Columbia teen competes in triathlon a year after losing leg

ccope@thestate.comJuly 27, 2013 

— Dean Rish Jr. crossed the finish line in a sprint triathlon Saturday, a year after doctors removed his left leg.

While other competitors made the relatively smooth transition between the events, “DJ” had to take some extra time to change legs. He didn’t use a prosthetic during the swim, and he relied on crutches to get from the pool to a changing room, where he put on his biking leg. After the bike course, he put on a running leg to complete the race’s last stretch.

The day was more than just a set of challenges.

“It’s something to prove to myself and everyone else, with God’s help, I can do whatever I need to,” DJ said.

DJ was on a Boy Scouts trip in Greenville when the van he and other scouts were riding in slipped off the side of the road.

It was dark and raining when the vehicle dropped about 19 feet and flipped over, the 16-year-old said, matter-of-factly retelling the story.

DJ’s injuries were among the worst. His leg was trapped under the van, which doctors said served almost as a tourniquet, preventing him from losing too much blood, said his dad, Dean Rish. He was lying in a creek that diluted the gas that spilled out, but the gas still caused chemical burns on 60 percent of his body.

His parents were at home in Columbia when they got the phone call telling them to go to the hospital in Greenville. His dad thought it was just protocol and that they had been summoned to the hospital for formality. His mom kept telling his dad to drive faster.

When his parents got to the emergency room, they could smell gasoline everywhere.

A doctor told DJ’s parents what happened and said DJ would have a better quality of life if they took his leg. They remember not caring about the leg, as long as the doctors could save their son’s life.

DJ was transported by helicopter to the burn center in Augusta and was in the hospital for a total of five weeks.

One of the nurses who attended to DJ at the burn center thought about cutting his long, flipped-out hair because it retained the gasoline smell even almost a day later. But she left it.

Angelica Rish still hates the smell of gas. She avoids refilling her tank and knows she can drive 34 miles with the gas light on.

Wild hair and zombies

Even though he was hooked up to tubes and missing a leg, when his three younger siblings first saw DJ in the hospital, he still had his hair so they knew he was still their brother. The nurse was glad she left his hair, his parents said.

During the Tom Hoskins Memorial Sprint Triathlon on Saturday, DJ’s hair was bright red.

His mom had stains on her fingernails from helping her four kids dye their hair funky colors, from DJ’s bright red to his 9-year-old brother Sam’s bright blue ’do.

“Purple hair, pink hair does not matter,” Angelica Rish said. They’re only kids once, and there are more important things to worry about than hair color, she said.

The triathlon began with a 350-yard pool swim, then switched to a 13-mile bike course and a 3.1-mile run that began and ended at the Columbia NorthWest YMCA in Irmo.

The event, in its third year, was held in memory of Tom Hoskins, a Columbia native who was hit and killed during a charity bicycle ride in Lancaster County in 2007.

Sherri Hoskins, Tom Hoskins’ widow, watched DJ – and his dad and his physical therapist – compete. The Rish family, neighbors and friends screamed their support along the course.

“DJ is just an example of the strength we can draw from others,” Sherri Hoskins said.

The teen’s dad said he competed in the triathlon to make sure his son had everything he needed.

“He’s just a guarantee that I’m not last place,” DJ joked.

Dean Rish said he pretended zombies were chasing him for motivation to swim/bike/run faster during the triathlon.

The Rish family is familiar with zombies. Last Halloween, DJ dressed as a zombie apocalypse survivor, and said he told people a Zombie had bitten off his leg.

DJ’s physical therapist, Rhyno Coetsee, helped DJ train for the triathlon and competed in the triathlon with him as well.

“We wanted to displace a negative experience of the past with a positive experience in the future,” Coetsee said. “With that process, healing comes.”

A world of support

While DJ raced the triathlon, his family members ran a relay of their own, passing off prosthetic legs, crutches, water and other items DJ needed along the way.

His mom sprinted to take his crutches from him just before he started the triathlon in the swimming pool. She handed off one of his legs to DJ’s 13-year-old sister, Marie, who was waiting with DJ’s team of supporters outside where the running portion of the race would begin. When DJ switched from swimming to the bike ride, 14-year-old sister Jodi raced from where the fan club was sitting to give her brother a water bottle.

DJ’s team of supporters cheered on each of the other 200 or so runners as they switched from the bike course to the run and as they came back around for the final stretch.

But they cheered the loudest for DJ.

The group, made up of some of the very same people who prayed for him in the hospital a year ago, surrounded him and crossed the finish line with him.

His mom went to hug him and was about to cry, so DJ endearingly dumped his water bottle out on her to hide her tears.

He never would have dreamed of competing in a triathlon before his accident, DJ said.

And now, he plans to become an Eagle Scout by the end of the year and to continue to take on physical challenges.

Skateboarding? Suggested one of the little kids wearing a “TEAM DJ” shirt.

DJ was game.

“I’ll get a leg for that.”

Reach Cope at (803) 771-8657.

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