Out of the Darkness: Michael Somsan’s Success Story

Michael Somsan

Despite an injury that left him blind, this Army veteran sets his sights on triathlon’s most legendary event.

Hawaii is a unique and unpredictable place. Perfectly clear conditions can quickly turn gray and stormy. So when I learned that I was one of five disabled athletes selected to compete in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, I knew I had to expect the unexpected.

Still, I was surprised right away, during the swim. I always count my strokes — it helps me to imagine the distance I’ve covered. When I’d counted to 4,000 meters, I popped out of the water. “We’re not done yet, Michael,” my guide said. “We still have 1,000 meters to go.” I hadn’t anticipated the swells and currents in the open water — there was still a quarter of the swim left.

We muscled through strong headwinds and 20-mile-per-hour crosswinds on the bike, too. At one point, my guide clocked us at just 9 miles per hour. But we kept pushing forward. It reminded me of my earlier military life: Quitting isn’t an option. You do the work until you complete the mission.

I finally crossed the finish line, and when I felt the weight of the medal around my neck and heard one of the organizers tell me, “Michael, congratulations, you’re an Ironman,” well, that feeling of euphoria is difficult to describe.

I grew up on Oahu, Hawaii, surfing and fishing, running and cycling. I watched the race from afar as a boy and dreamed of competing someday. I never anticipated the storm I’d have to weather for that wish to come true.

One Fateful Night

In 1995 I was in the Army and stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. One weekend I drove to Austin with my new puppy to visit some good friends. We went out for dinner and stayed out until the early morning catching up with one another. When we returned to my friend’s apartment, we learned that my puppy had been yapping away all night, keeping the neighbors up. They were irritated.

The neighbors started yelling at us and things quickly escalated. A few punches were thrown. I turned to see a double-barreled shotgun pointing at my face. It was the last thing I ever saw.

I spent four weeks in a coma and awoke completely blind. During that time, I underwent more than a dozen surgeries at Brooke Army Medical Center, where doctors sutured the wounds in my face and tried unsuccessfully to fix my shattered retinas. In those early days, I lashed out in anger, throwing bedpans and ripping out my IVs. I felt like I was being punished for something, but I didn’t know what.

One evening, I awoke to hear my mother sobbing at the foot of my hospital bed. Her tears were a catalyst — I knew it was time to stop feeling sorry for myself. My parents were Laotian refugees who fled their country and came to the United States with no money, unable to speak English. But they found jobs. They persevered. They raised three children, all of whom went on to college and became successful adults.

My mother’s tears reminded me that I was surrounded by amazing people who loved and supported me. I needed to do something worthwhile — if not for me, then for them.

New Ambitions

Transferred to a rehabilitation center in Tucson, Ariz., I had to learn everything all over again: how to walk, how to cook, how to do laundry. I thought I would fall during my first steps with a cane; I was afraid that when I got back out into the world, people wouldn’t talk to me because I was disabled. I worried I wouldn’t be able to find work.

I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer serve in the military, where I’d planned to spend my entire career. I loved serving my country — it gave me so much, including a sense of fulfillment and camaraderie. It kept me in shape and made me feel strong. Without the military, I had no idea what my future would be like, or what my purpose was — I just knew that I didn’t want the rest of my life to be defined by my disability.

Ultimately, I decided to go back to school and study law. The guy who shot me had fled the country, avoiding prosecution. I was eventually able to channel my initial anger into resolve: I wanted to provide others with legal assistance so justice could be served. In 2002 I earned my law degree and began working as a prosecutor with the State of Arizona.

Renewed Resolve

Work and family consumed me for nearly a decade. By 2013 I felt stagnant and out of shape. I’d been through two divorces and was a full-time single dad to my two teenage daughters. I loved being a father and a lawyer, and I felt proud of the work I’d put into my career. But I knew my life lacked balance.

That’s when I decided to revisit my dream of competing in the Ironman at Kona. Triathlon training would demand significant sacrifices. The distance and endurance requirements of the event would mean long hours and hard work. I also would need an extra pair of eyes for training and competition — volunteers who could guide me on swims and runs, people who could cycle and steer with me on a tandem bike.

Through several local organizations that serve disabled individuals and athletes, I found amazingly selfless people who would help. Each week, these men and women accompanied me as I swam 10,000 meters, cycled 200 miles, and ran 20 to 30 miles. The training was particularly brutal on weekends.

I trained 15 to 30 hours every week, on top of my full-time job and my parental responsibilities. My daughters kept me motivated, even when I felt exhausted. I wanted to show them the power of persistence — and that, even with a disability, you can accomplish anything if you’re willing to put in the work.

In 2014 I completed my first full Ironman in Tempe, Ariz., placing fifth in my division with a time of 15:12:39. I returned in 2015 with another year of training under my belt and won my division. That spring I learned that I had been selected from a small list of distinguished disabled athletes worldwide and would finally be going home to Hawaii to compete in the race I’d dreamed of as a kid.

A broken body does not mean a broken spirit; that’s what competing in Kona taught me. There are soldiers returning home with injuries, disabled people with no hope or purpose. There are nonsoldiers who face challenges that are different, yet equally daunting. I hope my story will inspire them to push through the headwind of life’s difficulties, to never give up, to never be defeated, and to never let life’s circumstances get in the way of pursuing their dreams.

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