Not Done Yet

By Ken Calwell | March 12, 2019, 4:34 p.m. (ET)


As a kid, I got cut from every traditional sports team I tried out for.

I had no coordination whatsoever, but eventually discovered what I did have: endurance. I was on a swim team in high school and loved long swims. I eventually tried running and realized it came naturally to me. I ran 5ks, 10ks, half marathons, marathons … the longer, the better.

I started racing triathlons at age 24, discovering that I had a big heart, big lungs, and a big pain threshold. I started placing in my age group, finishing in the top five—even winning races outright. I had never considered myself an athlete, but here I was—winning! It was addictive. Eventually, I set my sights on Nationals.

August 8, 1991 started like any other training day. I got up at 5 a.m., threw on my gear and jumped on my bike for an early ride. A strong wind was coming from the south. When you’re from Wichita, Kansas, that’s pretty typical for a summer morning. I decided to take a rural route that was popular for cycling because of its smooth surface, flat grade and sparse traffic.

Eight miles into the 33-mile ride, I was in a good rhythm, down in my aerobars, cruising at about 20 miles an hour. I saw a car coming in the opposite direction. As it approached, it suddenly jerked and swerved across the yellow line.

It all happened so fast. The woman driving the car had fallen asleep. At 50 miles an hour, the car plowed into me … head on.

I heard bone-shattering sounds. I was thrown into the windshield, sucked underneath the car, dragged along the road and then kicked out.

Then everything was quiet.

Ken-Calwell-bikeWaves of pain started coming over me. One minute before that, I had been a triathlete in the best shape of my life. Now I was lying on my back on the road, and I didn’t even have the strength to lift my head.

Thanks to a quick-thinking passerby, EMS arrived in about four minutes. In that short amount of time I had already lost almost two thirds of my blood. As they tended to me, they found my helmet and my bike. The helmet had shattered into six pieces. The bike had blown apart into 38 pieces, strewn across 150 feet of road.

When I woke up in the ER and began to comprehend what had happened to me, I immediately wanted to focus on getting well. I tend to be an optimistic person and very future oriented. I don’t think much about the past, and I thought the worst was behind me. But I was wrong.

Over the next week, I underwent nine hours of surgery, coming out with 300 stitches and staples and two extensive skin grafts. I had nerve damage and over 12 major bone fractures in both of my legs, my right arm and my pelvis. Six of these fractures were compound fractures. I was at risk for a pulmonary embolism, stroke, or a blood clot—all life-threatening. My vital signs—which had remained so stable during the initial trauma that the medical personnel couldn’t explain it—got worse. More doctors and specialists were coming into my room 24/7, getting more and more anxious. There was no peace in that room.

Finally, I asked the surgical intensive-care nurse what was going on. She said, “Ken, we’re not used to people surviving an accident like this. You seem like such an optimistic person. I don’t know if that’s because of your faith. If it is, I encourage you to pray.” Then she left, and the doctors left, and the room got very quiet.

I had grown up in the Christian faith. I believed in Jesus Christ as my Savior. But my prayer life was pretty much the Lord’s Prayer recited before bed each night. In that dark moment, I started to pray it again—rote memorization like I had done a thousand times before.

When I got to “Thy will be done,” I just stopped. I stopped praying my memorized prayer and started just talking to God. I realized that Jesus loved me not just in the past, but right in that moment. He was with me in that hospital room. And that changed everything.

I also had a sense that God wasn’t done with me yet. I was still here. He must have a plan for me, and I wanted to find out what that plan was.

I don’t have words to describe the peace I experienced that night.

Ken-Calwell-Rehab-2After three weeks in intensive care, I was placed into a regular hospital wing. The doctors started sharing details with me. I asked a million questions. Almost more than any other question, I asked when I’d be able to run again.

What I really meant, but couldn’t verbalize, was “When can I race a triathlon again?” All I could think about was my favorite triathlon: the Topeka Tinman, an Olympic-distance event. The next one would be on June 20, 1992—my 30th birthday. It was 10 months away. I wanted to do it so badly that I set the triathlon as my goal for recovery.

A small group of medical providers took a special interest in me and in my triathlon goal. We built a plan of aggressive and innovative physical therapy, healthy nutrition, prayer, and elimination of pain medicine—because pain medicine can get in the way of healing.

The biggest obstacle I faced was my left leg. The lower leg was fully fractured in four separate places, supported only by a surgically-implanted metal cage with rods going through the leg where each fracture was. A surgeon told me I had a four-month window for new bone growth to happen. If it didn’t start happening by then, I would lose that leg. The only hope I had for healing was if I put weight on the leg over and over again, so that the pressure of the bones making contact with each other at the break points would stimulate that new growth. I said, “That’s great news. I’m all in.”

The first time I stood up from my wheelchair, I felt the bones make contact with each other: Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. I nearly passed out. When I told the surgeon about that experience, he said, “It’s going to be really tough. But the more you can do it, the better chance you have. Through pain, there’s going to be growth.”

I looked down at my leg. How am I going to do this? Can I do this?

Then I remembered a Bible passage a friend had given to me from Philippians 4. It reminded me to rejoice because God was near, and not to be anxious about anything, but to pray about everything.

Over the coming months, I walked on that leg step by step until I was exhausted and drenched with sweat. With each step I took, I prayed through those verses over and over. Despite the regimen, I was told there was still no bone growth. I even spoke to a prosthetist in preparation for the worst. It was a very challenging time—but God wasn’t done yet. On November 21, 1991, I finally heard these words from my surgeon: “Ken, that’s new bone growth. You may just keep that leg.”

And on June 20, 1992, I celebrated my birthday by competing in the Topeka Tinman, swimming it with one arm.

Ken-Calwell-Olympics-closeThis journey of healing has continued throughout my life. Over time, I regained enough use of my right arm to use it to swim again. I rebuilt enough shoulder strength and leg strength to control and ride a bike again. With my legs set at an angle, I taught myself how to run again by leaning on a shopping cart and running circles in a parking lot for hours on end. I’ve since completed triathlons, 5ks, 10ks, half marathons, and 100-mile-plus bike events. I’ve climbed mountains from Colorado to Patagonia. In 2002, I had the honor of participating in the Salt Lake City Olympic torch relay, using my right arm to hold that torch high.

Don’t get me wrong; I still have to navigate challenges. I still experience pain. I work through it with exercise, Scripture, prayer, and serving others. One of the hardest and best things to do when you’re suffering is to help somebody else. I look at it this way: The first two miles of any run are challenging for me, but when I get to mile four, I’m thrilled that I’m out there. So, when I meet people who are hurting, I ask, “Can you get yourself to take the first step?”

When I experience physical pain, I’ve learned how and when to work past it. If it’s pain that indicates a weakness I need to strengthen, I visualize what healing looks like and focus on what I need to do to get there.

Triathlon is such a great sport; it gets in your blood. It’s easy, though, to get caught up in the numbers, to worry about taking two seconds off your time, to worry about your ranking, to worry about your achievements. Today, I appreciate every stroke of the swim, every pedal of the bike, every step of the run. I don’t take it for granted anymore.

Some people think my story is simply about how I almost died. But the real story is about the lessons I learned through my suffering—that the love and thankfulness that come from faith are meant to be shared.

On August 8, 1991, my life could have ended on that Kansas road. The accident totaled my helmet. It totaled my bike. It totaled the car that hit me—and it almost totaled me! Yet I’m still here. And I live with a sense of urgency, of purpose, not putting off things that are truly important. Because God’s not done with me yet.

Calwell Family

KEN CALWELL is the Senior Vice President of Innovation at Compassion International. He came to Compassion in October 2017 following an accomplished career in the food industry, having held global executive leadership positions at Domino’s Pizza, Wendy’s International, and Pizza Hut. Prior to Compassion, Ken served as CEO & President of Papa Murphy’s International.

An avid athlete, Ken has competed in triathlons, running races from 5k to marathon, and 100-mile-plus bike races. He has also climbed many 14,000-foot mountains. Ken has been married to his wife, Sandy, for 24 years, and they have one son. They enjoy kayaking, cycling, and hiking as a family.