One year after a debilitating accident, triathlete Sebastian Ziesler races Utah’s Toughest Triathlon
For the first five months after the accident, Sebastian Ziesler only knew what had happened to him in the broadest sense: that he was run over by a pickup truck on Aug. 22, 2017, while riding his bike, fracturing his skull and resulting in brain surgery. He didn’t wonder about the details much. What good did it do to mull over a terrible accident?
From the minute he woke up at the University of Utah Hospital, he was focused on getting back to racing form while picking up the pieces of himself scattered in the accident.
“With the recovery, I was very clear from the initial moment that I was going to be getting better,” Ziesler said.
But that would take time.
He had gone from being one of Park City’s most dedicated triathletes – a founder of the Park City Triathlon Club who was training for the Half Ironman World Championships when he was hit – to having to relearn how to eat.
Over the next year, he and his wife, Ali, drew on both their faith and strength as a family while Ziesler made a return to the competition scene, which culminated with running the Utah’s Toughest Triathlon on Aug. 25, a year and three days after his injury.
For Sebastian, his memory starts two weeks after he was hit, beginning with a series of strange dreams.
He first dreamt that he was in an RV made of Legos.
In his next dream, he felt an urge to prepare his family to breathe the air of the deep, cold place he was in.
That second one had a direct link to reality.
Doctors had put him in a hypothermic state, reducing his core temperature to slow his metabolism, allowing surgeons to safely remove a square of bone at the back of his skull and clear a large blood clot from a punctured vein. He had also suffered a skull fracture.
From the start, Ali relied heavily on her and Sebastian’s Christian Scientist faith. The belief is a distinct variant of Christianity that posits a direct connection between prayer and physical healing, and also that perceived material reality doesn’t exist.
“I just started praying the whole time, working with what I know: Christian Science about man; the identity and being of a person, and how it’s not tied to matter and, brain, and blood and bones,” she said.
She was taking care of her and Sebastian’s three boys – Blake, Gavin and Dean – when she received a phone call from the police saying Sebastian had been hit by a car. There was no grief or panic, just a focus on handling the situation. She called her mother and asked her to come watch the kids, then packed for the hospital, not knowing how long she would be there.
Regardless of what had happened, she trusted Sebastian would still be the man she married as she drove to the hospital.
“First question I asked was, ‘I’m here for Sebastian, is he alive?’ And they didn’t know,” Ali recalled. “So it was a little bit of a process of finding out.”
She eventually discovered he was alive and was scheduled for surgery right away.
“There was such a calm that was required,” she said of the aftermath. “I just had to be very focused, and everything that was important was no longer important – it was only what needed to get done for him.”
That mindset didn’t stop when Sebastian woke up.
During those first weeks, Sebastian was “a person unfiltered,” Ali said.
“There were some things that were beautiful, and there were some things that were downright ugly,” she said.
Ali said, at first, Sebastian’s personality was unstable, comparing it to a person reentering society after a long absence. But he still had a drive to get well that was linked to his competitiveness and propensity for athleticism.
“He just doesn’t know anything but success and activity in life – that’s who he is,” Ali said. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’m tired,” he just wanted to live.”
One of the first things Sebastian said to his doctors after he woke up in September was that he had to leave the hospital because he had an upcoming race – the Half Ironman World Championships, which was on Sept. 2 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“(The doctor) just kind of chuckled and said, ‘I don’t think you’re going to get to that,’” Sebastian recalled. “But that was my point for every little obstacle that came up.”
After spending two weeks unconscious and eight more days in the hospital after waking up, Sebastian was cleared to eat on his own. Ali brought him home, hiring therapists and nurses to help him recover.
Sebastian credits his faith for helping him heal faster by discarding any preconceived notion of what is possible. He said saw people in the hospital with similar injuries to him who had to be lifted by a crane to get into a wheelchair, while his recovery exceeded expectations.
“A lot of my recovery, you could just say ‘Wow, that was really lucky,’” he said. “Or you can say, ‘Yeah, it could be Christian Science the ideas from Christian Science that are enabling me to get better much faster.’ From that perspective I’m really grateful for it.”
Friends came by to help with his recovery, including triathlete Scott Kobrin.
“We’d walk him,” Kobrin said. “I would have liked to say we walked with him, but that was not the goal. The goal was to get him out.”
Sebastian wore a special belt that allowed caretakers to stabilize Sebastian when he was going up and down stairs or walking outside.
Early in Sebastian’s recovery, all responsibility for running their household fell on Ali – who saw it as her duty to act as a metaphysical role model for him, taking on the duties that Sebastian would normally perform until he returned.
“I have to work through everything on this end because I’m kind of (vicariously) demonstrating what I want him to be demonstrating,” Ali recalled. “I felt like everything I was doing was important, it was progressive in nature.”
By fall, Sebastian was able to get on his stationary bike, even if he could only manage five minutes pedaling at half of his previous power.
But he stayed focused on the positive aspects of his recovery and soon started running around his Park Meadows neighborhood – half a mile at a time. One day, he and Ali ran to the PC MARC, about a mile from his house. In late September, he squeezed in a short swim before the gym’s pool closed for the year.
By December, he was running up to eight miles at a time.
Biking was trickier.
Sebastian was nervous about re-injuring himself, because his balance was poor after the accident.
He took his first 12-mile bike ride along the Millenium Trail and through Round Valley that month.
“That was kind of a tough one,” he said, reflecting on his anxiety about the potential for re-injury. “I would see a dog and I would get really hesitant. I’m on the trail, so there’s no cars, but still.”
He was apprehensive when he went for his first bike ride with a group, but the next time he went, he began to relax and his mileage started to climb.
At that time, he still didn’t really know what had happened to him until social media led to a chance encounter with a witness.
Ali thought that Sebastian would benefit from hearing firsthand what had happened, so in January she posted a message on Facebook asking if anyone had seen the accident.
A mutual friend tagged Shawn Siebe, a Parkite, in the post, and he contacted Ali.
Siebe had seen the accident, and said he would be happy to help fill in Ali and Sebastian’s knowledge.
So Siebe and his wife, Jill Ford, came to see Ali and Sebastian at their home for brunch in January.
Miracle on Bonanza
Siebe remembered it like it was yesterday – how on Aug. 22, 2017, a slow-moving Chevy truck hopped the southbound curb on Bonanza Drive and trundled up the grassy shoulder, spitting Sebastian’s battered body from under its back bumper with his mangled bike still at his side, before it crashed into a tree.
“It just mowed him down,” Siebe recalls.
Siebe was driving behind the vehicle, on his way back to work as a maintenance worker at Deer Valley with a coworker, Art Muyco, beside him.
When he saw Sebastian, Siebe pulled his work truck all the way up onto the sidewalk and jumped out, while Muyco called 911.
Sebastian was a crumpled heap in spandex cycling clothes lying on the sidewalk, clearly struggling for his life.
He took deep, labored breaths that shook his body. His eyes were open, but he wasn’t responsive. Foam started to ooze out of his mouth.
“Dear Lord, don’t let this guy die in front of me,” Siebe recalls saying aloud.
The next two people on the scene seemed to be a direct answer to Siebe’s prayer. They were a trauma nurse and another medical professional – Siebe is not sure what kind. The nurse, a woman, and the other bystander, a man, started taking Sebastian’s vitals and instructed Siebe to stabilize Sebastian’s spine by holding his head still.
“As long as he keeps breathing, we’re OK,” Siebe heard the nurse say.
But Sebastian’s condition was not improving. After a few moments – which he said felt indeterminate, feeling like anywhere from seconds to hours – Siebe heard Sebastian’s eardrum pop as a quarter-inch jet of blood splashed out through the side of Sebastian’s helmet.
At the nurse’s command, Siebe removed Sebastian’s helmet, took off his own shirt, and pressed it to Sebastian’s ear. Tears flooded Siebe’s face as he continued to pray for the man he was sure would die in his hands.
Then, paramedics arrived.
Siebe recalls one giving him a plastic breathing mask to put on Sebastian, telling him he was doing a good job.
As the paramedics were assessing the scene, Sebastian’s eyes started to focus.
Sebastian awoke and appeared to fly into a rage, a sight that haunts Siebe to this day.
“It was almost like he was possessed,” Siebe said.
Sebastian, who remembers none of the incident, was unsurprised by that, reasoning it was a logical response for someone who was confused.
Paramedics took over and eventually sedated Sebastian, at which point Siebe remembers running to the truck and seeing an older man whose head was tilted back, vomiting. He alerted the paramedics, and they attended to the driver, who was in anaphylactic shock after a insect sting.
Sebastian was evacuated to the U. by helicopter from the Prospector Square parking lot, while Siebe was left wondering about Sebastian’s fate; an uncertainty that frequently popped into his mind over the following weeks.
“I did not expect to hear any good news out of that after he got flown out of there,” Siebe recalled.
To see Sebastian sitting across from him at a dining room table, healthy and peaceful, sharing a raclette, was astonishing.
“It was very, very emotional just to see that guy alive,” Siebe said. “Just a … great feeling; a great feeling. I remember that very well.”
Sebastian said hearing Siebe’s account made his accident feel more real, and it was heartening to hear how people tried to help him. But he still had a long way to go on his path to recovery.
A leap of faith
Sebastian trained through the rest of winter of 2017 and into spring of 2018, slowly starting to return to his former level of fitness.
In July, he was still looking for a race when he read The Park Record’s preview of the Utah’s Toughest. The race entailed a 2.4 mile swim in the Jordanelle Reservoir, a 150-mile bike ride from Kamas to Brighton Resort and a 22 mile run on rocky hiking trails.
Sebastian was nowhere near ready to compete in it, but he was intrigued, so he mentioned it to Ali. She was not as excited about it as he was.
“Can’t you find a 5K?” She said.
That would have been appropriate, given Sebastian’s level of fitness. He had just completed his first 100 mile bike ride since the accident – a point toward signing up – but he was still far behind where he needed to be to take on a race like the Utah’s Toughest.
But a week later, he was still thinking about it, and Ali and Sebastian agreed he should give it a try.
“The most important milestone (toward racing in Utah’s Toughest) was really just having the courage to sign up,” Sebastian said. “Because, you don’t know, there’s always some doubts in your head that you have to work though.”
He registered with less than a month to train, then the Sebastian took a vacation to California, where Sebastian ran his longest run since the accident – 12 miles.
He was as ready as he could be for the race.
Preparing for the race was as much of a logistical challenge as it was physical. The Zieslers asked Kobrin to support Sebastian on the course, while Ali found friends and family to help take care of the kids throughout the day.
Before dawn on Aug. 25, the competitors jumped into the black water.
Sebastian and professional triathlete Sarah Jarvis took an early lead in the solo division, and held it through the swim.
Jarvis took the lead just before the two hopped on their bikes.
“I knew people in the race who were better bikers than me,” Sebastian said. “I thought, ‘I’m not even prepared; they are going to pass me soon.’ But I kept looking back and no one was passing me.”
And so he kept logging miles from Woodland back to Francis, then through Kamas and Oakley to Peoa.
“At that point I don’t think he was trained to where he would be to do a race like that,” Kobrin recalled. “But he’s just a fit guy; you knew he would do it.”
Kobrin traveled ahead of Sebastian on the course, waiting for him with snacks, water and encouragement. Every time Kobrin saw him, Sebastian was in a good mood, as if he was just out for a big bike ride to enjoy the good weather, even as he climbed Empire Pass.
“It was a great day out there,” Sebastian remembers.
He made it to Brighton and the running leg in first place, but then started to feel fatigued and apathetic about finishing.
His friends, Rob Lea and Caroline Gleich, showed up to pace him around the first of two 11-mile laps.
The route climbed over boulders and gained as much elevation as it lost, making it more of a hike than a run. It was arduous, and not what Sebastian was expecting, which made it hard for him to stay motivated. He considered turning around, but Lea and Gleich encouraged him to keep going.
When he reached the end of the first lap, he thought he was finished and sat down. Then he heard he had to do another lap, and his heart sank.
“I sat there for about 20 minutes, and I really struggled,” he said. “That was a really tough mental struggle for me. Eventually I came to a place where I was like, ‘You know, if I do finish this, I can have this story be something I can tell my kids when they don’t want to finish something.’ And that… that meant a lot to me.”
Race rules stipulated that those attempting the run after 6 p.m. needed a buddy. Ali happened to have her running clothes in the car.
“There was only one reason they would be here, it must be this,” Ali recalled thinking.
So the two of them hiked around the last 11-mile loop, picking up a straggler along the way.
They finished at 11 p.m.
Of the 25 competitors that started the race, only five finished. Sebastian was the fourth with a time of 16 hours, 58 minutes. It was a sign to himself and others that he was back.
Ali was not waiting for the race to see her husband’s recovery, though. She said she had seen it in all areas of life.
“He was able to demonstrate … every aspect of wholeness that a person includes,” she said. “That was really important to me.”
But she knew it would also be important for the triathlon community to see him come back.
Kobrin said, as a cyclist, being hit by a car is many cyclists’ biggest fear, and to have it happen to a friend is troubling.
“You know it’s there, but you never think about it because it doesn’t turn out good,” Kobrin said. “You get hit by a car; you’re killed.”
So, to Kobrin, Sebastian’s recovery was an affirmation of a lifestyle prevalent in Park City – it showed not to be afraid to get out and live a physically active life.
A year on, Kobrin describes Sebastian as “100 percent the same dude he was before he got injured.”
And Sebastian wants to share that message with those who heard about his accident.
“It means a lot to me that I can tell them, ‘Yeah, this crap happened to me, but I’m still me, I’m still doing the things I love doing,” he said. “Don’t let that fear control you, because that’s not good.”
Next year, when the triathlon season starts again, he hopes to go to the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, and pick up his sport right where he left off.
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Park City plays in the toughest region in 5A, and coach Purcell believes that mental toughness will help turn the season around.