What It’s Like to Survive a Near-Death Cycling Accident
How is it some athletes are able to survive horrific accidents, defying doctors and conventional medical wisdom? Author Michael Vitez explores that question in his book The Road Back: A Journey of Grace and Grit, which tells the story of Matt Miller. In November 2008, Miller was a 20-year-old student and triathlete at the University of Virginia when he collided on his bike with an oncoming Porsche along the Blue Ridge Parkway, smashing into the vehicle with his face.
He broke every bone in his face, essentially lost all of his teeth, and experienced severe brain trauma. Remarkably, the first person on the scene was an anesthesiologist, who knew how to position his head. That was the first of a series of fortunate circumstances that got him alive to the University of Virginia hospital, where doctors gave him little chance of surviving 72 hours, at least without permanent brain damage.
Instead, Miller walked out of the hospital in 25 days, scored a 95 on a makeup physics exam with a class average of 65, and two years later completed Ironman Cozumel in a top 10 percent time of 10:30—during his first semester of medical school, no less.
Miller’s family spent three agonizing days in the hospital wondering if he was going to make it. Miller’s girlfriend Emily spent nights at his hospital bedside even as his face was mangled beyond recognition. (The two are still together, now engaged and fellow medical students at the University of Pennsylvania.)
Miller, a walk-on swimmer at the University of Virginia who quit the team after one year to focus on triathlon, showed a superhuman tolerance for pain and proving medical experts wrong. He was studying his physics texts in bed within days of emerging from major brain trauma. He found a way to consume nearly 4,000 calories a day with his jaw wired shut and underwent eight root canals in one day with minimal painkillers. While still in the hospital, he got his former swim coach’s calves burning as they walked stairwells together.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book is when someone finally handed Miller a mirror in the hospital. He just shrugged at the sight of his disfigured face that would require many more surgeries.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” says Vitez, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. “I sent a draft of the book to my agent and she sent it back. She didn’t believe it and told me to go back and talk to him some more. She thought there must have been a point where he was devastated and I wasn’t going deep enough. And I went back and asked again and again, but I found that Matt felt that as long as his girlfriend was with him and that there was no hesitation on her part, that he was fine. He said, ‘I’m a vain guy. I used to be upset about a pimple on my face. It’s not that I don’t care how I look, but I’m up thinking and walking, living my life, and Emily was still in love with me and the rest didn’t matter.’”
Three months after the accident, Miller jumped into a pool for the first time, swam a 100 free in 59 seconds, and vowed to do an Ironman triathlon. He started with the Charlottesville (Va.) Half Marathon, posting a 1:27:28—10th among the 436 men entered. In the fall of 2009, he finished 28th among the 2,500 competitors in the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington.
Most cyclists and triathletes can recall every detail of bicycle accidents and struggle not to think of them while riding. Miller, who remembers nothing of his crash, scared his family and girlfriend by getting back in the saddle—on his repaired bike no less—agreeing to wear a motorcycle-like helmet and ride on roads without automobile traffic.
Miller completed Ironman Cozumel among the top 10 percent of the field and vowed to do another—after medical school. He still competes in shorter triathlons and other races.
In May he completed the 10-mile Broad Street Run in Philadelphia in 59:26, a pace just under a 6-minute mile. Not bad for a guy wrapping up his second year of medical school. Vitez says he still struggles to explain how Miller got through the ordeal with such an upbeat personality.
“I think he put his family through such a horror that he was determined not to complain or let anything slow down his recovery out of respect and love for Emily and his family since he had caused them such pain,” he said. “There are such great qualities in this kid and it was a thrill to share it.”
About The Author
Pete Williams – Pete Williams is a contributing writer for CorePerformance.com and the co-author of the Core Performance book series.