Defying the Odds

A triathlon is a multi-sport race that combines swimming, cycling and running over various distances in one event. It can be challenging, grueling and exhilarating. A triathlon is also a lot like life. Like a triathlete, on any given day, you might experience some really tough obstacles. You might find yourself running uphill, feeling like you are carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders or swimming against the strong currents of the unexpected praying for a miracle. But, when we stay strong, positive and focused, we prevail.

Meet Chelsea and Darrel Neal. This dynamic dad and daughter duo are kindred spirits who share an undeniable bond and love for competition. A tragic accident in Australia on September 4, 2016, nearly took Darrel’s life, and severely injured Deborah, his wife of more than 30 years. The incident brought this Frisco family closer and gave them a renewed determination to participate and triumph in the sport of triathlon.

Chelsea shares, “My Dad and I are both native North Texans. My parents have lived in the Plano, Prosper and Frisco areas for 30 years. Four years ago, my parents moved from Prosper to Frisco to downsize and to have access to Hidden Cove Park and the lake. The lake’s edge is exactly one mile from my parents’ front door, which is especially convenient for our open water swims. My dad and I both enjoy running in Hidden Cove Park, as well as McCord Park, just down the road. We frequently ride our bikes over to the ‘Tribute Loop,’ which is popular with Frisco triathletes.”

It has been a long journey on the road of recovery to get to this point. Chelsea says, “Two days after my dad’s successful completion of the 2016 Ironman 70.3 World Championship Race in Sunshine Coast Australia, my mom and dad were sightseeing when a dump truck collided with their car. It took 45 minutes for the rescue team to cut my dad out of the car. Once at the hospital, they determined he had fractured his right shoulder blade, suffered 19 fractures over 17 ribs, ruptured his diaphragm and partially collapsed both lungs. My mom suffered two broken ribs and a gash on her head that required 11 stitches. Dad was in such pain that the doctors decided to put him into a medically-induced coma. When they brought him out of his coma two weeks later, he could not control his breathing. That is when more x-rays revealed the ruptured diaphragm. The hospital in Nambour was not equipped to perform the diaphragm operation, so they flew Dad to a hospital in Brisbane that could. After 10 more days in the hospital and a six-day stay in a nearby hotel, Dad was finally released and returned to the U.S. on October 4, 2016, which also happened to be their wedding anniversary!”

For the next two months, Darrel slept in his recliner because he could not lie down. The pain was too much. In November of that year, he signed up for Ironman Texas, to take place in April 2017. By December 4, 2016, he had written himself a 20-week training plan in effort to speed up his recovery, despite still experiencing excruciating pain in his lungs and diaphragm and minimal range of motion in his right shoulder. Chelsea says, “I watched him do what he could one day at a time, and he never faltered. He also had physical therapy, massage therapy and a personal trainer to help him get back to pre-accident shape. As a triathlete, you learn how to deal with being uncomfortable. This was just a lot more intense. Just seven months later, I watched him cross the finish line of 140.6 Ironman Houston with a time of 13:33:31. This was only one hour slower than his average Ironman finish time! My Dad says, ‘The body is a beautiful thing. It will adapt to whatever you want to do. You have to give it time to adapt, but there is nothing you cannot do.’”

During her dad’s convalescence, Chelsea contemplated her own journey and the role triathlons played in her life. His injury and recovery rekindled her athletic and competitive spirit. Chelsea reminisces, “I did my first sprint triathlon when I was 14 years old. I enjoyed the sport, but it was not very popular with people my age at the time. I did a few here and there, but only stuck to sprint distances. It was not until 2016 that triathlon really started to grab my attention and pull at my heart. Even after Dad’s accident, and though he could hardly move from his recliner, his mind was set on getting back into training. That inspired me. And, when I watched him cross the finish line at Ironman Texas, that was a moment I will never forget! I always thought of Dad as being tough, strong and willing to endure anything. It was not until the odds were stacked against him and he persevered that I finally learned through his example that success is not achieved through talent or ability – it is achieved through heart, determination and a strong mind. I began doing sprint triathlons on a more regular basis and enjoyed training with Dad. One day, I swam the distance of a half Ironman. I wondered what else I could accomplish, and the next day, I signed up for my first half Ironman. About two months later, I signed up for my first full Ironman.” 

This daughter and dad team began training together on a regular basis after Chelsea signed up for Ironman Waco 70.3 in April 2018. “We were still about 30 weeks out from the race, but Dad put together a training plan for me that was similar to his own after the accident. The first 10 weeks we spent building up my aerobic base, because up until that point, I had not built much endurance. We swam together once a week. I took his indoor cycling class and did some weight training and shorter training sessions on my own. Our weekends were spent riding anywhere from 20-70 miles, running 4-13 miles and practicing open water swims in the lake. We did a few local sprint triathlons together and then we completed my first Olympic distance race together in Waco. It was a hot and grueling day, but it was excellent training for Ironman … and we got to cross the finish line together.”

The father and daughter competed in a few more sprint and Olympic races before Ironman Waco 70.3 in October 2018. “This was my first half Ironman, and one I will never forget. We did the entire race together, but I struggled the entire day. I had trained physically for the race, but not mentally. We crossed the finish line together once again, but it was not easy for me. I realized that day I needed to spend the next few months strengthening my mind and sharpening my knowledge of endurance training. For the next six months, I spent equal time training and studying the sport to shift my mindset. In April 2019, my dad and I were both at the starting line of Ironman Texas. Fifteen hours later, I finally understood what it took to be an Ironman. All of the characteristics I admired about my dad and was inspired by – I had learned to dig deep and found within myself,” Chelsea says.

Chelsea feels her dad is her number one inspiration in the sport. “Through him, I found triathlon, and through triathlon, I found myself. Today, I understand his accident and suffering were crucial parts of his story. Through his example, I learned that nothing is impossible. I learned that your only limitations are the ones you create. I learned that if you set a goal, create a plan and stick to that plan, you can accomplish anything, even if the odds are against you. He taught me that the ability to cross the finish line is truly a matter of heart. Perseverance is driven by passion and commitment is the result of determination and faith.” 

Darrel continues to inspire the community with his relentless passion for the sport and others. He coordinates training rides, runs and swims. He coaches, puts together training plans and is a mentor to many. He does it purely to give back to the sport and community, without expecting anything in return. Chelsea says, “It is my hope to be able to do the same – to give back and inspire others.”

Darrel says, “There are a lot of triathletes in the North Texas area. Our club, Frisco Triathlon Club, has 170 members alone. We have experienced a lot of growth in the past few years as Frisco grows and triathletes move to the area. If anyone new to Frisco is looking to meet fellow triathletes, we would love to have them join us. The club embraces new triathletes and has a lot of resources to help them on their journey.” Chelsea and her mom help coordinate get-togethers, educational meetings and celebrations, as well. 

Chelsea smiles and says, “My dad has taught me that the quality of your life goes up when you challenge yourself. I have learned through the sport that your body is capable of incredible things, but the mind is just as powerful.”

Dawn Bluemel Oldfield enjoys writing, traveling, gardening and reading.