By any measure, the accident that suddenly altered the course of so many lives was unforeseeable. Unimaginable even.
On the morning of July 4, Dana Pearson and his girlfriend, Kristin Bartholomew, were enjoying an uneventful bike ride on A1A in Vero Beach. But as the veteran triathletes turned into a residential neighborhood, a possum darted out of dense roadside foliage and ran headlong into Pearson’s front spokes, bringing the North Palm Beach man’s bike to a dead stop.
Pearson hurtled over his handlebars, and landed on top of his skull. Despite the helmet he was wearing, he suffered severe brain and neck trauma. Among the injuries: a fractured C4 vertebra, the area of the spinal cord that controls the diaphragm, and therefore breathing.
Before he lost consciousness, Pearson whispered his last words to Bartholomew: “Call an ambulance. I need you to call an ambulance.”
He was placed on life support at Fort Pierce’s Lawnwood Regional Medical Center, and on July 13, his family made the decision to say goodbye to the father of two, Boy Scout leader, Little League coach, member of the Knights of Columbus and longtime Team in Training volunteer.
He was 49 years old, and a man well- and widely loved. Hundreds mourned at an Aug. 10 memorial service at St. Clare Catholic Church in North Palm Beach. And on Sunday, Pearson will be honored again in Washington, D.C., where the seven members of the Palm Beach chapter of Team in Training, a fund-raising arm of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, will compete in the Nation’s Triathlon wearing race singlets that read “Team Pearson.”
As the team’s leader, Pearson was motivator-in-chief, his former teammates say. He was the 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound guy who made everyone in his presence breathe a little easier. He scheduled the team’s Saturday mornings in the pool, Sunday mornings on the bike and post-training breakfasts.
Although Bartholomew was not training for this particular event, after Pearson died she stepped forward to lead the team, and to help leave a legacy of the good work her boyfriend had begun.
“Those are big shoes to fill, but I agreed,” says Bartholomew, a Jupiter pharmaceutical sales rep who is still navigating her own heartbreak. Being part of Team in Training, she says, “is like having a family outside of your blood relatives who can hold you up no matter what you’re going through, and who understand what it’s like to grieve, what it’s like to lose someone.”
That’s because most people come to Team in Training when they’ve lost loved ones to the struggle against blood cancer. Leukemia claimed Pearson’s father. Lymphoma has squared off against two of Bartholomew’s relatives.
When a family member undergoes chemotherapy or when cancer claims a friend, “you feel helpless, you’re in shock,” Bartholomew says. “You don’t know what to do. You wish there was a way to change it, turn back time, do something different.”
Taking up a cause — like training for a triathlon or raising money for research — is a positive release, says Bartholomew, who says she was pushed to return to cycling after Pearson’s accident chiefly because she knew she had to lead her team.
But the trauma of the accident, which Bartholomew heard but mercifully did not see (she was riding in front of Pearson), elicited shock waves of emotion long afterward. Crying was common, but so was the feeling of freedom that she and Pearson both loved when cycling.
“For the first few weeks, every time I would get the back on the bike, the smell of, I don’t know how else to put it other than death, would just hit me. It would last a few seconds, and I would wait for it to pass, clip my feet into the pedals and wait for my body to do what it knew how to do,” she says.
There’s science behind the saying “just like riding a bike.” Once trained, the body will perform. It’s the mental aspect of endurance events — of the twists and turns of life — that can be trickier.
And that’s where a triathlon parallels the grief process.
Both are “very much one foot in front of the other,” Bartholomew says. “It’s taking steps forward, whatever those steps are. It’s making that choice to continue. Continuing to do what I need to do at work, continuing to be engaged with my friends, continuing to show up at church and sing.
“It’s exactly what people are going through when they join Team in Training in the first place. They need help putting one foot in front of the other, and we help them do that.”
Bartholomew has been a lifeline, says Nicole Mercado, a Team in Training campaign specialist from West Palm Beach. “It could have been easy for the team to feel defeated or broken, but instead, just the opposite happened. They banded together.”
And they’re on pace not only to complete Sunday’s Olympic-distance triathlon (roughly a mile swim, 25-mile bike ride and six-mile run), but also to raise $34,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“This team has really impressed me with its dedication, loyalty, commitment and fortitude,” says Steve Griffith, the team’s coach and a veteran Team in Training participant. “It’s been really special to watch how the team has come together to rally around Dana.”
Before the team’s final swim practice at Lake Lytal pool in West Palm Beach last weekend, Mercado handed out shirts that will be worn during race weekend. Across the back: “Everyday is a gift! In Memory of Dana Wood Pearson.”
For Pearson, each day was a gift, Bartholomew says. “He wasn’t afraid of death. He had lived a great life.”
And as the teammates Pearson left behind cross the finish line Sunday, they’ll be victorious. By any measure.
“You watch people’s lives change through a training season in ways you can’t measure in foot falls on a run or pedal strokes on a bike or arm strokes in the water. It’s much bigger than that. That’s just all the mechanics, but what goes on in the brain is all about just showing up. That’s all you gotta do,” Bartholomew says. “Show up and do what the coach asks of you, and you will complete this thing.”
Swimming, biking and running for a cure
Sunday in Washington, D.C., Team in Training chapters from across the United States, including the Palm Beach area chapter, will compete in the Nation’s Triathlon, an Olympic-distance event in which racers swim .93 miles in the Potomac River, bike 24.8 miles past the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial and run 6.2 miles over the Tidal Basin and alongside the Jefferson Memorial.
To sign up for a future athletic event or to donate to Team in Training, which raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, go to TeamInTraining.org.