Palo Alto bicyclist and runner George Pierce doesn't remember anything about the collision with a truck that almost killed him, but he is very clear about what saved him: faith, forgiveness and an unrelenting refusal to succumb to fear.
Pierce was riding his bicycle on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park near Interstate 280 when a teenager in a large pickup truck struck him from behind. The accident broke Pierce's neck and back and left him with difficulty walking.
Pierce, 54, had been a world champion in the first World Biathlon (now called the World Duathlon, which is a long distance run-bike-run competition) in 1989 and was a silver medalist in the second year. But after the accident, it seemed as though his 26-year career as a professional duathlete was through.
But he never gave up trying to get back into the race.
"After the accident, I said, 'Geez, what am I going to do with my life? I'm going to make a comeback. I'm going to show people how to do it,'" he said.
Pierce has made good on his promise. He will compete again in the Duathlon World Championships in Adelaide, Australia, on Oct. 18. The race brings together 1,200 competitors from 30 countries.
It's the fifth year in a row that he has competed at the national level within his age group since the 2010 accident. Faith and capacity to forgive are why he's back, he said.
When Pierce wound up in the emergency room, doctors at Stanford Hospital did not want him to leave. But after 36 hours he insisted on going home.
Doctors warned him that his neck injury, high up in the C2 vertebra near the skull, could result in a stroke or paralysis. But Pierce, a Christian Scientist, wanted to heal quietly through prayer and physical therapy on his own, he said. He promised the doctors that he would "take responsibility for myself," regardless of the outcome.
It wasn't until later, after experiencing much pain while sitting, that he learned he also had multiple fractures in his lower spine. For the next two months, Pierce could only walk by holding onto his wife's shoulder for support when they strolled the neighborhood, he said.
To heal, he slept in a recliner, worked with a chiropractor and always prayed, he said.
"A big part of it was forgiveness and not being victimized," he said. "Forgiving, that brought the healing faster -- not holding a grudge. It was spiritual healing.
"I had a desire to show people that it is possible. Don't give up in life; don't feel victimized. You can do it," he said.
Pierce has been involved with sports and health his entire adult life, he said. A serial entrepreneur, he participated in five startups and was CEO of most of them. One company, Active Health Solutions, helped employees get in shape through a financial compensation program, reducing health care premium costs for companies, he said.
After the accident, he again turned to helping people with health issues. He helped a startup that aided people recovering from stroke. But he also set a one-year goal to race again.
Pierce took a year off from work to train for the 2011 Duathlon nationals with the financial support of his family and church, he said. Training for races gave him skills to help his recovery.
"You train to be out of body, to break all the fears and limitations, to overcome self-imposed limitations. Sports becomes a way to purge yourself," he said.
But he wasn't sure he could get back to the same place mentally to compete, he said.
"I thought, 'I'm going to face my fears. I'm going to face that down and I'm going to win,'" he explained.
Pierce ranked eighth in nationals, then seventh in the world in his age category, and this will be his fifth year racing annually in the world championships.
The duathlon is "exhilarating," he said.
"I can't go a day without doing some form of training. You get unplugged, you and your bike and your shoes and your spiritual essence. You can be quiet and pray. I'm not listening to music -- I'm not listening to anything. I just am."
In Australia, Pierce and his wife, who is accompanying him, "will give it our best shot," he said.
And when they return, he plans to pursue a new project: He's working to invent a new kind of footwear that will be easier to get in and out of.
The shoes will be especially useful to Special Olympics athletes, stroke survivors and persons with limited mobility, he said.
"It's helping people stay active. I've spent my whole life doing that," he said. "It's a continuation of my mission."