One year ago this month, Andrew Starykowicz was all alone in the lead during the bike leg of the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon. He was peaking in his nascent professional career, having made his breakthrough in late 2011 by winning the Rev 3 race series championship.
Despite a strong pro field, Abu Dhabi, with its freakishly long 200K bike leg and short 20K run, played to the then-31-year-old's strengths perfectly. But at Aid Station No. 4, his race essentially ended and his life changed.
In a tricky part of the course under the shadow of a bridge, congested by a narrow road and the confluence of amateurs temporarily merging from the short course, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Starykowicz collided at high speed with a race volunteer who was unaware that the first long-course cyclist of the day was already coming by. Starykowicz, suffering a broken collarbone and injured humerus and labrum, and couldn't go on. The volunteer, a British woman, was seriously hurt. "I would have won this race for sure," he fumed to a reporter immediately after pulling out. But things soon got worse. He was charged with attempted manslaughter, held under house arrest, had his passport seized and even spent one night in jail.
After six weeks of legal entanglement and a bond paid (and the victim having eventually recovered), Starykowicz finally returned to the United States only to face arm and shoulder surgery, along with the prospect of a lost season. He was a broken man in more ways than one. Yet he refused to write off 2012.
"Every day I woke up I did what was possible, and asked, 'What can I do today?'" Starykowicz (pronounced STAR-kuh-wits) said of his summer following surgery. "Even before I was able to run, I walked nearly 1,000 miles. Every day I'd walk anywhere from five to 20 miles."
Nobody was prepared for what came next. Surpassing all medical expectations -- and approaching the limits of human athleticism -- late in the season Starykowicz raced two half-iron-distance races and two Ironmans in 36 days. "As soon as I got cleared to race, I said, 'I'm doing 'em all,'" he says. He not only won two of them, he shattered the Ironman bike course world record by more than seven minutes on his way to winning IM Florida.
"I knew I was gonna do it. I'm serious," Starykowicz says about breaking the world record.
This is typical Starykowicz bravado -- he's as outspoken and as confident as they come, and nearly as quotable as trash-talking Aussie legend Chris McCormack. It's the byproduct of the logical, methodical mind of a mechanical engineer (he worked at Caterpillar before turning pro) as well as his ludicrously intense competitiveness.
"Andrew's like a freight train," says his younger brother and training partner, Peter. "When he wants to do something, he gets on that one track and there's no other way." When they were kids, Peter says, they would always race bikes around their circular driveway. And no matter where they went, there was always a race back to the car.
"There are two things really unique about Andrew," says his bike coach, Bob Duncan. "He lives in Chicago and trains outside year-round; and his drive and killer instinct is off the charts. Nobody beats himself as hard as he does."
Starykowicz says training around Chicago makes race day easy. "It doesn't matter how cold or how warm it is. I've been there, I've been in worse conditions, and I smile at the adversity."
He is self-aware of how he comes across, and makes it clear that there's an analytical practicality to it. "When you plan the work and you put in the work, you're confident in strutting your stuff. You can say stuff and back it up. Triathlon isn't like football or soccer, where half the guys win, half the guys lose. In triathlon, there's one guy that wins, and everybody else loses."
But to initially get anywhere near the podium, Starykowicz first had to strengthen what was once an exceptionally weak run, and he enlisted running coach Charlie Kern four years ago.
"One of the first things I said to him was, 'We have to work on your form, because you can't tell anyone I'm your run coach if you run like that,'" says Kern. "He ran as I'd imagine a farmer chasing a cow in his pasture."
Kern's work has paid off; Starykowicz is now a lot lighter on his feet, with a shorter stride, and can throw down a 3:06 marathon off the bike. Not the speediest, but a massive improvement.
So with such a solid swim and a killer bike, and his Kona debut very much a possibility this year, it's natural to wonder how well he can do. The Ironman World Championship course has legendarily been a graveyard for the super-cyclist breed of triathletes, who inevitably burn out or fade away during the run through the lava fields. The winners of the past six years are all solid cyclists who possess a killer marathon knockout punch.
Duncan says Starykowicz is in the hunt if you do the math. "A lot depends on the run ... I don't remember anybody winning Kona going wire to wire, but realistically that's the only way he can do it. It could be really freakin' cool."
For his part, Starykowicz uncharacteristically plays a bit of possum with the Kona question. He prefers to focus on the season as a whole. So how does he see it shaping up? Exactly how you'd expect him to.
"Right now," he says, "my goal is to go to every singe race, set the bike course record, run as fast as I can, and see if they can catch me."