The first time Andre Kajlich went swimming after losing both his legs, he dove into the deep end of the pool and said, "Come in and get me if I don't come up."
Kajlich, who raced in the hand cycle category at the 2011 Ironman World Championship, started endurance training as a way of getting in shape. "I was in a completely weakened state physically coming out of the hospital," he says. He weighed just 109 pounds and had no strength or appetite.
He wanted to focus on walking with prosthetics first, then finish his studies in Prague, where he was studying abroad when he was hit by a metro train. The accident resulted in a double leg amputation—one up to and including the hip joint and the other just above the knee.
"I had the goal of walking and I knew that was going to be a huge physical and endurance challenge, so I got into the swimming pool as quickly as I could."
It wasn't until he returned to the United States that he started competing in triathlons.
Although he was enthusiastic about fitness, he initially balked at wheelchair racing: "My first thought out of the hospital was that I didn't want a racing wheelchair, but when I first got out on one it was extremely fun, it was a great workout and a chance to go fast."
His first race was the San Diego Triathlon Challenge with the Challenged Athlete Foundation. "I didn't own a hand cycle when I committed to the race?and I didn't find out it was a half (long-distance race) until I got home."
But his sister bought him a hand cycle and he was hooked. It was after that race that he decided he would go on to do an Ironman 70.3 and eventually a full Ironman. It didn't take long: He not only won the Buffalo Springs Lake Ironman 70.3 last spring, but he qualified for Kona in the process.
On Setting Goals
Although he's racked up a very impressive resume in a short amount of time, he says the thing that he is most proud of is setting the goals in the first place. "It takes that next step from dreaming about it to really making up your mind that you're going to make it happen," he says. "I'm learning that's the critical stage."
Once you make that commitment, it's about taking that momentum and running with it. And it turns out, preparing for an Ironman in the hand cycle category isn't all that different from preparing as an age grouper.
Kajlich says there is widespread doubt about amputees being able to swim. "It's unfortunate because a lot of people haven't even attempted it."
Kajlich, who was a competitive swimmer before the accident, says that "the strokes are fairly similar to what they were before: Most of the things I was doing wrong were normal swim techniques anyway."
The most important thing is getting out there. True to the words of his website (Will.Go.Do), he encourages disabled athletes to "just go try it."
He recommends finding someone who has experience working with disabled swimmers. Beyond that, it's "just like any triathlete; you have to take the time to learn the technique, make the adjustments that you need to make, and practice."