BARRINGTON, R.I. — It had been a long day at the engineering firm where Trent Theroux is director of finance. When he finally arrived at his home on Narragansett Bay on Sept. 23, 2002, he helped get his two kids in bed, and then, around 9 p.m., walked down to the beach with his beloved banana-yellow kayak.
He stuck close to the shoreline and after 30 minutes of peaceful paddling, turned and headed back. “There was a full moon, it was as bright as a bell,” said Theroux, a boyish-looking man of 44. “I could see all the land shapes around me.”
Then he heard the engine. And what happened next nearly killed him.
On Sept. 8, as the 10th anniversary of the accident approaches, Theroux will take to those same waters to try to backstroke his way from Point Judith to Block Island. It’s a 13-mile, seven-hour nonstop feat that he says has never been attempted. “Back to Block,” he’s calling it. His goal: to raise awareness — and cash — for a cause that became close to his heart on that night 10 years ago: spinal cord injuries. He aims to raise $50,000 for the nonprofit RISE Above Paralysis; he has $20,000 so far.
When Theroux looked back that night and saw a motorboat headed straight for him, he waved a paddle in the air and shouted. Still the boat came. “I knew I couldn’t stay in the kayak; I would have been hit in the chest and neck and wouldn’t survive. I thought if I could dive, I could go under the boat,” he said.
‘I used to do marathons, but swimming 13 miles across the ocean is extreme.’
So he rolled out of his kayak and dove straight down. He didn’t get deep enough. The boat hit him, hard, in the back, and then the blades of the propeller slashed into him, severing all the major muscles on the left side of his back and cutting into five bones in his spinal column. When he finally surfaced, gasping for air, he couldn’t move his legs or his left arm.
The boat sped away as Theroux, in shock, frantically weighed his next move, but then it turned and came back. He pulled himself aboard and collapsed, his T-shirt soaked with blood. The boaters radioed ahead, and an ambulance was waiting at a marina. It took 45 minutes from the time Theroux was hit until he arrived at the emergency room at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. Doctors told his wife he had a 50-50 chance of making it through the night.
For two days, he lay paralyzed. As he contemplated life without the use of his legs, he made a list of the things he wanted to accomplish. The first few were predictable: to walk, to work, to be able to lift his kids, to climb a flight of stairs. Then, as he puts it, “I got a little crazy.”
He vowed to run a marathon, to climb a skyscraper, to do an Ironman Triathlon. He would backstroke all the way to Block Island from Point Judith in the open ocean; it’s like backstroking from Boston to Braintree without stopping.
The good news was that the engine blades had not severed Theroux’s spinal cord. But he had to learn to walk again, starting with a walker and graduating to a four-pronged cane. After a year of physical therapy, he could finally jog to the corner and back.
In 2005, three years after the accident, Theroux began checking off the “crazy” stuff off his list, starting with the Bay State Marathon. In 2006, he completed an Ironman in Panama City, Fla.: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, a 26.2-mile run. In 2009, he raced with others up 30 floors of a skyscraper in Providence.
Those goals were for himself. The swim he wanted to do is for a larger cause: to help those with spinal cord injuries adjust to their new lives by covering the costs of medical equipment for the home, such as wheelchairs, walkers, and special beds.
When Theroux first came home from the hospital, his wife, Jennifer, had cleared out the dining room, and he slept in a mechanical bed that adjusted low to allow him to climb onto it and had handles that he used to pull himself out of it. It wasn’t covered by insurance, and he paid $1,400 to rent it.
“I was lucky — I had a good job and could afford it,” said Theroux, who still works at the engineering firm and is an adjunct professor of finance and strategy at Johnson & Wales University. “But there are a lot of people who have spinal injuries and don’t have the financial means for equipment.”
On his website, backtoblock.org, Theroux’s slogan is: “A spinal injury changed my life. Help me change someone else’s.”
Last Thanksgiving, he and his wife decided on the swim, and last winter, they began planning for it. They found RISE Above Paralysis, the Boston chapter of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. Executive director David Estrada was thrilled with the idea. “I used to do marathons, but swimming 13 miles across the ocean is extreme,” he said. “I applaud Trent for doing it, but I told him he was cuckoo.” Estrada plans to be at the start and finish of the swim.
Estrada was a Boston police cadet 17 years ago when he was hit by a car while riding his motorcycle home from work. He has been in a wheelchair since, and knows the importance of medical equipment.
“There’s a whole host of things you need for recovery and living independently,” said Estrada, 40, who works in media relations for the Boston Police Department. “There’s shower chairs, hospital beds, wheelchairs. The costs are exorbitant, and a lot of times the insurance companies don’t want to pay for it.”
Theroux had found his charity; next, he needed a swim route. He called the oceanography department at the University of Rhode Island. He explained that he wanted to swim on Sept. 23, the anniversary of his accident. The department said no, that’s a full tide. They also picked the most advantageous starting time: 6:20 a.m. Theroux hopes to arrive at Block Island between 1:30 and 2 p.m.
“We’re going on the neap tide, which has the weakest currents,” Theroux said. He will swim alone but has a crew: a lead boat with a GPS, then Theroux, flanked by two kayaks that will help keep him on course and throw him food and drinks. A chase boat will resupply the kayaks and have a doctor on board.
But why the backstroke? He wants to focus on spinal cord injuries. “It’s the only stroke where you’re looking behind you instead of in front of you,” he said.
It was also his stroke in high school and at Providence College, where he was on the swim team. Though he gave up the sport when he graduated, he reconnected four years ago with college teammates and began doing competitions through US Masters Swimming.
Theroux knows he’s lucky to be alive. Still, he’s missing much of his back muscle, and his wife and kids shovel the driveway and lift the heavy stuff, such as luggage. “He fatigues quickly and has a visible hunch,” Jennifer said. His right shoulder is slightly higher than his left, and in cold weather, he gets painful golf-ball sized knots on his scars.
On a recent day, the family piled in the car to take Haley, 18, to the University of Central Florida for her freshman year.
“You know he’s in pain, but he will never tell you,” said Haley.
Since May, Theroux has intentionally gained 15 pounds, the better for buoyancy and warmth in the water, which will be 60 to 65 degrees. He’s not wearing a wetsuit for his swim, following “English Channel rules,” which prohibit the swimmer from wearing a wetsuit or touching a boat.
Every 30 minutes, he’ll have a bottle of energy drink and a squirt of nutritional gel. Every three hours, he’ll have a power bar and a banana. He’ll eat and drink on his back, all the while kicking his legs.
Michael Sever is head coach of Triton Swimming, a US Masters Swim group in Providence. Theroux is a member of the team, and the two have been training together. They’re in the water five or six times a week. Weekends are for the long swim, so far 8 miles. Theroux’s wife, daughter, or a friend follows in the kayak.
On the big day, Sever will be in one of the support boats “yelling at him, coaxing him.” Sever’s biggest worry? “In all honesty, it’s probably finishing. I think he’s in great shape mentally and physically, as much as he can be. But it’s a huge swim, and he’ll be swimming across some really, really tough currents.”
The 10 ferry miles to Block Island increases to a 13-mile swim because Theroux will have to swim off the straight-line course to avoid the worst currents, then turn and head back on course. “Timing is everything,” Sever said. “What time the swim starts, the general pace during the swim, and then the tides. If everything isn’t synchronized, he could be swimming against the tide, making it even harder and longer.”
In practice swims, the men have encountered 3-foot swells and, in one strong current, did not make any progress, swimming in place for 30 minutes. “There are several different ways of backstroking, and I will change it because of fatigue,” said Theroux.
His worst fear? Sharks. He doesn’t expect any, but he does expect jellyfish: “I’ll just get stung and keep going.”