Eleven years after a spinal cord injury, Heather Bakken was determined to compete in the 1,000 Islands Olympic Triathlon.
Finishing Last Can Be Your Biggest Win
Finishing Last Can Be Your Biggest Win

On Sunday, August 16, 2015, RHF supporter Heather Bakken competed in the 1,000 Island Olympic Triathlon in Ontario. Her heartfelt (and funny!) story of determination and endurance is a must-read. 


The title of this blog is an obvious spoiler. Yup - last place out of 58 competitors (26 women). But I consider it one of my biggest accomplishments.

First, I’d like to say how grateful I am to everyone for taking an interest in my cause and for supporting the Rick Hansen Foundation. Our society places a high value on independence, but the truth is we all need a helping hand at some point in life. As Rick says, “Together, anything is possible.”

My goal was to get to the finish line. My race plan was to stay horizontal in the water and stay vertical on the ground. Seems pretty straightforward. It was also very entertaining at times.

In the final analysis, it's obvious to see who's done the work during these events. You've got to put in the hours. I wish I had been able to build on my workouts, but there are still some issues and vulnerabilities around permanent nerve damage and compromised vertebrae that limit my progress. As such, I went into this with my ego checked in at the door. Good thing too!

The swim was fun. Prior to the race, I was never able to get past the one kilometre mark without triggering a severe instep spasm (back-related) that I refer to as "Frankenstein Foot." This was a concern for river swimming because you can’t stop and stretch. The only way to counter it is to hyper contract at the ankle, which turns the foot into a pretty decent rudder. As a result, I went so far off course so many times the boat patrol was calling me "Zigzag Girl." I must have swam two kilometres :)

Biking was amazing. There were two out-and-backs for make 40 kilometres. It was liberating to feel the summer breeze in bucolic surroundings. So many other riders were cheering me on. At first I thought it was because of my age (it’s marked on your calf), but some of the folks were in the same ballpark. Then it dawned in me... this was the point the leaders were lapping me. “You’re doing a great job!", “Keep up the good work!” and “Great push on that hill!” were all consolation cheers. At that point I had passed one other cyclist, so I figured I wasn’t alone.

The final lap was a struggle. My back was seizing up, so I stretched it out while standing up coasting. Did you know it’s possible to do a downward dog on a bike?

Then came the highway motorcycle patrol. A gentleman pulled up beside me to inform me he would be following me for the remainder of the bike course. It was official; I was in last place. This was my Hester Prynne moment. A scarlet ‘L’ was prominently displayed on my pace. That’s when I started to laugh - and he did too.

Finally, the run. This was not going to be pretty. It was a hot day, but the trail was along an old railway line with an honour guard of trees which provided a good measure of relief from the heat. It was also a double out-and-back. The first time through volunteers were clapping and encouraging me with, “You’re almost there!”, to which I apologized and let them know it would be another half hour before they could leave. They took it in good cheer. I promised a police officer on street patrol that I would make his overtime worthwhile. He thanked me for helping him work on his tan. Towards the end of the race, he had to escort me with an SUV through the city streets to the finish line. He told me I was clocking in at 7 kilometres an hour. I knew better than to call a policeman a liar!

Having a motorcycle and police escort is usually reserved for V.I.P.s. and it made me feel obligated to behave as one. Accordingly, I had a strong finish.

Around the final bend I heard my name on the loudspeaker. The first thing that occurred to me was that my surname had never been associated with a last place finish in sports. Then I recalled what my dad always used to say to me, “All I’ve ever asked you to do is try.”  And that’s what I did yesterday.

I finished last, but I finished laughing.

The courage and determination of the young lady, Julianne Mills, who I dedicated my race to, shared her favourite quote with me. “Wake up each day with determination and go to bed with satisfaction.” That’s the kind of day it was.


We are very proud and grateful to Heather for finishing the race and for raising over $3,000 for the Rick Hansen Foundation. Thank you, Heather!

Sonia Woodward

About the Author

Sonia Woodward is the Content Specialist at the Rick Hansen Foundation.

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