Lucky to be Alive

December 13, 2016

Mike Ricci


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When I left home to go to work on December 16, 2004, I had no idea my life would be drastically changed forever; testing my character, determination, will power, and proverbial “heart.” My career as a Police Officer allows me to contribute to the betterment of our world daily. In my profession we all know there is a potential every day when we go to work we could pay the ultimate sacrifice, yet when we walk out the door that thought is not in the front of our minds.

I grew up an athlete and was taught goal setting by my parents from a very early age, in fact it’s all I can remember. I loved baseball as a kid and had no real natural talent. Like a lot of red blooded American boys I dreamed of being a major league baseball player and worked very hard to improve my baseball skills. My hard work paid off when I was selected as a walk on athlete for the University of Utah baseball team.After graduating college, my first job required travel and that meant being without a gym. So, I began running regularly. When I entered the Police Academy in the spring of 1999 I was one of the better runners and it showed. There is an annual Law Enforcement relay race called the Challenge Cup Relay, or Baker to Vegas. Participating agencies provide a team of twenty runners who each run one leg, averaging a 10k distance, across the California and Nevada desert. The race starts on a two lane highway approximately 20 miles outside of Baker, California, and extends 120 miles into downtown Las Vegas, Nevada. My Department was consistently one of the top teams in the race and quality runners were handpicked to be assigned to a specific facility and train for the team. Upon graduation I was selected for that facility and put on a rigorous training plan. I am a competitor, always have been, and now had a new goal. After running the race my first year I was hooked and made it a goal to run the race every year of my career. I could write several paragraphs about the race and the character it takes to run by yourself across the desert in every different type of weather and have personally run over mountain passes, across desert flats, and up steep inclines when it was 90 degrees, with ice on the ground, in high winds, and in perfect running conditions. My opinion was that those moments pushing myself to the mental and physical limits were helping me to become stronger and would pay off.

That opinion was affirmed on December 16, 2004. At the time, I was assigned to graveyard patrol. We worked a 12½ hour shift from 6 pm to 6:30 am. My first clear memory of the night is from approximately 10:15 pm when I was startled, as if from a dream, at the feel of metal running up the back of my leg. I opened my eyes to see one of my best friends, Rick, directly over my face and realized his hands were holding my head. The metal I felt were paramedic’s scissors cutting my pants off. I asked Rick what was going on. He told me I had been hit by a car, to which I responded that we had just had dinner. Rick will tell you we had that same exchange over and over again as the paramedics worked on me and prepped me for the ambulance ride; which was no picnic because the ambulance was really moving, causing every bump and turn to send waves of intense pain through my body. It was able to go so fast because we had an escort of police cars and a helicopter clearing the way so I could get to the hospital as fast as possible. The arrival at the hospital resulted in a flurry of activity as I was rushed into the trauma room at a teaching hospital. For those of you who have never seen or experienced such a phenomena, the room is filled with what seems like 50 people all doing and saying something.

At some point amidst all of this my memory flooded back to me: I had been assisting other officers investigating a burglary alarm at a residence when our helicopter spotted a car driving without its lights on through a park nearby. I was on a street to the rear of the residence and officers at the front said I could go check out the suspicious vehicle. At the time I was unaware the alarm had been false and thought it possible the occupants of the vehicle may have been involved in the burglary. The helicopter crew directed me to where the suspicious vehicle had parked, indicating a male had exited and was crossing the street directly in front of me. The street had two lanes traveling in each direction with a two-way center turn lane in between. I drove in the two-way center turn lane toward the male and illuminated him with the driver’s side spotlight on my unit. He immediately turned very quickly toward me while reaching into his right front pants pocket in a manner reminding me of someone reaching for a weapon. My reaction was to quickly park the car, exit, and draw my gun to protect myself. The male was not doing exactly what I told him, but he had stopped moving and not removed a weapon from his pocket. When I had him in a position where I felt comfortable until other officers arrived I moved in the only direction I could, which happened to be further into one of the traffic lanes. I felt like I had the situation relatively under control and began to evaluate my surroundings. When I looked down the street I could see a car coming directly at me in the lane I was standing in, realizing I was in trouble I began to run toward my unit; however, upon further inspection realized I did not have time to run out of the way. I decided my best option was to jump and slide on my butt at an angle across the hood of the oncoming car. With no time to spare I picked a spot on the hood, lifted my left leg, and jumped off of my right…..I remember seeing the headlight of the car swoop by under me before everything going dark until being awakened by the scissors on my leg.

The car hit me at approximately 40 mph and the driver never slowed down because he couldn’t see me through the spotlight I had pointed at the male. I hit on the hood of the car in the spot I intended, which is where my plan failed terribly due to the momentum of the car. My butt and legs dented the hood and I slid up into the windshield, shattering it, before my body was thrown 50’ down the street. I cartwheeled through the air and landed on the back of my head. My partners arrived to find me unconscious in the middle of a major street with a rapidly expanding pool of blood under my head. The first sergeant on scene, a thirty year veteran at the time, told me later he had never seen a cop down and out like I was and it seriously affected him.

Lucky to be alive the doctors told me I had two fractured cervical vertebrae, which was their major concern even while I complained to them my right knee was in severe pain. Of course the back of my head and neck were covered with abrasions and cuts from the windshield and my entire body was bruised. I was admitted and taken to my hospital room with my neck immobilized facing the possibility of surgery to repair it and fearing if it went wrong I would never walk again. The next day after several more X-rays and tests it was determined my spinal column was intact, I would not need surgery, and my knee was just bruised. Doctors theorized my level of conditioning, combined with jumping prior to impact, allowed me to survive with minimal injuries. I’ll agree with that partially but also believe there was a higher power watching over me. I was immediately relieved and resolved that I would fulfill my goal of running the annual relay race the following April.

The physical therapist came later that day with a walker so I could begin working on walking, without knowing who she was dealing with. Her plan was for me to go to the door of my room and back. I dragged my sore, broken, bruised body all the way down the hall and back. Those steps were the start of my road to recovery. I was single and lived alone so my mom, God bless her, came to take care of me. She couldn’t believe it when I made her take me to the gym so I could drag myself, with the assistance of my walker, to the exercise bike and ride through pain that brought tears to my eyes. As I healed and started to run my knee kept bothering me, prompting a return to the doctor and the discovery of a compression fracture caused when the bumper of the car hit my lower leg. The break had healed at that point and the only diagnosis was that it was possible at some point in my future I may need a knee replacement. Apparently I just had to deal with the pain because I could run and felt so blessed to be able to do so. In March, 2005, I ran the Department qualifier and made the team!

My older brother David also works in Law Enforcement in Montana, and I had always wanted him to come to the relay race. David had never been a serious athlete, not that he wasn’t athletic, it had just never been his thing. He is one of the toughest people I have ever met and really pushed me when we were kids, shaping my determination along the way. At the time he had no physical fitness regimen to speak of and was not in very good shape. Prior to the accident I told him I was considering triathlon and had actually begun to swim and ride a little. He and mom came to the race in 2005.

The team Captain was generous and gave me a leg that started with a half mile uphill over the top of a pass, followed by 6.3 miles of steep downhill. On April 24, 2005, at 12:53 am I took the baton and was filled with adrenaline as I took off up the hill. The temperature was in the 30’s but I didn’t feel it because I was so happy to be out there competing. I crested the pass and leaned forward down the hill. It was an absolutely gorgeous night with a beautiful moon, a star filled sky, and the lights of Vegas off in the distance. All the way down the hill I couldn’t help but thank God for bringing me through and allowing me to be out there, in that moment, appreciating that experience. I entered the next handoff point and gave up the baton 44:10 later, at an average pace of 6:29 per mile, with grateful tears in my eyes that I had done it! There stood mom and David overflowing with emotions and pride. Mom explained to me later she watched my brother cry as they cheered me on down the highway that night. David immediately told me he was going to get in shape and we were going to do a triathlon before his 45th birthday, which was a year later.I know it took me a long time in this story to get to triathlon, but that was where my triathlon lifestyle was truly born. I am extremely proud of David because he followed through and we began racing triathlon. Each race became a family gathering experience, selecting races in locations we all wanted to visit. We were raised in the outdoors and our first triathlon was at Hebgen Lake outside West Yellowstone, MT. For me the races are the culmination and celebration point of the hours of daily work, which I view as my time to sharpen my proverbial sword. To mentally, physically, and spiritually strengthen my being so I can tackle those seemingly impossible moments which always come up in life. We have graduated from Sprints to Olympics, Olympics to 70.3, and from 70.3 to Ironman. Although due to injury David still hasn’t completed the full distance yet, but will in Tempe this November!The last 11 years have held many of those seemingly impossible moments through which the therapy of triathlon has carried me. Mom passed away in January of 2012 and I was registered for Ironman St George that May. It would be my second run at that race and I was struggling with motivation when I reached out to Coach Mike Ricci. Timing is everything and he has been a Godsend. The following two years would become a couple of the hardest I faced with the loss of mom, life threatening incidents at work, and the loss of my 95 year old grandmother in June of 2013. With my training plan in place for me I could go out, do it without a lot of thought, and get my “therapy” in. The races came and my personal success was extremely fulfilling in the face of many challenges.I write this in the midst of yet another challenge. I am now assigned to a plain clothes surveillance unit tasked with locating and apprehending suspects who commit violent crimes in our City. Two weeks ago we were hunting one such individual who had kidnapped his ex-girlfriend and shot at a woman attempting to stop him. After many hours we located him and a pursuit followed. At the end of the pursuit the girlfriend was located safely and a perimeter was established to contain the suspect. I saw him begin to run inside the perimeter and gave chase with several partners. At the time I was wearing a ballistic helmet, ballistic vest laden with gear, and carrying a rifle. We reached a point where we had to go over a fence to catch the suspect. The safest place to do so was a spot where there was no top on the fence, only square wrought iron posts sticking up approximately six inches from the cross beam. While negotiating the fence my foot slipped and I fell onto the top of the fence. One of the posts entered the upper part of my right hamstring and penetrated approximately 5” into my right gluteus before I was able to stop my fall and lift myself back up off of the fence. I landed hard on my right leg and stumbled a little not realizing the fence had actually impaled me, thinking maybe I was just scratched. When I looked back at the fence post it was very apparent there was more than a scratch! Focused on the task at hand, because that’s what we do, I turned to continue after the suspect. One of my partners stopped me and pointed out the blood that had soaked through my shorts and was flowing down my leg. I have experienced a lot in my life, but the sight of that amount of blood leaving my body caused me to pause and say a quick prayer before focusing on getting it stopped. Thankfully we took care of that quickly and one of my partners and I walked toward where the Command Post indicated the paramedics would be. Again, triathlon crossing over into life, in fairly severe pain I walked to where I needed to go to be treated. As any of you know there comes a point in almost every race, if you’re truly racing, that the mind and body have a battle. There is pain and you have to choose whether to push through it or not. For me it’s not a choice and since I do that to myself constantly in training and racing it came easy to take myself to where I could get help.

Yet again my Guardian Angel was with me and the fence only caused muscle damage. Quickly upon arriving in the Emergency Room I was taken into surgery not knowing much. When I woke I was informed all had gone well and the doctor was able to get everything cleaned and stitched up. Many people have asked me how many stitches it took. The first time I was thrown off by the question because I didn’t care, all that mattered to me was it was repaired and the healing process had begun. During a follow-up with the doctor he chuckled and said he didn’t count, he repeated my sentiment about it being repaired and told me I could start working out gradually approximately a week after that appointment. My sister was with me and asked the doctor a lot of questions about working out and what time frame to expect for increasing intensity, etc…expressing a concern that I would push too hard, too fast. Again the doctor chuckled and told her nothing either of them said was going to prevent me from getting after it as soon as I could, all they could hope for is I listened to my body.

Today, I was scheduled to compete at Ironman St. George 70.3 and was extremely excited to do so. Instead, I spent 30 minutes in the weight room and 30 minutes on the recumbent bicycle. Man it felt good to get the blood pumping after two weeks of doing nothing. Yes, I did shed a tear that I was not racing in St. George, but that emotion is what I’m channeling to fuel my fire to get back on track. The next race on my schedule is the Yellowstone Half-Marathon June 13, on a team with my brother and several or our friends. No guarantees about my time, but I will finish the race.

I believe triathlon and life are actually parallels which all of us can learn and grow from. Many people look forward to things, gatherings, special occasions, etc….sometimes by doing so they miss out on the moments they live in, which are truly what life is made of. Those moments consist of good, bad, fun, difficult, and everything in between. In triathlon we have similar experiences. We set our sights on races and strive to do our best in them; however, we can’t do our best in a race without putting in the training time to get there. Inevitably the training time consists of all the highs and lows of life. You see as triathletes we intentionally put ourselves through those highs and lows in training and our lives are better because of it. We are able to face the little bumps in the road life hands us a little easier because we know we can get through it. For me the race itself is actually a celebration, a time to enjoy the fruits of my labor and I always say a prayer of thanks in the water before the cannon goes off.My parents and my grandmother were such inspirations to me and I honor them on race day by wearing my parent’s initials on my sleeves and carrying a lace handkerchief with grandma’s initials embroidered on it. My daughter is also a constant joy, inspiration, and motivating factor for me. She is at every race and is always so excited when I finish. I find a way to take her with me, the last race was a visor she gave me, and can’t wait to see that smile and hug her at the end of the race. When the tough moments hit, I work hard to honor them by pushing through and I always draw strength from the fact I am blessed enough to be alive and able to be out there covering the distance. I look around me, take in the environment, put a smile on my face, and do my best to encourage others to keep going. As long as my heart is pumping I am blessed to be living this life and I will achieve my goals!

My A race is Ironman Arizona and I will achieve a PR, hope to see you there!

Coach Mike Ricci is the Founder and Head Coach for D3 Multisport.  His coaching style is ‘process-focused’ vs. ‘results-focused.’ When working with an athlete, their understanding of how and why they are improving is always going to take precedence over any race result. Yes, there is an end goal, but in over 2 decades of coaching, experience has shown him that if you do the right work, and for the right reasons, the results will follow.

Coach Mike is a USAT Level III Elite Certified Coach, Ironman University Certified Coach, and Training Peaks Level II Certified Coach. He was honored as the USAT Coach of the Year.

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