Michael Poole doesn't remember his first epileptic seizure. He was cycling. When he came to, bruised and battered, he thought his triathlon career was over.
"It wasn't pretty," the 22-year-old said. "I went through a hard couple of months and wondered how I could possibly go on."
Poole was one of the best young competitive cyclists in New Zealand, and he was just 18. A gifted runner and swimmer as well, many thought he would be the next great champion from a nation that has produced so many gifted triathletes. Then epilepsy nearly derailed his dreams.
"For a while I wasn't sure if it was going to work out," he said. "But I put my trust in my doctors, and we created a plan. I have been able to manage it, and I think it has made me stronger mentally and a better triathlete."
Now Poole, a junior majoring in chemical engineering at the University of South Florida, is tearing up the Lifetime Tri circuit, one of the most competitive international distance triathlon series in the United States. The next race is Sunday in Minneapolis.
"It is all about the points," said Poole, who has placed third in two events so far this season. "I am in it for the long run."
In addition to his top finishes in Miami and Austin, Texas, he delivered a stellar performance in this year's Gasparilla Distance Classic 15K.
"I was pretty happy," he said of his third-place finish in Tampa. "Most of those guys, all they do is run."
Poole also finished in the Top 20 at this year's St. Anthony's Triathlon, which draws the best Olympic-distance triathletes from around the world.
"The field is always so tough," he said. "It is the best of the best."
But before St. Anthony's, and every other triathlon, Poole's health comes first.
"They don't know what triggers (a seizure)," he said. "There are some indications that it could have something to do with stress and diet. Both of these things come up during a triathlon. …When it is a big race it is hard not to feel stress."
So Poole pays close attention to what he eats and drinks. He also makes sure that he always has someone who knows about his condition at every race."
"It is always in the back of my mind," he said. "But you can't let it stop you. You have to do the best you can and create a different pathway for yourself."
Poole finds it hard to balance his professional triathlon career and his demanding major.
"I figured if I was going to pay for school, I might as well make it worth something," he said. "In triathlon, you are always just one bike crash away from a career-ending injury. So I feel like it is important to have something to fall back on."
When Poole is not traveling for triathlons — in addition to the Lifetime Tri circuit, he also competes in the national 5150 Tri Series — the multisport athlete offers his services to several epilepsy support groups.
"I work a lot with kids," he said. "I love to share my story. I want them to know that there is a way. You can have an active, productive life — you just have to be smart and plan. Then you can do anything."
In the sport of triathlon, the 22-year-old is still a rookie. Most top triathletes don't peak until their 30s, so Poole has a long way to go.
"I'll keep at it," he said. "Anything is possible if you put your mind to it."
Contact Terry Tomalin at [email protected]