Crossing the Finish Line

Michael van Emmenes holds a photo of his finish at the Ironman Lake Placid
Michael van Emmenes holds a photo of his finish at the Ironman Lake Placid; Photo by Robert DeSanto

On a late July morning in 2022, Michael van Emmenes, a manager for Yale Information Technology Services (ITS), stood at the starting line of his first Ironman triathlon, in Lake Placid, New York. Not surprisingly, the prospect of embarking on a 140.6-mile race consisting of a swim, bicycle ride, and run brought on a rush of adrenaline. “My nerves were through the roof,” he says. He had more reason than most to feel a mix of excitement and fear.

One year before, Michael had been riding his bike near his home in Guilford, Connecticut, when he either hit a pothole or swerved to miss one — he can’t remember which — sending him head-on into an oncoming truck.

What Michael remembers clearly is what the emergency room surgeon told him: “You should not be alive.”

Michael’s journey back to health, and the Ironman starting line, would require dogged determination, along with the encouragement and support of his family and his community at Yale.

Finding positivity through pain

Michael had been competing in local triathlons, at shorter distances, since 2011. Looking for a new way to test himself, he signed up for the Ironman Lake Placid, the longest running Ironman event in the continental U.S. In preparation, Michael fit runs, laps in the pool, and bike rides around his job and life with his wife, Candice, who works for Yale’s Human Resources department, and their two children.

That he would choose such a challenge didn’t surprise his team in ITS. “He is known as someone who has a drive to make things happen,” says his supervisor, Frank Mathew, associate CIO for Enterprise Applications. “That drive is there in everything he does at work, and in his personal life.”

Michael describes the morning he collided with a truck head-on while riding his bicycle.

But the accident brought his busy life and career to a halt. Supported by Yale Health, the university’s not-for-profit HMO, Michael underwent surgeries to repair a broken pelvis and ruptured spleen and received care for a collapsed lung and other injuries, including multiple rib and vertebrate fractures. After two weeks in the hospital, he spent a month in rehabilitation.

Crucially, Yale Health also provided counseling for Michael and his family as they navigated the emotional fallout of his accident. “I felt guilty for putting my family through this,” he says. But now, after work with a therapist, “we are closer and stronger.”

The van Emmeneses also benefitted from supportive communities, both in their town of Guilford and at Yale. His ITS colleagues checked in frequently by phone and on Zoom to tell him how much he was missed and keep him up to date on his team’s work, and his neighbors visited with meals. “The support that my family and I received was tremendous,” he says.

The van Emmenes family at Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, New YorkThe van Emmenes family at Mirror Lake in Lake Placid, New York; Photo by Robert DeSanto

Training for recovery

Upon returning home from rehab, Michael reached out to Frank to discuss coming back on a remote-work schedule. Even as he continued to recuperate, Michael wanted to return to the camaraderie of his team and to reengage with his daily responsibilities.

“Michael cares so much for everyone else,” says Frank. “This was the one time the world needed to take care of Mike, but even though he appreciated the support, he wanted to get back to work. It is innate in him to be of service to his colleagues and team.”

Michael shares the outpouring of support he and his family received from Yale IT, Human Resources, and the Guilford community.

Michael was also determined to compete in an Ironman triathlon. He had initially set timing goals for each of the swim, bike, and run segments; after the accident, he says, “I just wanted more than anything to finish what I started.”

After six weeks in a wheelchair, Michael graduated to crutches, then to walks and, eventually, to short neighborhood jogs. By October, he was cleared by his doctor to return to the gym. Michael spent the next eight months gaining strength and endurance. He adjusted his personal training regime to prioritize safety. He was cautious when selecting his bike routes, opting for quiet roads and rail trails, and stopped using handlebar extensions, known as aero bars, which allow for a more aerodynamic posture but offer less steering control.

By January 2022, Michael was pain free. To celebrate, he did a New Year’s Day charity polar plunge in the icy waters off Jacob’s Beach in Guilford.

Michael during the 112-mile cycling portion of the July 2022 Ironman Lake Placid; Photo courtesy of Michael van EmmenesMichael during the 112-mile cycling portion of the July 2022 Ironman Lake Placid; Photo courtesy of Michael van Emmenes

Pushing through to the end

By race day, Michael was ready, if nervous. He relaxed once he hit the water for the swim, the first segment of the race. As the triathlon continued into the midday summer heat, however, he began to slow; with fifty miles left to go in the bike ride, his legs cramped. “I’m not going to fail because of myself,” he told himself. “I’m not going to willingly give up.” He jogged as far as he could through the final leg of the triathlon, then walked to the end.

Participants in the Ironman have 17 hours in which to complete the race; Michael finished in 15 and a half. His wife and children were there to welcome him at the finish line.

When his legs begin to cramp during the Ironman triathlon, Michael finds the strength to keep going by remembering his son’s inspirational words.

Now, Michael is determined to help others reach their own personal goals. He plans to volunteer to train and support the para-athletics triathlon team at the rehabilitation facility where he had been a patient.

“I truly believe you get from the world what you give,” Michael says. “So many people cared for me and supported my family through this process. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to pay it all back, but I’m going to try.”