Blazers' Jonathan Yim astounds with his comeback
If there is anything we have learned about Jonathan Yim through his year of trials and tribulations, it's that intestinal fortitude, determination and drive are part of his DNA.
The video coordinator and player development coach of the Trail Blazers displayed it again on Sept. 8 by completing a half Ironman triathlon Santa Cruz, California, less than five months after suffering catastrophic injuries in an automobile accident.
Yim swam 1.2 miles, biked 56 miles and then walked — yes, walked — 13.1 miles to finish the race in seven hours, 30 minutes. He couldn't run because of lasting nerve damage to his right leg.
"I'm not proud it took me that long," said Yim, who was competing in his fourth half Ironman triathlon and has done more than 10 full triathlons.
He should be.
"I'm astounded by what Jon accomplished," said Erin Stone, Yim's triathlon coach, who was on hand at Santa Cruz to see it in person. "When I saw him walk by at the finish line, I got tears. It was so cool to watch."
Yim, 35, suffered a broken femur, fractures in his neck, a broken hand, a collapsed lung, a concussion and a laceration on his head in the crash on Interstate-84 east of Portland. He was driving his Toyota 4Runner with his mother, Inja Yim, his sister, Tabitha Yim, and his brother-in-law, Darin Kikuchi. None of the others sustained serious injuries. The car was crushed and spindled like an accordion.
Since his youth growing up in Garden Grove, California, Yim has prided himself in keeping in top shape.
"He knows his way around a gym," said Scott Hagness, Yim's strength coach.
Doctors believe that extent of fitness helped Yim make it through the accident. He believes it has helped him recover to where he was able to complete an Ironman half triathlon in front of cheering family and friends at Santa Cruz.
"I was ecstatic," he said. "It was very emotional. It felt good to have accomplished my goal."
Yim was training for the Santa Cruz race well before his accident.
"I was in the best shape of my life," he said. "My goal was to finish in the top three in my age group (35 to 39). I thought this was the race I could do that. But after the accident, it had a different meaning."
Yim never wavered on the idea of competing at Santa Cruz. Stone, who has known him for about two years, visited him in the hospital two weeks after the accident.
"He told me, 'I'm going to do an Ironman, and you're going to coach me,'" she said. "I said, 'Jon, how about getting you out of this wheelchair first?'"
Within a week after his discharge from the hospital, about three weeks after the accident, Yim began working with physical therapist Mike Baer.
"Initially, he was in a wheelchair," Baer said. "His leg had been fractured. Our primary focus was to get him up and used to weight bearing on the leg, and then on getting him walking. It was a slow progression."
Yim also met with Hagness, with whom he'd worked for almost a year.
"When we started, Jon was looking for strength training to support his triathlon training," Hagness said. "It worked well for him. When he had his accident, it was time to support him and figure out a way to get him back as quickly as possible. We put together a plan to allow him to be able to do his race."
At least some members of Yim's training team were skeptical, however, that completing a half Ironman marathon would be possible in his physical condition.
"At first, they were like, 'You can't do that. No way you can do that,'" Yim said. "The entire time since then, all I tried to do was turn that 'can't' and 'no' to a 'maybe.' Then turn it into a 'possibly,' then into the 'yes.' About two weeks before the race, Mike said, 'You just might be able to do this.' I got emotional. I said, 'Mike, I've been working for 2 1/2 months to get you to say 'maybe.'"
Once Yim was relieved of some of the medical restrictions, he began to work with Stone.
"He wasn't confortable going out to ride and swim on his own," Stone said. "I worked with him to get some miles in preparation for the Ironman, to make sure he had a buddy to train with. We got in the river and lake to swim in various locations in the area. It's not the ocean like it was at Santa Cruz, but it's important to simulate what the course is going to be like."
As race time approached, Yim made strides, but not as quickly as he'd hoped.
"The hardest part in training through this entire thing has been, I'm physically weak," he said. "My heart's really strong, but my arms and legs and body are not as strong as they were. I've always been able to overcome stuff in workouts and competitions. This was the first time where I couldn't will myself to finish a workout or to get training done."
Stone would counsel him to stay strong mentally.
Said Yim: "Erin would remind me, 'You're really blessed. You were in the hospital dreaming of biking and swimming in the rivers and all that stuff. You're out here now. That's something to be proud of.'"
"I had to change my mind-set from let's try to win and get a PR, to being grateful that I'm present," he said.
As Yim stood at the starting line of the swim portion of the Santa Cruz Half Marathon on Sept. 8, a flood of emotions swept through him.
"I was thinking about how far I'd come in such a short amount of time," he said. "I just looked out at everyone in my family and thought, 'We're going to be OK.' This was validation of that. I had to do it for my psyche. I wasn't going to let that accident define me and take away my joy. I wanted to control the things that I could control."
Competitors were required to complete the course in 8 1/2 hours. Yim's personal record for the half Ironman was five hours, eight minutes. That was before the accident.
"My goal was to finish before the time expired," Yim said.
Yim was least worried about the first leg of the journey, the swim. Then Murphy's Law kicked in.
"I don't like to put on my wetsuit," Yim said. "I don't like it to feel tight. I waited until pretty close to the start (of the swim). Then I asked a woman to zip me up in the back. As she zipped, I heard a 'rip!'"
The wet suit had ripped across the back.
"I was laughing," Yim said. "I was thinking, 'God, isn't this hard enough already?' My mom was standing in the chute as I got ready to jump in the water. She asked, 'What are you going to do?' I said, 'Nothing at this point.'"
The suit held up, and though it took on water and slowed him down a bit, Yim made it through the swim fine, "easy and steady," he said.
The bike leg, Yim said, "felt really long." He figured if he could complete the 56 miles in 3 1/2 hours, that would give him about four hours to walk the 13 miles. He biked the first 28 miles in an hour and 47 minutes, which was roughly 3.5-hour pace.
"But I got to the turnaround marker and was really nervous," Yim said. "It was the only time in the race where I felt I might not finish in time. I was on pace, but you don't know what could happen. You want to give yourself a buffer.
"Luckily, I had a little tailwind on the second part of the bike (leg). I gunned it as much as I could. I didn't feel great, but I just had to go. I knew if I pushed a little harder it would be a nice, relaxing walk."
Yim finished the bike portion in slightly under three hours, giving him plenty of cushion for a walk that wasn't nice and relaxing.
"To start, after the biking, it was a little painful," he said. "But I had practiced walking that distance, so I was used to it."
As Yim limped to the finish, he received an ovation from family, friends and loved ones. Amid the doubts swirling around him, he had believed in himself.
"The question was whether I would be able to do it physically, but I always knew I could do it," he said. "There was never any doubt in my mind."
Hagness said he felt the same way.
"I know his mentality," he said. "He's extremely determined. I had very little doubt he would get it done."
Stone couldn't say the same.
"When I first saw him in the hospital, if somebody told me he'd doing a half Ironman 4 1/2 months later?" she said. "No way. Not even a possibility."
Baer wasn't so sure, either.
"Just the fact he was there competing was pretty amazing," the physical therapist said. "The injury to his right leg was severe. When he told me of his goals of wanting to do this, I thought he could do the bike and swim, but I didn't see him being able to complete the run.
"That he was able do a half Ironman triathlon so soon ... has far exceeded my expectations. There is a normal healing process that correlates with how people improve after a pretty severe accident, and he has beaten that time line significantly."
Blazers coach Terry Stotts was one of the first to offer congratulations.
"When Jon told me he was going to do that, I thought he was a little crazy," Stotts said. "But I also know he's the type of guy who likes to set goals for himself and is pretty determined to achieve them.
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised. He takes a lot of pride in accomplishing things. It's a testament to his perseverence and his willpower."
Yim's physical recovery continues, though he still has a long way to go.
"I still can't run," he said. "My orthopedic surgeon said my leg is doing remarkably well, but I have nerve damage throughout my right side, including my arm, and weakness through my body. My goal is to get back to as close to where I was before the accident as possible."
There will be more triathlons in the future, and perhaps a marathon in about six months.
"We'll continue working on getting his muscular balance and the range of motion back in the leg, and also regaining some of the muscle he lost, and his hip stability," Hagness said. "Those aren't quite where he needs to be for running a marathon.
"The last few weeks, though, he has started to close the gap. It's going to be an ongoing project to get it fully back, but over the next year, I'm guessing he's going to do really well. He's such a great guy. It's been inspiring for me to work with someone so dedicated and determined."
Stone, a certified training coach, will continue to work with Yim and hopes he will join her triathlon team, "Soles Inspired."
"He would be a great addition in terms of spirit and drive," she said. "His physical recovery is coming along really well. He is adjusting to the new normal. He's doing everything he can to get better. He has a great team behind him. He is getting stronger and more weight-bearing every day. He is not too far off from where he was performing before the accident in terms of the swimming and biking.
"The ego is not in the way with Jon. This was just to prove to himself he could come back. He's doing it, too, for the love of the sport. He's such a well-rounded guy, with family and friends and what he's doing professionally. So many people care a lot about him. They're anxious to see how it all comes together."
Does Baer think Yim can eventually get back to where he was physically prior to the accident?
"Yes, I do," he said. "This is an individual with a high degree of mental focus and toughness. I don't often get an opportunity to work with people like this. That he was able to particpate in this half Ironman relatively quickly after a severe traumatic event is phenomenal. I have no doubt he can get back up to the same level he was at previously.
"He's one of these guys you want to see succeed, because he's a good person. He's the whole package — as an athlete and a human being."
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