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Rob Woestenborghs completed the Abu Dhabi Triathlon yesterday despite a bike crash that left him in a coma in 2008.
Rob Woestenborghs completed the Abu Dhabi Triathlon yesterday despite a bike crash that left him in a coma in 2008.

Belgian's comeback from a coma to the Abu Dhabi finish line

Near death after a crash only 10 months ago, a determined Belgian recovers to place among the professionals in yesterday's race.

ABU DHABI // The last few steps to cross the finish line were important for everyone in the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, but perhaps even more significant for Rob Woestenborghs. Less than a year ago, he was in a coma after a horrible crash in a cycling race, with his chances of survival touch-and-go.

Yesterday, sealing an extraordinary recovery, the Belgian was back in the saddle for the men's elite competition of the capital's triathlon, finishing 28th out of 32 athletes. In 2008, Woestenborghs was at the top of his game. He became the world champion in duathlon, an event similar to triathlon except that the swimming leg is replaced by a second running leg. Then on May 10 2009, he was travelling at over 55kph in a bicycle race in the Netherlands when the rider in front of him stopped short.

Woestenborghs flew over his handle bars and smashed into a tree. "It happened so fast," he said. "The next thing I knew I was laying down on the ground and I couldn't breathe. I felt everything slipping away." Half an hour after he arrived at the hospital he fell into a coma. He had 22 broken bones and suffered serious damage to his spleen, liver, kidney and lungs. "The doctors didn't know if I would survive for the first three days. They were difficult."

Finally, after five days, he came out of the coma. But he thought he would never ride a bicycle again. For the first months he focused on his rehabilitation. Once his organs healed, he worked on strengthening his weakened muscles. Incredibly, within nine months he was able to get back on his bike again, albeit with restrictions. "My wife doesn't let me do any bicycle-only races," he said. Instead, he focused on his first love, the triathlon.

He was determined to get back into the sport and marked his return in January by competing in the Half Ironman Triathlon in South Africa. Woestenborghs had initially entered triathlons for fun, but in 2004 he decided to become a professional in the gruelling sport. "It is something you grow into," he said. "At first you are racing and aiming for the front. Then you start to notice you are coming in between the guys who are professional. You want to get better every time and you have to go professional. Otherwise it is not a fair fight."

Although he is an osteopath by trade, the 33-year-old Belgian has competed in more than 100 races around the world. His wife, Barbara, is an anaesthesiologist and lives in Belgium with their daughter. She tries to come to races but cannot attend all of them because she holds a full-time job. Although she wanted to be here, Abu Dhabi was just too far. For him, Abu Dhabi is not just about the race, but the journey, too. "Whatever position I am in I was happy to be on the bike again."

Despite his accident, he finished yesterday's race in 7hrs12min53sec, only 38 minutes behind the winner, Eneko Llanos of Spain. As he made those final steps to end the race, he was aware of how far he can still go. "It was," he said, "intense." amcmeans@thenational.ae

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