Triathlon guides Canadian athlete Kimberly Fawcett-Smith through tragedy

Triathlon helped Kimberly Fawcett-Smith recover from losing her son, her leg and much of her military career in one terrible accident.

The Air Force captain was preparing to leave for Afghanistan on Feb. 21, 2006. Her husband Maj. Curtis Smith had already been deployed to Congo.

Fawcett-Smith was taking their infant son Keiran from CFB Kingston to his grandmother’s home in the city, where he would be cared for in his parents’ absence.

An accident occurred on the icy road ahead of her car. Fearing further collisions, Fawcett-Smith exited her vehicle and climbed an embankment near the highway. She was holding Keiran, not yet 10 months old, when they were both struck by another vehicle.

“This guy lost control of his vehicle. He was travelling way too fast,” Fawcett-Smith says.

Keiran was killed and Fawcett-Smith lost her right leg up to her hip.

“It was the button to my combat pants that got caught in the grille of the vehicle and that’s what caused the injury and the amputation of my leg,” the 40-year-old from Ottawa recalls in a recent interview.

She had participated in short triathlons and was training for a marathon at the time of the accident. Throwing herself into the world of endurance racing, with the mountainous physical and mental challenges that entailed without a leg, helped her cope with her grief.

Her dedication has also led Fawcett-Smith to the elite level of her sport. On Saturday, Fawcett-Smith will compete for Canada at the world paratriathlon championship in Budapest, Hungary.

“My recovery success is 90 per cent attributable to triathlon and the rest to a great husband and wonderful family support,” Fawcett-Smith says. “I have always used physical fitness as a mechanism to help deal with stress.”

Fawcett-Smith had to learn to swim, bike and run again, all the while searching for prosthetic legs that were technical enough to allow her to race at a high level.

“I needed the thrill of the fight,” she says. “I like being challenged and I needed to be able to say ‘I conquered it and I won.’ Triathlon is what did it for me, the three toughest things I’ve ever had to do without a leg.”

In Budapest, she’ll be joined in the sprint distance, which is a 750-metre swim, 20-kilometre bike and 5k run, by Jody Barber of Smithers, B.C., also a nordic skier in this year’s Paralympics, Pierre Ouelett of Ancienne-Lorette, Que., Darren Smith of Victoria, Charles Moreau of Trois-Rivieres, Que., Grant Darby of Hamilton, Lorene Hatelt of Brampton, Ont., and Calgary’s Kim Wedgerfield.

Canada’s paratriathlon team is training in Budapest this week in preparation for Saturday’s race.

“I’m hoping to win. That’s been my goal since Day 1,” Fawcett-Smith says. “I’ll have a good day, but I’m asking for a great race for myself. I know it’s in there somewhere. I just need to unleash it.”

Fawcett-Smith will race in the AK category for above-knee amputees. She was third at the world championships two years ago in Vancouver. She wasn’t able to race last year in Australia because she was anemic and the country was on H1N1 alert.

The world paratriathlon championship coincides with the Grand Final of the International Triathon Union’s world championship series in Budapest. The seven-race series determines the men’s and women’s world champions.

Three-time Olympian Simon Whitfield of Victoria and Kyle Jones of Oakville, Ont., compete in the men’s elite race Saturday. Edmonton’s Paula Findlay, currently eighth in the women’s standings, is the lone Canadian in the women’s elite event Sunday.

Kirsten Sweetland and Jeff Philipps of Victoria and Andrew Yorke of Caledon, Ont., are Canada’s entries in the world under-23 championships Saturday.

Alison Hooper, Matt Sharpe and Christine Ridfenour of Victoria, Alexander Hinton of Kingston, Ont., Joanna Brown of Carp, Ont., and Cole Stewart of Langley, B.C., comprise the Canadian team for the world junior championship Sunday.

Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that sent Fawcett-Smith to Afghanistan multiple times during her military career.

Her brother, Warrant Officer Scott Fawcett, is currently serving there on his second tour. Fawcett-Smith races with a yellow ribbon tied to her bike handlebars as a reminder her brother still fights the same fight she did.

“I was deployed right after the attacks,” she explains. “For me, going to race on that day has profound significance. I have a lot of reasons to race and that just adds fuel to the fire.”

She also rides for Keiran, whom she calls her gift because he was born after two miscarriages.

“He’s our little angel on my shoulder telling me ‘Go mommy, go!’ How could you not go faster?”

Fawcett-Smith says she was carrying out her military duty when she lost her son.

“Both my husband and I were on high-readiness units,” she says. “We have a responsibility to find a place for our dependents to go to if we are deployed at the same time. I lost my son executing that duty.

“It’s a little hard for me because in the action of doing my duty, I lost my son. He didn’t get wiped out in Afghanistan, but he was killed right here at home.”

Fawcett-Smith returned to Afganistan an amputee soldier in November 2008 to work with families of fallen soldiers there.

“My job was to basically try and help address the families’ needs and concerns and answer questions and allow them to see the camp,” she explains.

“I needed to prove to myself that I could still do the job. It was without question, the toughest task I’ve ever had to do in my entire life because I’m a grieving mother as well and I’m standing alongside grieving mothers. It had only been two years since I lost my own son.”

She’s now based in Ottawa at the Canadian Operational Support Command, but would like to return to Afghanistan if the right mission came along.

“The sad part of the military is once you lose a leg you are considered walking wounded,” she says. “Basically promotions, the good jobs have been taken away from me. There’s really nothing left for me to do over there.

“I went from a high-profile, high-performance job with JTF2, our elite special forces, to doing business planning. It’s a little deflating because I didn’t lose my brain, I lost my leg. I’m not the only amputee soldier to face that.”

Through triathlon, however, Fawcett-Smith feels she’s helping others in the military who have lost limbs. She completed her first Ironman — a 3.8-kilometre swim, 180k bike and a marathon run of 42.195 kilometres — this summer in Lake Placid, N.Y.

She’s hoping paratriathlon is included at the 2012 Paralympics in London, even if it’s a demonstration sport, and she wants to race in it.

“I keep doing triathlon as a way to demonstrate to other soldiers coming back that there’s more than just rehab and more than just physio,” she says.

Fawcett-Smith would like to become a paratriathlon coach, once she gets more racing experience under her belt.

“There’s lots of thing I could do to help out youngsters and those suffering from traumatic limb loss and there’s lots of them,” she observes. “A lot more than I ever thought.”

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