In October 2017, after arriving in Kona, Hawaii, as a favorite for the Ironman world championships, Tim Don was hit by a truck while on a final cycling session before the race. Scans soon revealed he had broken neck. Tim’s recovery to date has exceeded expectations, but as he himself admits, it would not have been possible without his strong support network. No one has played a bigger role in supporting Tim’s recovery than his wife Kelly, herself a former professional athlete. We spoke with Kelly to get her views on Tim’s journey so far and what it takes to overcome such adversity.
Let’s start at the beginning: How did you and Tim meet?
Kelly Don: Back when I was a professional track athlete, I was at a training camp with the British team in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Tim had a house there and a mutual friend of ours, who was a runner, was there as well and introduced us. We first met while training on the track. That was over 10 years ago, and we got married in 2009.
The life of a pro triathlete requires a huge amount of sacrifice – and travel. What is it like being the wife of one of the world’s best Ironmen?
I think it definitely helps that I come from a sporting background because I know what Tim needs to do. If I had carried on my athletics career, I would be doing the same. I understand the need to go away to training camps and rest between the sessions, so I think that helps. I do find it hard sometimes because I have to do a lot of stuff on my own, but I don't actually mind too much because I know that's what it takes for him to be the best.
How did things change when you started a family?
I don't think Tim and I really knew what it would entail when we had our first child, Matilda. I had retired from athletics through injury and had trained as a teacher. That’s when we decided to start a family. Both of us had been focused on our own sporting goals until then, so we found it really hard to make the adjustment. And that was when Tim was doing Olympic distance triathlon, so it involved a lot of travel. At one point I think he was away for ten weeks for the Olympics, and Matilda and I were on our own.
That was really hard and was one of the reasons Tim decided to do iron-distance triathlons. As there were fewer competitions there was less travel involved. It was also why we moved to America when Matilda was two – Boulder, Colorado, where we still live, is a good base to train in and to travel from.
You and Tim have handled a lot of challenges together, but nothing could have prepared you for Tim suffering a broken neck just days before the 2017 Ironman World Championships. How did you deal with Tim’s injury and how did you see your role in his recovery?
When the accident happened, Tim was very good at coping with it before the medical halo was fitted. I think I went into more of a shock about the injury than he did. But when we got home, that’s when it hit him, because at first the halo was just unbearable. He didn't know how he was going to cope with it. On the second night, he wanted to go into the garage and unscrew it.
In terms of my role in supporting him, we just took it a day at a time. Not even a day at a time – an hour at a time, probably, for the first few weeks. And again, we were super lucky that Tim’s sister flew in to help us. Then his physio John Dennis came to help. Then my parents came. We had people coming out the whole time because we needed help with the children as well.
It’s definitely been the toughest thing we've ever had to face. I think it was even easier in some ways than when our daughter Matilda was really sick when she was four. She had to have brain surgery. We thought at the time that was the hardest thing we’d ever have to face. But once we knew what was wrong with Matilda, we knew she would get better. With Tim, so much relies on him being able to compete again. Our livelihood, existing contracts, the future, what he's going be able to do as a job.
I think that after we had accepted the accident, and that he didn't get the shot at the World Championships, the stress started to set as we thought about the bigger picture – what that meant as a family. And what it still means because we don't know how things will turn out.
How did you both stay positive during the tougher moments of Tim’s recovery?
Tim was ridiculously positive the whole time he had the halo. If the roles were reversed I know that I could never have been that positive. Bad moments were thankfully very rare. Once he had overcome the initial pain, he had to be positive because the other option was too dark to think about. It was when the halo came off that things got tougher. That’s when the reality started sinking in. Tim’s fitness will come back, but the range of movement in his neck is a big challenge. It affects everything: how well he can swim, how fluid he is when running and how stiff he gets on the bike. I think he sometimes sits down and thinks, "I don't know if I can do this". But he knows he has to be positive otherwise he would give up. And that’s not something he’s prepared to do.
It was that spirit that saw Tim back in the gym training with the halo still on and running outdoors sooner than expected. Were you worried about him pushing too hard too soon?
I think Tim did the right thing. The advice the doctors give is based on a person who isn't athletic. And they didn't say he couldn't do any training. They just said he had to be careful and not do anything with any impact, which he did. He was very sensible.
He needed to do some kind of training because it would have made the task of getting back to fitness so much harder if he hadn't kept going in some capacity. And it was also important for his mental wellbeing because training with others is part of his social life as well. So I think that kept him going.
Tim’s recovery so far has been remarkable. What would you say has been the key to this?
Tim's very diligent. He has lots of physio and massage every week. He's done all the exercises that people have told him to do. And part of Tim’s talent is that he just gets fit so quickly. He doesn't need to do the amount of training that some other athletes do. He bounces back so fast.
Tim’s recovery is documented in the short film, the Man with the Halo. What was it like having cameras in the house?
It was quite tricky at times, but luckily the director, Andrew Hinton, was such a nice guy. He made sure it wasn't very intrusive. It was actually fun. And at different stages through Tim's career we've had people film us and come in to do interviews. So we're sort of used to it as a family.
Tim made his return to big events by running the Boston Marathon in under 2 hours 50 minutes, just like he set out to do. How did you feel before the race? And afterwards?
Before the race I felt a bit apprehensive for him. So soon after the accident it was a big ask to do a marathon. And he unfortunately caught the flu from our youngest son, Hugo, a few weeks before, so he couldn’t train as much as he wanted.
In spite of all this, not least given the timeframe, what he did in Boston is remarkable. Even if he had just finished it would have been a big achievement, so to run under two hours fifty minutes is pretty amazing.
Tim now has his sights on a return to the Ironman world championships in Kona. How would it feel for you to see him there on the start line?
I am confident that he can get back to Kona. I just think that it would exceed most people’s expectations. Tim has always had in his mind that he's going to be there. And nobody would ever say, "you can't do it", because you just never know. To see him on the start line would be incredible.
Finally, what advice would you give to someone whose partner is also going through a big setback?
I think when you're actually in the worst moments, try not to look too far ahead and just take it a day at a time. When Tim was in the halo, if we had kept thinking about the full three-months treatment time, it would've just been unbearable, so we took it day by day. And try to keep as busy as possible so that the days go quickly. Better times will soon arrive.
Kelly Don appears in The Man with the Halo, the short film documenting Tim Don’s remarkable comeback from a broken neck. See the full film at manwiththehalo.com.