Atikokan woman completes bike, kayak biathlon after double leg amputation

Kaleen Torbiak hopes her story of adversity and self-perseverance will inspire others.

The double leg amputee from Atikokan finished a 193-km-long kayaking and biking biathlon in Florida this weekend.

“Sunday was such an emotional roller coaster. I think I was crying happy tears from waking up to going to bed,” Torbiak said. “It was a life changer experience — just absolutely magical.”

Torbiak lost both legs to frostbite in 2015 after an attempt to take her own life in the woods near Atikokan resulted in a bad fall and days of exposure to the cold before being found by search and rescue.

“I’m very lucky to be alive not only to tell my story but to be able to do a 120-mile biathlon,” Torbiak said.

After she shared her story publicly, Torbiak said the Project Athena Foundation, a non-profit group in the United States which helps survivors of medical and traumatic challenges reach new athletic goals, caught wind of it in 2019.

Torbiak said the foundation, which gives opportunities to people who need to prove to themselves they can still do it, offered her a grant which would cover almost all the expenses to participate in one of four life-affirming adventure challenges.

Torbiak said she chose the adventure called the Keys to Recovery, a non-competitive bike and kayak race held over three days from Key Largo to Key West in Florida.

“I’ve always done kayaking, even since losing my legs, the first thing that I wanted to do was get into the pool, I need to make sure I can still swim, all that stuff,” she said.

Torbiak said she had to delay the race until this year due to subsequent operations to remove bone spurs and waiting for a new pair of prosthetic legs.

“I just got new legs at the end of June. These new legs have changed my life,” she said.

The pair of prosthetic legs cost about $40,000, which Torbiak said was covered mostly by her husband’s work insurance and funding through the War Amps.

She said new ones are much more comfortable with a vacuum system that helps the prosthetic fit to the leg. While they aren’t considered a sport leg, they incorporate some of the same technology as the running blades many para-athletes use.

“I have worn my legs every day since I got them,” she said.

Tobiak said her body is still pretty sore a couple of days after finishing the race.

“It was tough. [I’m] not going to lie, but so worth the push through all my pain I was dealing with,” she said. “I thought my nubs would be covered in sores and blisters but they weren't. Just one blister and a massive heat rash.”

She said the equipment she used for the race was adapted to her needs, including riding on a tandem bike which she had never been on.

Her coach was on the front of the bike, she said.

“It’s the stopping part. I need somebody to use their legs. They have adapted to me to be able to do this.”

She said she used a two-person kayak with her coach and got assistance getting in and out of the kayak.

“I learned a long time ago, to take the help [if it’s offered,]” she said. “It just makes your life easier.”

She said kayaking in the ocean was way harder then the Atikokan River.

"Saturday was a crazy scary 14-mile paddle with huge swells and waves. Lots of kayaks flipped, I was one of the lucky ones and never fell out of [the] kayak once," she said.

Torbiak said the highlight of the race was all the support from the other athletes doing this adventure with her.

“I gained a whole new family,” she said, as the only Canadian among the 26 athletes who took part. “Project Athena Foundation showed me I really don't have any limits even if missing a couple limbs.”

Torbiak said she’s already signed up for next year and is planning on participating in the event for as long as she can.

“The grant you only get once but I have a whole year to save up,” she said.

She said it’s very nice that her story may help some people get through a hard time, “but what people don’t realize it that yes, I might be inspiring them but they’re all pushing me and inspiring me to do this too.”

“I find when you’re an amputee, there’s no middle ground. You’re either giving it all or you’re giving up, there’s only two ways to go it seems,” she said. “And hopefully, if they are down and giving up, they are slowly moving into giving it all.”

Torbiak said this is all about offering support.

“The only other [person who] would ever completely understand what an amputee’s going through, is another amputee,” she said.

“When I lost my legs, there wasn’t any help out there, there [weren’t] any support groups. There wasn’t anything on the web," she said. “I run three support groups now through Facebook.”

She also wants to help others get prosthetics like the ones she has.

“I really want to get into more advocating for people who are only getting, the cheapest of the cheap. That will get you up standing but that’s about it,” she said. “I know I’ve put the hard work in, but if I didn’t have these legs or this opportunity to do this, I wouldn’t be pushing myself this hard.”

Torbiak said her next goal is to learn how to run with her new legs with proper training from the amputee clinic at St. Joseph’s Care Group.

She said she hopes that seeing what she’s been doing as a double amputee for the last five months of training will give others further motivation.

“At first, I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it. I said, there’s no way, no way, I’m going to be able to ride my bike for 30 miles, are you insane?” she said with a laugh.

Torbiak said the foundation provided a 20-week training program to help them get ready for the event and all the athletes needed to download an app, so organizers could monitor the training.

She said near the end of the program, she was cycling 95 kilometres in two days, while still training up to four hours in her kayak in November.

Torbiak is able to escape the cold weather for a least another week.

“I’m still in Florida enjoying a vacation now, I fly home Dec. 2,” she said. “Once home I'm jumping back on [the] bike indoors for winter to keep getting stronger and next year might even be easier.”

“It's was simply magic and life changing,” she said. “I know now that nothing will hold me back ever.”

Eric Shih, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Thunder Bay Source