I first read about Turia Pitt, the young Australian ultramarathoner who was caught in a grass fire during a race in 2011, suffering burns to 65 percent of her body, when she wrote about her new nose in 2015. By then Turia had already endured more than 200 surgeries as the burns left scarring over most of her body and led to the amputation of some of her fingers.
Later, in October 2016, while I was on the bus back from New York to Washington after finishing the Rock ‘n’ Roll Brooklyn Half, I was watching live coverage of the IRONMAN Kona World Championship on my phone when Turia’s name popped up. She was competing.
(If you haven’t watched an IRONMAN event, you should try it. Finishing an IRONMAN has never been a goal of mine, but you’d have to work hard not to be inspired by the epic focus and commitment of the diverse individuals who participate in these events.)
Turia’s now an IRONMAN World Champion who’s engaged to be married to her longtime boyfriend Michael Hoskin. Through it all she’s a gifted motivational speaker and a disciplined athlete who’s generous with her time. She’s passionate about raising money for Interplast, the Australian NGO providing free reconstructive surgery to people who desperately need it in developing countries, so she’s patient with the media. I managed to get five minutes to talk with Turia at the IRONMAN Foundation’s special screening of the Kona event the other night while I was visiting family in New York City. As we sat down, and I looked at Turia, I thought about how remarkably at ease she seemed to be with herself and with everything going on around her.
Like all of the athletes I met, including multi-IRONMAN finisher Stephanie Middleton, a mother of four in Boston and the IRONMAN Foundation Newton Running Ambassador, and Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae, a three-time World Champion and the world’s top female triathlete, Turia was super fit. I didn’t ask Turia about her injuries, and I don’t know the specifics of what happened during that race in western Australia, but it struck me even after I left the building how remarkable it was that neither Turia’s smile nor her eyes seemed to have been marred by the tragedy.
Turia was an ultramarathoner prior to the fire, so it makes sense that she would want to do whatever she could to regain her former self. Yet under the circumstances, competing in an IRONMAN triathlon would seem an enormous hurdle for a person doctors thought would never walk again.
I asked her about the role exercise, or competing, has played in her recovery.
“I find that whenever you set a really big goal...that’s when we get more confidence, more self-esteem,” she said.
“Lying there in my hospital bed, not being able to do anything for myself, looking vastly different, it was hard to have a sense of self-worth about myself. So by stretching myself and competing again I was able to ... gain all of that back.”
Watch an excerpt of my conversation with Turia Pitt.
Read about IRONMAN Johnny Agar, a college student majoring in sports management and business who has cerebral palsy, and IRONMAN Casey Kammel, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1994. You can find additional information about IRONMAN triathlon events here.
Watch Turia Pitt’s TedX Talk “Unmask Your Potential.”