Finigan fights back: Mi-Wuk resident overcomes crippling injuries to compete in the sport he loves

By Amy Alonzo Rozak, The Union Democrat August 07, 2012 08:38 pm
Brian Finigan, of Mi-Wuk Village, recently completed the Coeur d’Alene triathlon in Idaho after recovering from crippling injuries in 2007. AMY ALONZO ROZAK/UNION DEMOCRAT
“If someone’s an athlete, it’s who and what they are, and it’s taken away, it’s devastating,” says Brian Finigan.

And the 51-year-old Mi-Wuk Village resident should know. A 2007 work accident left the avid triathlete severely injured, depressed, and in a wheelchair.

“One nurse told me I probably wouldn’t walk again. The doctors said they weren’t sure if I would — they were vague. I could ride 200 miles in 10 hours, and then, I couldn’t walk across my kitchen floor.”

But on June 24, 2012 after undergoing physical therapy, hard work and overcoming a debilitating depression, he proved the doctors wrong. Finigan completed the Ironman Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles in 13 hours.

Finigan has not always been an avid athlete.

“As a kid in San Francisco, I saw a bike race in Golden Gate Park and thought it was awesome. But you get caught up in life ... ” he trails off. “Then, one day around 2003, I bought a bike and just started riding.”

Noticing Finigan was a strong cyclist, a friend asked if he was interested in trying a triathalon. Finigan readily agreed. The only problem? Finigan could barely swim.

“I was terrified,” recalls Finigan. “When I was a kid, I jumped in rivers and that kind of swimming but I didn’t know how to swim distance.”

After the race, Finigan drove back to Sonora and joined the Tuolumne County Aquatics Masters program.

“He wasn’t a very strong swimmer when he started but he made significant improvements quickly,” said TCAM coach Patti Scott-Baier.

Over the next few years, Finigan continued to compete in triathalons throughout the country, as well as earning California’s coveted Triple Crown, achieved by completing three 200-mile bike races in one year.

In October of 2007, Finigan, who owns Ace Tree Service, was on a job in Jamestown. Working about 40 feet up in the air, Finigan did not have the safety outriggers extended on his truck.

“The idea for the outriggers is to hold the weight up,” recalls Finigan. “So when the boom came around sideways, the whole truck toppled.”

He fell 40 feet, landing hard.

“My reflex was to protect my head so I landed on my side. It shot me across the parking lot like a slingshot.”

He broke his back in five places, shattered his pelvis and right arm and broke all the ribs on his right side.

Instead of training, Finigan spent the next four months as a trauma patient at Stanford Medical Center and Memorial Medical Center in Modesto. When doctors told him he might not walk again, Finigan recalls, “I just thought ‘They don’t know me. Get me out of here. I’ll show you what’s up!’ ”

In the spring of 2008, he returned home in a wheelchair.

Despite the optimism he had previously displayed, the reality of returning to life as an athlete was overwhelming. Finigan relied on friends to shuttle him to and from physical therapy, and those same friends helped pay his mortgage and medical bills.

“With the extent of his injuries, I didn’t know if he would come back. I was concerned,” said his friend and physical therapist John Brunolli, co-owner of Bones Physical Therapy, who worked with Finigan after the accident. “But knowing him before, and knowing what kind of competitor he was before the injury, how tenacious he was always giving 100 percent, I knew going into physical therapy he would again give 100 percent.”

The pair worked to get Finigan walking again, as well as working on regaining strength in his arms and legs. The accident had left him with his right arm fused at the elbow as well as foot drop, an inability to raise the front part of the foot.

By that summer, Finigan had sunk into a deep depression.

“It was all I could do to go to work and get my business re-going,” he recalls. “I flew the white flag.”

Finigan gave up hope of completing one of his life goals: competing in the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona.

For over two years, Finigan stayed depressed, rarely exercising.

“It was so agonizing mentally,” said Finigan. “I’d show up a little overweight after months of not doing anything and I wasn’t strong.”

Two days before Easter Sunday in 2010, he remembers lying on his couch, thinking, “I’m overweight and I’m miserable.” Shortly after, he returned to Sonora Sports and Fitness.

“I told myself I had to give it one more try,” said Finigan.

He worked out for half an hour, a far cry from a few years prior.

“It took me a couple of months just to get the courage up to go back to TCA,” he recalls.

His return put him in lane one, the slowest lane in the pool.

“It was physically hard but it was wonderful,” said Finigan.

When he came back, “He was pretty depressed,” says Scott-Baier. “He’d gained a bit of weight and was pretty discouraged but we kept encouraging him to come. Through swimming he’s found he has a lot of friends in the program and the support of his team members after his injury has been really encouraging to him.”

Finigan slowly worked himself back into competition shape, and last year competed in the Escape From Alcatraz, an Olympic distance triathalon that had been on his radar for awhile.

“That was the first (competition) I did after the accident,” says Finigan. “I was so emotional. I knew I was on my way then.”

He followed up Alcatraz with the Vineman and Wildflower half irons. This past year he finished his first full Ironman since his accident, completing the Ironman Coeur d’Alene.

“A friend and his family came to encourage me,” Finigan said. “It was the best part of the day.”

“It’s just amazing to have the mental and physical toughness to be able to work through that,” said Brunolli. “It’s a huge accomplishment. I mean huge. It just goes to show you what the human spirit is like. You set a goal for yourself and it’s amazing what the human spirit can do. You have to give him respect and credit.”

Finigan has already signed up for several other races in the near future. And as for his dream of competing in the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona? Finigan plans on throwing his name into the lottery to try to nab a spot.

“To come from a wheelchair to doing this, I can’t describe it,” said Finigan. “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do this again. The sport of triathalons — I love it!”