Triathlete Verzbicas back after injuries

Lukas Verzbicas is back from a harrowing accident and aiming for success near his hometown. AP Images

Lukas Verzbicas’ road to the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro is making a stop in his backyard, with the graduate of Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park, Illinois, taking part in the ITU World Triathlon Series in Chicago on June 29.

“The Olympics are two years away and there’s still a lot of work and improvement to be done,” said Verzbicas, who was a track star at Sandburg High before becoming a professional triathlete. “The Olympic qualification points period already started, but there’s still time to focus on the big picture and continue being healthy in training.”

For Verzbicas, a successful summer would be defined by a return to the podium that puts recent struggles behind him.

Verzbicas is less than two years removed from a bicycle crash while training in Colorado Springs that left him with broken collarbone, two fractured vertebra and a collapsed lung. The sub-four minute high school miler needed to learn to walk again after suffering post-operation paralysis in his right leg.

“I think I’ve regained a lot of my strength and made a lot of progress since the accident,” Verzbicas said. “Being patient has been the hardest thing. I had to take my time, because everything wasn’t going to change in a day. It took a lot of hard work.”

Before the accident, Verzbicas was proving that he made the right decision to forgo NCAA eligibility and the chance to run at Oregon for a career as a triathlete. He won the 2012 Banyoles ITU Triathlon World Cup in Barcelona, Spain with a time of 1:47:28 (Swim: 19:49; first transition: 30 seconds; bike 55:23; second transition: 33 seconds; run: 30:55)

Verzbicas’ returned to the ITU World Cup with a 46th-place finish (1:51:00) in South Africa in April. Javier Gomez Noya of Spain won that the race in 1:44:52 and headlines the elite field for Chicago, which includes three of the top four men in the 2014 World Triathlon Series rankings.

Verzbicas aims to stay with the leaders while executing his race plan, the 21-year-old Lithuanian-American gaining valuable experience along the way.

“We’ve studied the strengths and weaknesses of each athlete and try to exploit them,” Verzbicas said. “There’s a lot of strategy involved. For me, getting out of the water with the main lead pack is key. Staying up there with on the bike and then giving it my all on the run, where my biggest strength is.”

Verzbicas is currently based in Orland Park and coached by his step-father, Roman Bertulis. He spent a year in San Diego, but now finally feels his training is at the level of world and Olympic champions.

“Trying to become one of those guys takes more work than I’ve done before,” Verbicas said. “It’s also going to take a lot more racing experience and continued training to become the very best that we’re trying to accomplish.”