a coma after 16 days. He was then told by his doctors the prognosis hadn’t been good, and physical recovery was directly attributed to his high level of fitness going into the accident.
It was clear, however, that Botelho had suffered damage to the frontal and parietal lobes of his brain.
It’s been 22 months since the crash and the 51-year-old is doing his best to rebuild the neuron connections that will allow him to process information the way he did before the crash.
“I have to talk about old things to help reconnect,” he says of the ongoing therapy. The brain is repairing itself, and Botelho has been eager to understand as much as he can about the injury. He's now in the final three months of the all-important 12- to 24-month window following a traumatic brain injury, during which time the recovery process is at its highest.
A typical conversation results in Botelho telling a story with vigour, passion and precise detail. He tends to go deep into conversation, but he loses context and veers into tangents.
“It’s editing skills,” he says. “I have to try and ask questions about the original topic (of conversation).”
“It’s frustrating, for John and for us,” Denning says. “There’s a lack of focus. Short term memory is one of the challenges.”
“And I can’t smell,” says John, with the smile of someone who has clearly accepted the terms of his injury.
Working is no longer an option – he tried that. Thankfully, Botelho can run and bike, and trains in both disciplines now more than ever.
“I train like a pro now,” he says.
“I have so much free time, the training regimen is simple. I just bike and run as hard as I want, running 80 kilometres a week, and riding even more.”
Denning says the Brain Injury Society, which works with Botelho one-on-one, is supportive of him exercising as a contributor towards the recovery from the traumatic brain injury.
“He can do his old routes, and old races, no problem,” Denning says. “We won’t be entering any new races.”
One of those “old routes” is the TC 10K run, which Botelho ran in under 47 minutes this year. He’s also entered to do the Self Transcendence duathlon (run and bike) on Aug. 5.
It will mean the 2010 crash has only kept Botelho from missing the Self Transcendence once since he started competing in it in 1998, though he volunteered as a marshal on the duathlon and triathlon cycling course last year.
In fact, Botelho’s never actually done a triathlon, although Denning’s been doing them since 2005.
“The Mr. Triathlon is a name he got for all of his efforts with the local triathlon scene since the 1990s,” says Ian Phillips, a longtime volunteer and organizer with the Self Transcendence.
Botelho was the original race director of the popular Subaru Western Triathlon series and was heavily involved as a volunteer with the Sri Chinmoy Self Transcendence Triathlon and Duathlon, the Juan de Fuca Triathlon and Duathlon, and the Island Race series.
“He’s always been great at helping out as needed,” Phillips says. “A willing hand to provide his expertise and assistance, either as a race day volunteer or on the organizing committee.”
It was on a volunteering stint for the Self Transcendence that Botelho wooed Denning in 2002.
“I took her on a ‘date,’ handing out Self Transcendence fliers to mailboxes. She got to stop and start alright,” Botelho says.They were married in the summer of 2004, and Botelho and Denning started their honeymoon by doing that year’s Self-Transcendence.
“We weren’t going to miss it,” Botelho says.