Man of steel
Posted on 15 January 2018
Matthew Trautman was in his element as he cycled towards Franschhoek on a sunny Saturday morning in January 2017. As one of the top professional triathletes in the world, Matt prefers to train alone. “I’m happy with my own company,” he says. “That definitely helps with all those hours of training on your own.”
What happened next is not entirely clear. Some pedestrians later reported that a car had veered into the emergency lane, where Matt was cycling, to let another vehicle pass. Whatever the details, Matt was hit hard from behind. He rolled over the car’s bonnet, smashed into the windshield, somersaulted over its roof, and landed on the tarmac before rolling into the grassy verge.
“I didn’t hear a thing,” says Matt. “I thought I’d hit a pothole. And immediately afterwards I had no idea how serious it was. I’d chipped a tooth and was bleeding from my mouth, and I thought that was the worst of it.”
He was in for a nasty surprise.
Back against the wall
Matt has always been competitive. As the middle brother in a sporty family, he grew up elbowing his siblings out of the way. Whether it was ping pong or football, Matt wanted to beat his brothers and impress his parents.
But while his brothers enjoyed team sports at school, Matt preferred the solitude and individuality of endurance sports. In the rhythm of his breath and the slosh of a paddle in the river, Matt found meditation in competition. There was also a sense of personal challenge and accomplishment that team sports couldn’t quite deliver.
That natural ambition may have blinded him to the reality of his situation as he lay on the side of an empty road, his bike in tatters and his body in shock.
But the real extent of Matt’s injuries was discovered that evening at Mediclinic Stellenbosch. Dr Johan Davis, a leading spinal surgeon who sits on the board of the International Group for Advancement in Spinal Science, examined Matt’s X-rays and did an MRI scan.
Matt’s L1 vertebra was 50% compressed and there was a small fracture of the T10 vertebra. Matt had crushed and broken his back.
“The thoracic spine is a more rigid segment due to the attachment of ribs and the thoracic cage. The transition to the more flexible lumbar spine creates a vulnerable region in the spinal column, which is at risk of injury in high-energy impacts or falls,” explains Dr Davis.
“In Matthew’s case, the vertebral fracture was further associated with a complete disruption of the posterior ligamentous complex, rendering the spinal column unstable, with potential risk for neurological compromise due to collapse of his spinal column.”
It’s a terrible thing to happen to anyone, but for Matt it triggered an existential crisis. His decision to become a professional sportsman might seem easy, if not obvious, in retrospect, but it had been thrust upon Matt by a single year of astronomic amateur success. Add to that the fact he was just recovering from a stress fracture in his ankle.
Matt had always been a talented endurance athlete. In high school he completed five Dusi Canoe Marathons and became the youngest paddler ever to complete the Non-Stop Dusi at the age of 16. In matric he represented South Africa in wildwater kayaking.
After school, Matt crewed and captained sailing boats, which led him to compete in one of the most gruelling boat races in the world – the Mini Transat 650, a solo transatlantic blitz in a tiny, cramped 6.5-metre vessel. Some describe the race as “mad”, but for a competitive introvert like Matt it ticked all the boxes, and earned him the nickname “The Captain”.
It was only in 2012, while he was living on the Isle of Wight, that Matt decided to try his hand at a triathlon. He bought a bike and cycled to the local pool in preparation for the Cotswold Classic – a local half-marathon triathlon – and came second. The result gave him the excuse he needed to return to South Africa, reunite with his girlfriend and train for Ironman SA.
The next year he finished 20th overall in Ironman SA, a result that took him to the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii – the birthplace and spiritual home of the Ironman discipline, and an opportunity most triathletes spend an entire lifetime dreaming of.
Just a few kilometres from the finish line in Hawaii, Matt was overtaken by another runner. “What age group are you in?” Matt asked as the man pulled away.
“Yours,” came the response.
When he crossed the finish line, Matt learned that the man who overtook him had won their age group, putting him in second place.
So in his first attempt at the greatest stage of the Ironman calendar, Matt was very nearly the fastest non-professional triathlete in his age group in the world.
It was a lightbulb moment. His choice: get a regular, safe job in Cape Town, or try to make a living by pushing his body to the limit on the Ironman circuit.
A year later Matt stood on the podium at Ironman Wales in Tenby, his first pro career victory. “That win was confirmation that I could do this as a career,” says Matt. “It answered the question: do you really want to get a desk job and do that for the next 10 years, or can you dig a little harder?”
For the next three years Matt dug deep and answered that question with a string of successes. But as they wheeled him into the operating theatre on the day after his accident, it dawned on Matt that everything he had risked, all his sacrifices, were suddenly teetering on the edge of a scalpel.
Road to recovery
“When reality sank in, I was gutted,” says Matt. “I went from thinking I was going to race that weekend to worrying I might never walk again.”
The extent of the injury, compounded by the damaged ligaments and instability, meant a surgical solution was the best and most likely way to restore near-normal spinal alignment and function.
Dr Davis, who had performed this type of surgery on several other high physical demand people, was honest with Matt: even if the surgery was successful, it is very rare for sports professionals to return to their original competitive levels again.
“There are definitely two sides to your thinking,” says Matt. “One side is saying, This is it. It’s over. But the other side – the side that comes out when I’m racing – is saying, Stay strong. You’ll get through this.”
Matt spent three days in hospital. Within a day of the surgery he was up and “doing laps” around the Mediclinic ward’s nursing station and back. “Eventually, I was driving the nurses crazy with the amount of walking that I was doing,” he says. “But Dr Davis said I was allowed to walk, so that’s what I was doing.”
But while walking helped the healing process, and was good for Matt’s morale, it also set up some unreasonable expectations in the long term. He was improving with each recovery session – walking a little further each day, at first with the help of his wife and brother, then on his own – but in his eagerness to get his career back on track, he projected the pace of his early recovery onto an unsustainable longer-term trajectory. Within weeks, Matt was walking up hills.
“He was driving me nuts asking about further excercises that I would allow,” says Dr Davis. “I absolutely insisted that he take it easy for the first six weeks, but he gave us a tough time keeping him down initially.”
This provoked a stern email from his coach, Brett Sutton, who told him in no uncertain terms that if he pushed too hard at this early stage it might jeopardise his entire career, and that with recovery there were more important considerations than speed.
“After that, it was a very difficult time,” says Matt. “I wasn’t allowed to push myself, so I wasn’t seeing a lot of progress. All those plans that I’d been making in my head were being pushed back from weeks to months. But I was getting a bit carried away, treating the recovery process like training, and I’m glad that I did slow down.”
Back in the saddle
Matt’s six-week checkup confirmed that none of the screws had moved and that his bones were starting to fuse nicely, which gave him the all-clear to get back in the pool, albeit with plenty of flotation to keep his back straight. A few weeks later, Matt was back on an indoor bike, and taking his first steps on an anti-gravity treadmill at the Academy of Sports in Stellenbosch.
One minute of running at 60% of his bodyweight might seem like nothing to a professional athlete who is used to running for up to three hours (after an hour-long swim and five hours on the bike), but considering he had broken his back less than six months before, those first few tentative paces were nothing short of a modern miracle.
In October 2017, Matt Trautman entered his first triathlon as a professional sportsman with a fused spine. The Eleven Sun City triathlon is billed as “Africa’s toughest triathlon,” and consists of a sprint and Olympic distance race, the latter of which was sold out. Matt won both.
“All top-level athletes have to be mentally tough,” says Dr Davis. “They have to be able to separate the physical pain from themselves, and to push through. But to return to form after the injury he had? It shows Matt has a lot of heart, and something special between his ears.”
A week after the Sun City race, Matt competed in the Slanghoek triathlon, and won that too. A month after that, Matt participated in the Race 2 Stanford. Another win.
“Those local race wins were as good as any I have ever experienced,” says Matt. “They may not have been at an international level, but it had been a tough, ten-month journey from the ambulance to that finish line.”
Just under a year after breaking his back, Matt flew to Bahrain for the Ironman 70.3 Middle East Championship and placed fifth, running his half-marathon leg in an hour and 15 minutes. Something special between those ears, indeed.
“Having that goal to focus on … that’s what got me through.”