Even though his season ended after a horrifying bicycle crash in July, Lukas Verzbicas was named Thursday as USA Triathlon’s 2012 rookie of the year.
The Sandburg High School graduate, who now lives in Colorado Springs, has made a stunning recovery from the July 31 training accident that left him with spinal injuries so severe doctors initially worried he might not walk again.
In mid-March, he hopes to do his first triathlon since the accident.
“This year is all about getting back into it,” Verzbicas, 19, said Thursday from Clermont, Fla., where he has been training since early January. “We don’t want to be forcing anything.”
Verzbicas, who was the best high school distance runner in the country his senior year at Sandburg, won the Jan. 19 New Balance Running Bridge four-mile road race in Clermont with a time of 21 minutes, 2 seconds. He has been on the bike outdoors for rides as long as three hours.
“I’m more aware of everything and more careful now,” Verzbicas said of his bicycle workouts.
He long had resisted exhortations to minimize training risk given by his coach and stepfather, Romas Bertulis.
In an interview with the Tribune during his five-week hospitalization after the accident, Verzbicas had vowed to be back in competition by “the end of 2013 at the latest.”
“I didn’t think I would already be where I am today,” Verzbicas said. “There is still some lingering stuff. My balance might be a little off. I couldn’t move my right leg (for a week) after the accident and it’s still only about 90 percent now. So there are things that remind me every day of what happened.
“But coming back from where I was, that stuff is no big deal. I have a great feeling of accomplishment. I’m very grateful for all the help I have received from so many people, especially the doctors and therapists.”
Before the injury, Verzbicas had made his World Cup debut as the youngest U.S. athlete to win an International Triathlon Union World Cup event, taking the June 17 race in Banyoles, Spain. Two weeks earlier, he had won the Dallas ITU Pan American Cup, his first senior elite victory.
Verzbicas finished the year as the No. 5 American in the ITU World Triathlon Series rankings.
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