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Benefield: Santa Rosa's Andre Kajlich embarking on an expedition of endurance

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To understand Andre Kajlich’s ”LowestHighest” project — in which he and a team of endurance athletes will bike and climb from the lowest point in South America to the highest, all under their own power — it makes sense to understand Kajlich’s own lowest moment. Except that he can’t remember it. What he does remember is waking up from a three-week coma in a hospital in Prague without both of his legs. He was 24.

He was a college student studying in Prague back in 2003. He’d been out all night drinking with friends. They stopped for breakfast. All of that he remembers.

“Probably around 7:30 a.m. I finally said goodbye to my last friend,” he said. “I had fallen asleep on the subway, missed a stop, got off to go the other way and ended up on the tracks.”

Was he mugged? Or pushed? Did he pass out? Kajlich doesn’t know but doesn’t assign blame to anyone but himself.

“I don’t think there is any other explanation than me being out of it,” he said.

He lost one leg at the hip, so he no longer had a femur. His other leg ends before the knee. He had broken ribs, a punctured lung, a compound fracture to the point of almost losing his left arm and he cracked almost every tooth in his mouth.

Infections — from the gasoline, grease and grime of the subterranean tracks — were a massive challenge for the doctors. Forty units of blood were pumped into him.

After three weeks, doctors took him out of his coma, and Kajlich said he was told “as gently as you can be told what happened.”

He spent two months in intensive care in Prague before he was flown back to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle near his family’s home in Edmonds.

There had been earlier signs. As a freshman at Washington State University, Kajlich drank until he couldn’t stand. When his friends carried him home, he hit his head on the fire escape and had to be taken to the hospital, where it was discovered his blood alcohol level was .465. The gash on his head was a flesh wound — the amount of alcohol coursing through his body could have killed him.

“My parents yanked me out” of college, Kajlich said. “It was definitely a foreshadowing.”

He wandered a while. He enrolled at community college. A natural athlete, he became a “damn near” scratch golfer. But as his high school friends started to graduate from college and he still didn’t have a degree, he decided to go back. But he wanted to study in the former Czechoslovakia, the country his father had fled decades earlier because of political oppression.

He had only been there a few months when the accident happened in December. His mom, Patti, who lives in Edmonds, called her son a “man interrupted” when the accident struck.

His family immediately rallied for him. Kajlich is the middle child of Patti and Aurel Jan, an anesthesiologist who died in 2010.

Patti Kajlich remembers family friends taking Andre duck hunting in those early days. It was an opportunity to be physical, to assert some independence.

But as the other hunters waited outside on the driveway in the early morning hours, Patti Kajlich remembers her son seeming kind of frantic as he packed up things at the last minute. He slipped and fell in the laundry room. He couldn’t find his guns.

Then Patti Kajlich remembered.

“I had hidden them,” she said. “I didn’t know his frame of mind.”

Patti Kajlich learned later, reading an interview Andre had given, that her son spent that first night of the hunting trip breaking down a little bit.

“He said he cried hard on his own that night,” she said. “He said he was remembering how excited he was to go to London and the Czech Republic and how different it was from the flight home. But even when he was on the stretcher, he said the sun hit his face and how good it felt.”

Kajlich’s physical recovery, as well as his ability to find those bits of sun and to adjust to a new way of operating, was remarkable. He got prosthetic legs in September. That fall he went to a Seattle Seahawks game. He was offered a lift from the parking lot but declined. He’d walk, thank you.

“It was a long, sweaty mess of a trip,” he said of his slog to his seat, but he made it.

He was swimming almost immediately upon returning home. A car, modified so he could operate it with just his hands, was donated to him.

Patti Kajlich struggled with her role as a mom during this period when her son needed her help but also needed to assert his independence. She said she did not want to be a “mollycoddler” but was scared silly when, a day after he got the car, she looked out on the driveway and saw Andre’s wheelchair sitting there but not the car.

“Truly, this whole experience had regressed me as far as being a mom,” she said. “I said, ‘Andre, why did you do this?’ He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘Mom, because I can.’”

He had a fire in his gut to push himself, but something else seemed to burn at him as well, Patti Kajlich said.

“I don’t know that I ever saw him depressed in the classic sense of depression, but I said, ‘You were in a very destructive mode,’” she recalled.

She insisted that he see a therapist to navigate a healthy way forward.

In describing his attitude then, Kajlich said he’s always considered himself a positive, forward-looking person.

“The way forward is to try and drop all of this baggage and wondering why it couldn’t be different,” he said. “Can I stand up right now and run down the sidewalk? No. But there are infinite things I can do.”

And he’s doing them.

Kajlich is now 40 and one of the most decorated para-athletes in the world.

Kajlich, who with his wife, Mariana, moved to Santa Rosa in 2018 to take a marketing job with CannaCraft, Inc., is the only handcyclist to finish the Race Across America solo. He completed the Brazil 135 ultramarathon in a modified wheelchair equipped with knobby tires and what’s essentially a dirt bike’s front wheel. He was named the 2012 USA Triathlon Paratriathlete of the Year and is the only wheelchair athlete to complete an ultraman triathlon — something he’s done three times.

“The Brazil 135 had 35,000 feet of climbing,” he said. “It was single track, muddy banks. That race took me 62½ hours to finish. We are talking about a 20-minute nap. I missed the cutoff. I didn’t care at all, nobody cared.”

In that race, he literally burned through multiple pairs of reinforced gloves. When the chair couldn’t make it over the steep, muddy sections, he hopped out of the chair and pulled it behind him, sometimes with lengths of rope.

There is a video floating around the internet of his finish. It’s hard to tell the hour, but it’s clearly at night. Kajlich has a head lamp over his hat, people on the street are holding flashlights. Scores of people are seen and heard cheering as he rounds the corner and breaks the tape, arms raised. People chant “Andre! Andre! Andre!” with a Portuguese lilt. Many people in the frame are crying. Not Kajlich. His smile is huge.

“All these people, mate, all these people here for you,” someone off camera says, as people wipe their faces and hug.

“Sorry I made you wait so long,” Kajlich says, still smiling.

Mariana and Andre Kajlich have been together 13 years and married for 10.

“He has a steady personality. He doesn’t get depressed or unhappy or exuberant. I very much envy that about him,” Mariana said about her husband.

She saw the seeds planted for the LowestHighest project after Kajlich was the first handcyclist to ever finish Race Across America solo. Dubbed “The World’s Toughest Bicycle Race,” the race starts in Oceanside, pushes 3,000 miles east and finishes in Annapolis, Maryland. There is 175,000 feet of climbing.

“I think, in his brain, after Race Across America, he needed another big thing,” she said.

The LowestHighest project is clearly a big thing.

Kajlich is leading a team with two other athletes, each of whom has a physical challenge. Mohamed Lahna was born without a femur in his right leg and has completed the Kona Ironman in Hawaii, the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon in Norway and the Marathon des Sables in Morocco. Lucas Onan has an underdeveloped left arm that is essentially unusable. A ski instructor, Onan earned the moniker “Leadman” after finishing the Leadville 100 Trail Run in Colorado, the Leadville 100 mountain bike race and the Leadville Trail Marathon.

They will be joined by Bryan Nelson, who will film the journey and run social media updates. Later, the party will include cinematographer Pablo Durana. But the ride from Laguna Del Carbon in Argentina, 2,000 miles across Patagonia and then the climb up the 22,840-foot Aconcagua (the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere) will be entirely self-supported.

Kajlich left Santa Rosa Wednesday and planned to get underway Sunday.

If successful, he hopes this will be part one of making the same trek from the lowest to highest points on all seven continents. It’s a feat no one has accomplished, he said.

“Ultimately, we want to go to the next continent and the next until we have done them all and that’s never been done, period,” he said.

At the fore of the whole project is Kajlich’s devotion to the Challenged Athletes Foundation. When Kajlich won his first major race, he was disqualified for being in an unsanctioned handcycle. CAF donated a regulation rig.

“Basically, they help people with disability get the gear and equipment they need to live an active life,” he said. “You basically need a pair of running shoes and you are an athlete. I’m looking at an expensive wheelchair or expensive running leg, if you are an amputee that can run, and those costs are never covered by insurance.”

Donations to CAF help fund international grants for equipment, travel and coaching for all athletes.

“The community that they have built, both able-bodied and people who do things a little differently, has been hugely resourceful for learning and growing,” he said.

Kajlich also wouldn’t mind if this trip, and any other expedition he takes on, changes people’s perceptions of what can be and perhaps who can do.

He called this project LowestHighest for a reason. Sure, it’s a trek from the lowest point on the continent to the very highest, but it’s something more.

“We are traveling from the lowest point to the highest point — and everybody is, in some way, shape or form,” he said. “It might not be the absolute lowest but there (are) peaks and valleys and most of our life is between those two — hopefully on the way up.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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