'I want my friend back'

SCOTT ZERR -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 6:57 AM ET

A year ago, Paul Tichelaar and Simon Whitfield were preparing to run a triathlon with heavy hearts.

A torrential downpour and hailstorm cancelled the ITU World Cup event at Hawrelak Park but that didn't make their day any more comforting.

On the way to Edmonton to register for the race, their training partner Sean Marlowe was severely injured when the car he was driving smashed into a tractor-trailer on Highway 616 near Mulhurst Bay.

Marlowe and Tichelaar had just spent some downtime together at the Tichelaar family's trailer at Pigeon Lake and were driving separately to Edmonton when the tragic accident occurred.

A year later, Marlowe is in a rehabilitation hospital in Victoria awaiting a transfer to a facility in Ponoka. His struggles are still difficult for Tichelaar to talk about.

"He was a guy with so much energy and a great sense of humour and to see him quiet and immobile, it's such a big change," said Tichelaar, who will be in the hunt tomorrow in the annual World Cup visit to the city.

"It's difficult accepting him in this situation. I've never quite got used to it. It's been a year but only a year.

"Some days he's excited and other days, I think his morale is low. He can give you a thumbs-up and he does respond to some verbal commands, which is encouraging. When I talk to him I get the sense he hears what I'm saying."

BRAIN DAMAGE

Marlowe suffered a torn trachea in the accident, which caused irreversible brain damage. He also had a lung removed and has limited movement in much of his body.

As the joker of the bunch, Marlowe was a popular member of the training group in Victoria. Tichelaar met Marlowe in the summer of 2002 and the following year they lived together through their exhaustive regimen. Last year at a camp in Penticton, Marlowe and Tichelaar served as training partners for Brent McMahon, aiding in his quest to get to the Olympics in Athens.

For Tichelaar and Whitfield, seeing their energetic, motivated and upbeat friend contend with such burdens brings out myriad emotions.

"It's sobering,"said Whitfield, the golden boy from the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. "You have this guy who was the life of the party, the funniest guy you'll meet, and the next time you see him, you're just happy when he does the thumbs-up.

"It's a humbling thing to see. And it's humbling to see people like Tichelaar and Brent McMahon who have rallied around him.

Whenever he is back in Victoria, Tichelaar takes Marlowe down to the pool and eases him through some exercises. It's those times that give Tichelaar the strength to hope for his friend's future.

"Hopefully the end goal is to have him feed himself and be self-sufficient - to have some kind of quality of life that makes it all seem worthwhile," said Tichelaar. "Myself, I'd like to see him walk in 10 years. That's the goal I've set for him. It's definitely long term but he has made progress already.

"I saw him at Christmas and then again in May and in that time the progress was phenomenal."

LEFT IN TEARS

The aftermath of those visits, though, are draining.

"I left in tears and I was crying for hours. I just want my best friend back," said Tichelaar. "I go there and talk to him. To me it seems that his mind is there and it's trapped in this body that he can't control anymore."


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