At 48 years of age, Stew Blake has conquered one tough obstacle after another but the one he's staring at now represents the toughest battle of his life.
The talented distance competitor out of Sault Ste. Marie is battling to regain the use of his limbs following a biking accident on the Hub Trail in the Fort Creek area on Sept. 3 that has left him paralyzed and in a Sudbury Hospital.
He was biking with his teenaged son when, according to sources, he went over his handlebars and suffered a serious neck injury.
The accident occurred exactly three weeks after Blake finished second in the Olympic distance triathlon at the St. Joseph Island Triathlon, finishing the course in two hours, 14 minutes and 25 seconds.
He has been a regular at the annual event and also finished second in the 1,500-kilometre swim followed by a 40-kilometre bike ride and a 10-kilometre run in 2006 and 2007.
Following the mishap, Blake was transported to Sault Area Hospital and air-ambulanced to Sudbury Regional Hospital later that night, where he remains in intensive care, unable to move.
Dean Hay, Blake's brother-in-law and family spokesperson, says people who suffer spinal cord injuries experience a period of time that is referred to as "spinal shock."
"During that time usually function is impaired anyway," said Hay, who teaches anatomy at Canadore College's West Nippising Campus in Sturgeon Falls. "But whether or not some function returns or all function returns, that will be known over time. And that period of time can be anywhere from weeks to up to a year, or even more."
However, Blake has made some progress after being in an induced coma for a few days to stabilize his condition.
Medication is being reduced and Blake is breathing mostly on his own without a ventilator.
"He's making very rapid progress in those terms," Hay said.
Blake cannot speak because he has a tracheotomy that prevents air from flowing through his vocal cords. But he can mouth words and nod yes or no, Hay said.
"He's a very positive individual, and very focused, obviously, from his athletic background. He will begin working this week on passive exercises leading to a full rehabilitation program as soon as possible," Hay said.
"He has a neck injury, so if there is no return in function … he would probably have some impairment, definitely legs and probably arms.
"But that's assuming that no function returns. And we don't know if that will happen or not."
Blake has also been a foster parent in the Sault and has volunteered his time to help organize a number of local triathlons.
He has a son who began high school last week and a daughter, who is in her first year of university.
Blake works at the Ministry of Natural Resources offices in the Sault while his wife, Natalie, is a part-time nurse at Sault Area Hospital.
She was shocked when she first learned of her husband's accident, Hay said. However, her spirits have been bolstered recently.
"She's really feeling positive that Stew has made tremendous gains the last couple of days. His ability to sit up in bed is great. His positive outlook right now is helping her as well."
Blake cannot sit up on his own, but Hay says the fact that he is helped into a sitting position is a good sign because doctors want to see what the blood regulations are like after spinal injuries.
"And being able to sit up is a good indication he has good autonomic function," Hay said. "We know that this is a long term process of making sure Stew returns to as much of an active and positive life as he can.
"And we don't know what that means in the future. Stew and his family will face the challenges ahead with a positive outlook and dedication."
Eric Piscopo is a friend of Blake's and has competed with the local athlete in a number of distance events over the past 10 years.
Piscopo is in the process of setting up a trust fund for Blake and his family at the Royal Bank's main branch in the Sault.
Until the trust fund is established, donations can be made at the John Rhodes Community Pool administration office. Cheques should be made out to, The Sault Master's Polar Bears, an adult swim club Blake was part of.
"All of us that know Stew are deeply affected by this. It's hard to appreciate the severity of this accident and we're just wishing for a miracle," Piscopo said.
A Facebook page "Big Guy" Miracle has also been set up.