ST. PETERSBURG — The squirrel looked left, then right. • Run back to the fence or try and cross the Trail? • The animal pondered its dilemma for a moment then bolted straight into the path of Bev Buysse's bicycle. "I felt a bump," recalled the 51-year-old triathlete. "Then I hit the ground." • Buysse doesn't remember much but the pain. She suffered torn ligaments in her wrist, two ruptured discs, and numerous cuts and abrasions. "I think I probably landed on my head and then bounced on my chin," she said. "Luckily, there were two ladies walking down the Pinellas Trail, and they called an ambulance." • It was a few days before Memorial Day, and a bloodied Buysse sat on the ground wondering whether her encounter with the squirrel would derail her lifelong dream of completing the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, just a few months away. • "It wasn't until I saw the doctor that I realized how bad my injuries really were," she said.
The St. Petersburg resident spent 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard before retiring in 2001 to become the assistant harbormaster for the city of Clearwater.
During her long and distinguished career, Buysse handled everything from search and rescue and law enforcement to port safety and accident investigations.
"I was stationed all over — Virginia, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maryland," she said. "I finally ended up in Florida, first Miami, then Tampa."
A lifelong swimmer, Buysse went to Indiana State, back in the glory days of future Boston Celtics star Larry Bird.
After college, one of Buysse's first jobs in the military was teaching young Coast Guard officer candidates how to swim.
"I swam to keep in shape," she said. "One day a guy in the lane next to me asked if I had ever done a triathlon."
Buysse told the man she had never heard of the sport, which combines swimming, biking and running.
"I was willing to give it a try," she said, and in 1983, Buysse entered her first of more than 200 triathlons.
Over the years, Buysse increased her training, commuting to and from work on her bike along the Pinellas Trail. Her open-water expertise came in handy for the organizers of the 70.3 Ironman (half the distance of the legendary Hawaiian event) when it is held on Clearwater Beach each fall.
"Doing the Ironman was always something that I wanted to do ever since I first started running triathlons," she said. "It had always been a dream."
In 2002, Buysse completed her first Ironman distance event (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run), Great Floridian Triathlon in Clermont. Afterward, knowing she could go the distance, Buysse set her sights on Kona.
Then in May, on one of her daily morning rides, Buysse ran into the squirrel, and her Ironman dreams seemed dashed forever. "I was out of work for a week," she said. "The doctor said I wouldn't be able to compete."
But Buysse had signed up for a 70.3 event in Rhode Island in July.
"So I asked them to give me a waterproof cast on my wrist," she said. "If I couldn't run or ride, I could at least swim."
Six weeks after what many considered a career-ending accident, Buysse was training again. "It was all inside — on a treadmill, stationary bike — but at least I could keep my wind up," she said.
On July 13, she traveled to Rhode Island and went the distance. Then, three months later, she was riding across the black lava fields of Kona. "I thought I would never get off the bike," she said. "All of those old injuries started to hurt again."
But she kept at it and finished the Ironman World Championships in 14 hours and 49 minutes, a respectable performance considering the racing conditions this year were some of the most challenging in decades.
Buysse has some advice for those who hear her story. "If you really want something bad enough, you should go after it with persistence and determination," she said. "You can achieve just about anything — even do the Ironman if that is what you want."
The triathlete said the accident has changed her life.
"I now brake for squirrels, dogs, cats, everything," she said.