Sport as Survival

By Dustin Renwick | April 10, 2019, 6:53 p.m. (ET)

Rob Swartz got out of bed. That was the problem. 

“You get that little lightheaded feeling,” he said, “but it lasted for more than the traditional one or two seconds.”

Those initial abnormal signs in February 2012 followed his most ambitious athletic year. After easing into the fitness world in 2010 with a triathlon relay, Swartz finished 13 events in 2011.

“I told people, give me a 48-hour notice, and I’ll run a half marathon with you,” he said. 

 
After his diagnosis and related surgeries, Swartz's return
to "normal" training and racing took over three years.

Instead, the room started to spin when he bent to tie his shoelaces. The mysterious symptoms intensified. A trip to Mayo Clinic in Minnesota revealed widespread inflammation in his brain that also traced down the length of his spinal cord. Swartz was officially only the seventh person in the world diagnosed with chronic microglial encephalomyelitis. At the time, the condition didn’t even have a name.

“I’m 37 years old in the best physical shape of my life, and I was hunched over pushing a walker with tremors in my hands,”

His immune system had attacked his body. But with a cause finally identified, Swartz could work with doctors to implement treatment protocols that reduced the swelling and calmed his internal defense mechanisms.  

Swartz estimates that he needed three full years to reach what could be called medically normal. Then the quest for competition began again. What type of activity remained the big question mark.

Residual damage from the aggressive initial onset of the illness compounds with lingering harm from the chronic nature of the disease. Swartz has worked to improve his balance and coordination on land. He sometimes walks on his runs, and he’s refining his transition from pedals to firm ground after a simple bike dismount. 

“I’m still struggling to swim more than a couple hundred meters at a time without issues in open water,” he said.

The motion of currents or waves exacerbates his imbalances when combined with the body rotation needed to breathe and move with efficiency through the water. 

“It started out of necessity — wanting to race, wanting to be involved, and the swim wasn’t there. Prior to this, I hadn’t thought about duathlon. It opened another world for me to compete. I’ve embraced it. I can still get back into the multisport world.”

Four-time Olympian Hunter Kemper serves as the guest
host of the Boyne City Triathlon
.

Swartz also created another opportunity for himself and others. He started a nonprofit called Team Lucky Seven — named after his status as the seventh person in the world to be diagnosed with microglial encephalomyelitis. In 2013, he founded the Boyne City Triathlon in his Michigan hometown to raise funds for the nonprofit. Since its inception, the Boyne City Triathlon has brought in more than $20,000 for Team Lucky Seven, funding which is directed to the Mayo Clinic to aid medical research for neurological diseases. 

Hunter Kemper, four-time U.S. Olympian in triathlon and member of the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame, has been the guest host of the Boyne City Triathlon for the past three years.

Kemper’s sister-in-law had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a neurological condition where a person’s own immune system targets the brain and spinal cord, before he saw Swartz’s story. While visiting family in Michigan, Kemper sent Swartz a short note, and Swartz replied with an invitation for a visit to Boyne City.

“I was just really, really impressed,” Kemper said.

“I’ve never met anyone as passionate about the sport of triathlon,” Swartz said of Kemper. “It adds another level to the event.” 

Kemper hosts a transition clinic each year and then wields a bullhorn all morning.

“It’s a great race, from start to finish,” he said. “I’m a big extrovert. When the sun’s coming up, and they’re pumping up their tires, what are they thinking about? Are they nervous? Do they need help with their wetsuit? Can I get a high five?”

That buzz — a combination of nerves and sweat and excitement familiar to any competitor — gave Swartz the motivation he needed to work toward race-level fitness again. Driven by the support of his community and his own passion for multisport, Swartz will toe the line at this year’s USA Triathlon Duathlon National Championships in Greenville, South Carolina.

“There’s nothing like the energy on race morning,” he said. “This will be my first time being at any type of Nationals. I can’t wait to feel it — it’s in the air.”