St. Charles resident Ryan Flanagan recites the date of his stroke without hesitation.
He’s equally up front about how he once regarded the illness, as well.
“I didn’t know what a stroke was except for it’s something that older people get or have,” Flanagan said. “There’s so many people that have strokes now who are younger.”
Flanagan was 36 when he suffered a stroke Nov. 10, 2010. Now 41, he’s training for his first Ironman Triathlon while actively raising funds for the National Stroke Association.
“It became very clear to me right away that he’s on a mission,” said Flanagan’s coach, Joe LoPresto. “I could see it in his eyes and in his personality. Very full of life, very focused. Very, ‘I’m getting this done, I’m climbing a mountain,’ kind of mindset.”
Years ago, Flanagan jokes, merely thinking about completing a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run in succession would have made him dizzy. Admittedly sedentary well into his 30s, Flanagan hardly exercised or watched what he ate.
That lifestyle coupled with a series of stressful occurrences – Flanagan and his wife, Krista, were raising a young son and daughter when they learned Krista would be losing her job that winter – helped pave the way to the stroke.
A malformation in Flanagan’s brain blood vessels, a condition he has lived with since birth, also played an integral role.
For the next two years after the stroke, Flanagan worked to change his habits and diet while regularly battling mental and physical challenges.
“There’s a lot of depression that I was dealing with in my head,” he said. “So the last thing that I wanted to do was work out or exercise or anything like that.”
That changed when a friend, after persistent trying, at last coaxed Flanagan into taking a bike ride. Bike rides begat walking, which eventually begat running, as Flanagan felt an increasing itch for activity.
Once, after walking his daughter, Caitlin, now 6, to school, Flanagan figured he’d pick up the pace a bit. Imagine a man gearing up for September’s Ironman Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin, getting winded after running a half-mile.
“I never thought I would see the light of day again,” Flanagan said. “I was so beat and exhausted.”
Flanagan credits a rigorous training regimen for his budding stamina and his family for his strength. He still hangs in his garage the “Go Daddy Go” sign his family toted to his first road race in December 2012.
A stay-at-home dad for his children – who also include son Nolan, 4 – Flanagan balances school pick-up duty with training during the week. He’s set to compete in a half-Ironman in the summer as his progression through the discipline continues.
Flanagan developed epilepsy from the stroke and says he can have a seizure at any moment, a notable concern especially when he’s swimming in open water. Like other obstacles over the past few years, he sought to clear that one, too.
“I’ve decided that I’ve been through so much already that it was time to not be afraid anymore,” Flanagan said. “From the time I finished that very first triathlon, I was hooked.”
LoPresto, race director at Lisle-based Experience Triathlon, believes in mixing the scope and location of Flanagan’s workouts.
As weather permits, Flanagan often bikes in rural Kane County and swims at Naperville’s Centennial Beach. During the fall and winter, he was a mainstay at The Norris Center in St. Charles.
Monitoring Flanagan prompts LoPresto to recall fellow Experience athlete Mike Babicz, a Maywood police officer who raised $10,000 for the families of fallen police officers last year after a counterpart in his department died in the line of duty.
Babicz also competed in Ironman Wisconsin.
“He was unstoppable, and that’s really where Ryan is right now,” LoPresto said. “I know he’ll have no issue with getting this done, because nothing will stand in his way.”
Again displaying his fleet decision-making, Flanagan is quick to note he now considers the stroke a blessing.
“I’ve been chasing the runner’s high from the first time I’ve had it, which was about two years ago,” he said. “From the time I finished that very first triathlon, I was hooked.”
As a triathlete, Flangan also pursues the biker’s and swimmer’s highs. Although not as celebrated, he couldn’t be happier to know of their existence.
Helping the cause
To donate to St. Charles triathlete Ryan Flanagan and the National Stroke Association, log on to http://support.stroke.org/goto/ryanflanagan2015.
Those interested also can make checks payable to the National Stroke Association and mail them to Flanagan at 1547 Banbury Ave., St. Charles, IL 60174.