In 2003, Andre Kajlich was a 24-year-old student in the Czech Republic who, after a night of partying with friends in Prague, said his goodbyes and headed for the subway. That’s the last thing he remembers. Somehow he ended up on the tracks, where the arriving train didn’t stop until four of its five cars had run over Kajlich. He lost his left leg at the hip and his right leg above the knee. What was left of his body was mashed and mangled.
Growing up in Seattle with his American mother and Slovakian father, Kajlich had always loved to run. But Kajlich didn’t fully understand what running meant to him until he couldn’t do it anymore. Rescued from near death, he was hospitalised for three months before going home. More surgeries followed, and Kajlich’s health began to improve. He started swimming to get in shape to try prosthetics, which, privately, the fitter didn’t think he could manage. Wrong. He’d never be able to run in the artificial limbs – the hip loss prevents that – but within a few years Kajlich had been turned on to triathlon and is now a world-class paratriathlete and ultraendurance wheelchair racer. A top finisher in multiple international competitions, Kajlich was named 2012 Paratriathlete of the Year after winning the Ironman World Championships in the Hand-Cycle Division (3.8-kilometre swim, 179-kilometre recumbent bike ride, 42.2-kilometre wheelchair “run”). Sponsored by Challenged Athletes Foundation, he’s also a research assistant at the University of Washington in Seattle.
After finishing the recent Brazil 135 Ultramarathon in just over 62 hours – to get up its 33,000 feet of ascent, he sometimes had to pull his off-road wheelchair behind him on a line – Kajlich shared these thoughts about his life. – C.E.
I feel incredibly lucky. Not because I survived getting run over. It just feels like my life so far has been pretty cool.
I’d never run again. I gave that up forever. But I also knew that I’d never set limits on myself because of not having legs. I knew I’d find a way.
I can still remember the last time I ran. My buddy Antonio and I were taking the tram home one afternoon, not a week before the accident. I spontaneously jumped out at an earlier stop and yelled back to him on the train, “Race you home!” Man, I flew! My chest got that hot-cold burn going in it, dead sprinting along this four-lane road. It wasn’t all that far, but I was flat out for five minutes. Anyway, that was my last running race, and I whooped that train! Antonio is still my great friend and was on my support crew for the Brazil 135 Ultramarathon.
It’s an amazing thing, running – especially at that maximum turnover. It’s also amazing to never do something again because you can’t. I’d like to transfer that concept into everyone’s head, because inevitably it will happen to all of us.
The first time I put a prosthetic leg on, I thought, I can’t do this. I can’t wear this every day. It was painful and constricting. Yet I got used to them, and learned to wear them all day, every day. The very first day I had full-length legs, I went to pick up my German buddy at the airport. It took forever to walk from the parking lot to the arrival area, and I was sweating my arse off, but that kind of stubbornness has been absolutely necessary.
I don’t spend much time thinking about the things I can’t do, but there are a few things that I miss. I can’t feel the grass under my feet.
After the accident I felt invincible. My body had been smashed and I was all but dead but made it through. So I figured I was pretty tough to kill. Besides, I figure, how much more messed up could I get?
There was a time in the hospital when I wondered if I could ever be happy again, but this sure as hell feels like the best living I’ve experienced, so I want to keep going, just keep seeking what’s around that next corner. Probably there’s some overcompensating going on.
If the toughest times aren’t behind me, the future is going to be rough! I’m amazed not by how I personally handled this but just how the human body and mind can handle the craziest scenarios. People have been through stuff that makes my life look like a day at the beach. The body can adapt incredibly, and the mind can turn out some magic of its own.
The lack of one hip joint, two knees, two ankles, and a couple of feet does make it pretty difficult to get around, but after eight years I’ve gotten pretty used to it. I don’t even remember that I ever got around differently. Well, I don’t often forget that I was “normal” for 24 years, but the actual feeling has slid far away.
My father is my absolute role model. He was a man like no other. He taught me not to complain and to just go and do what you can do. The way he lived gave me a great goal – never be mentally lazy.
I met my wife in Prague. She was planning a move to China with her boyfriend and was going to teach English there. The school messed up her housing so she ended up in our guest room for a week. We hit it off right away, but it took a while for her boyfriend to become not-her-boyfriend. I was a perfect trying-to-stay-a-gentleman until that took place. We’ve been married now for four years. I couldn’t have done better with legs, with millions of dollars, or with the Internet.
It’s awesome if it happens, but in no way do I try to go out and inspire others.
Drinking isn’t worth it. Surprisingly, I didn’t get this into my head until recently, a long time after the accident.
If you have even a slightly problematic relationship with alcohol, there are better ways to make memories.
There’s something about transitioning from dreaming to doing that forces you to let go of the dream.
I believe that I’ve become a better person through all this, and that attracts people. People are attracted to the type of person that you are.
Life isn’t about having it all. You take what you got, enjoy it, and push to see where you can take it.
There’s obviously a limit to what I can do. But that’s not unique to me having no legs. There is no limit to the possibilities that exist for me. They are infinite.
And they include the Moloka’i Surf Ski World Championships and the Marathon des Sables. They’re on my list.