SEATTLE – Vlad Schmidt's friends haven't seen him much lately. He spends most of his free time swimming, riding and running. His mother, who nurtures a family of vegetarians and vegans, worries about him losing weight. Vlad, though, is on a mission and you can see that determination as he pedals up a Seattle hillside.
"Last year I didn't qualify for Kona. I was three minutes behind in my group," Schmidt said. "I tell myself, even if I'm experiencing a lot of pain ... just get through it. Pain is temporary and the feeling of finishing is something that you will never forget. That stays with you forever and it's worth it."
Vlad speaks through an interpreter because the 47 year old is deaf. He is the only one in his family who is. He was born able to hear but an illness caused him to lose hearing in his right ear and he became mostly deaf in his left when he was about 2 years old.
Last year, he finished the IRONMAN Mont-Tremblant in 10:06:50, beating his previous year's personal record at Coeur d'Alene. Right now he's training for an IRONMAN in Quebec in August, where he's hoping to qualify for Kona, the World Championship, later this year.
"Many of us have witnessed his nutrition goals, his withdrawal of beer, of learning about nutrition, of becoming a Vegan racer. We look at him like he's crazy sometimes," said Melissa 'echo' Greenlee, his friend, as she smiled. "He's a huge inspiration in our community because not only is he deaf, but he inspires us to set goals ourselves."
Vlad has been involved in athletics in different ways for a lot of his life. He swam in college and played on the German national volleyball team for the Deaf Olympics in Denmark in 1997.
"When I was living in Germany I saw the IRONMAN Europe race taking place live and I was just so moved by it. I never forgot it and I thought I always want to do something like that," he said. "It looked so strenuous - the amount of work that it takes to do all three sports. I thought 'How does one human being do this?'"
For some, the race does seem superhuman: a 2.4 mile swim in the water, more than a hundred on the bike, followed by a marathon.
"I always think about my family, my life and what I've gone through and I want to be able to show people what can be done," Vlad said.
His friends and community have shown support through a web page set up to help him with his endeavors. The support he's gotten from them, Vlad said, has just given him more fuel to race.
"It's really helping me connect to a better world and I want to be able to show other deaf people that can be athletes just like I can. They can compete on a world stage just like I can," he said. "There's no excuse. Being deaf is just the fact that we can't hear. It's as simple as that."
Greenlee said she hopes that's what others take away when they see Vlad crossing the finish line, especially those who are younger and deaf themselves.
"So often we are told that we can't. Whether it's playing a musical instrument or joining a dance team or cycling team - we can't because we're deaf," she said. "He's very critical and important for our youth to be watching. So they can see the possibilities."