October 14, 2017 was shaping up to be one of the best days of Matt Russell’s triathlon career, it was a day that he targeted his entire season, and the day that everything nearly ended for him. Matt came out of the water at the IRONMAN World Championships in a position well ahead of where he was the previous year, when he went on to finish 12th overall, and was powering along about 80 miles into the bike leg. What happened next, Matt has no memory of. A van crossing the closed course gave Matt, who was said to be going over 30mph at the time, nowhere to go.
“I don’t remember anything until waking up in the ICU the following day”, said Matt. The collision with the van severed his external jugular vein and SCM muscle in his neck, causing a six-inch long, two-inch wide wound. He spent multiple days in ICU in addition to having to undergo neurological tests due to also sustaining a severe concussion.
The road back hasn’t been an easy one for Matt or his family, which includes his son who was just three months old at the time of the accident. “I talked with my wife and decided I still wanted to pursue triathlon. You never know though, I could have flashbacks to the accident that could make it so I don’t want to race again”, said Matt.
“It has really shown me how precious life is and how little control we have”, Matt continued. “You just never know when your last day is. To me, I see it as the lord protecting me and everything that I do in life now has more meaning, purpose, and passion. That includes my training. If tomorrow is my last day I want to be content with how I lived it.”
The IRONMAN 70.3 Texas on April 8th was not only Matt’s first race of the season, it also marked his return to the sport after the accident. Although his goals were tempered for the first race of the year, there’s no denying the desire to test himself was very much there. “I guess first off, we all have expectations, so for me, just getting to the start line is a victory”, said Matt. “Finishing is another victory. I won’t be upset if I’m anywhere from 20th place to 1st place as long as I give it my best. The fact that I’m alive and getting to do what I love, it’s just gravy.”
Not only did Matt finish, he took seventh overall and proved that not only was he able to put the horrific accident behind him, he could truly get back back to his best and contend for the podium at the IRONMAN World Championships come October. For the rest of the season, Matt isn’t putting a lot of pressure on himself for a specific result, yet as he describes it his level of preparation seems to have reached a new level. “I’m leaving no stone unturned this time. I’ve been setting PRs both on the bike and in the swim recently. I haven’t focused on the bike much in the past and now I’m starting to push some good wattage and know I can continue improving my power in the coming months.”
Regardless of what the results might hold this year, Matt is certain of one thing. “Most races I finish this year are going to be emotional for me. Sometimes when I’m out running and pushing my son in the stroller I’ll break into tears. I realize how fortunate I am to have these moments.”