Triathlete Competes for Those Who Can’t, Inspires Those Who Can

Brad Kelley completed his ninth IRONMAN on Saturday, May 17.

A 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run. No problem for endurance athlete Brad Kelley. Brad is a nine-time IRONMAN® competitor who has become accustomed to the rigor of triathlons. Looking at the brawny 46-year-old, you would never know that he wages a constant battle with his body just to stand tall ― let alone go the distance as a triathlete.

In 2003, Brad was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS), a rare autoimmune disease that can result in paralysis. The disease struck quickly and left Brad in a wheelchair.

“One day I noticed numbness and tingling in my hands,” Brad said. “The next day it had spread up my arms to my elbows. When I went to get out of bed on day three, I fell on the bedroom floor unable to stand up. With help, I managed to get to the Emergency Room at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Plano.”

Finding Inspiration in Unlikely Places

Brad underwent a battery of tests to rule out such things as West Nile virus, Lyme disease and even multiple sclerosis. Once the diagnosis of GBS was made, he underwent a five-day blood transfusion to clean his blood followed by months of rehabilitation. Progress was slow but steady. First, the goal was to just get Brad out of his hospital bed, then a wheelchair and finally off the use of a walker. The team in the hospital’s Rehabilitation Center was always encouraging, but he found the greatest hope in one particular physical therapist who, oddly enough, was also living with GBS. With her help, Brad came to realize that things would get better.

After rehab, he was able to return to work as a night-shift tractor trailer driver for UPS. He began entertaining the thought of racing and started working out at a gym, where he met a triathlon coach. Everything fell into place. Brad had always been sports-minded, having played football and baseball and wrestled in school, but now he began swimming and training.

In 2009, he ran his first sprint triathlon. He finished second to last in his age group, but it was a huge milestone. After a few more local triathlons, he was inspired to register for the IRONMAN 70.3 in New Orleans. Despite the ever-present tingling and numbness in his legs, Brad crossed the finish line in an impressive 5 hours and 31 minutes.

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Brad volunteering for Special Olympics.

During his yearly checkup with his neurologist the following week, Brad asked his doctor to weigh in about competing in a full IRONMAN 140.6 race.

“He replied, ‘I don’t think that’s possible with the condition you have. I’ve never heard of a GBS patient doing such a long endurance event,’” Brad remembered. “That was all I needed to hear. The words just fueled my fire.”

Five IRONMAN races later, he wanted an even bigger challenge both on the race circuit and in his community. He competed in a Double IRONMAN (4.8 mile swim, 224 mile bike ride and 52.4 mile run) and also raises more than $3,000 for the Special Olympics in honor of his mother who worked with special needs children while she was alive.

“Although I admire many pro athletes and the great things they can do within their sport, my real inspiration comes from those who are less fortunate from birth ― like the athletes within the Special Olympics organization,” Brad said. “These athletes have had physical or mental disabilities all their lives and yet they are out there competing, trying their best and in many ways inspiring people to do more. As long as my body is willing, I will compete for those who can’t and try to inspire those who can to give it their all. I don’t know what my limit is yet.”


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