Whelan sees light at the end of the tunnel

St. John’s triathlete bouncing back in wake of major eye surgery and long recovery

Kenn Oliver koliver@thetelegram.com
Published on August 2, 2014

Marty Whelan is shown after the Panamerican Triathlon Confederation championships in Dallas earlier this year where he placed 41st. The 19-year-old from St. John’s has since turned in three top 20 finishes in Canadian junior series races.

©— Submitted photo

Your first semester of university after high school graduation, some will argue, should be your most memorable.
For those studying away from home, particularly, it’s about making new friends, having new and exciting experiences and, in a lot of cases, living independently of your parents for the first time.
Marty Whelan’s first three months at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., weren’t at all like that. They were, quite literally, dark months for the 19-year-old triathlete and swimmer from St. John’s.

In his final year of high school at Gonzaga, Whelan began noticing that boards and notes far away were getting harder to see clearly. He told his father, opthalmologist Dr. James Whelan, and was quickly diagnosed with keratoconus, a fairly common, but no less dangerous, degenerative eye disease that often begins in adolescence.

“It’s not something that changes you that much, you just have difficulty seeing at a distance and it’ll get progressively worse if you don’t get it operated on,” said the younger Whelan.

Dr. Whelan reached out to contacts in Montreal and not long after last year’s Canada Summer Games in Sherbrooke, Que., where Whelan competed for team Newfoundland and Labrador, he underwent surgery.

“As opposed to 20/20 vision, which I used to have, at the point where I was when I was operated on, I was maybe 20/30 or 20/40,” Whelan explains.

“It wasn’t huge, but I definitely wanted to get it operated on as soon as possible.”

And for good reason — the recommended recovery time is six months.

After missing the first week of school, Whelan arrived at McMaster, but with an extreme sensitivity to light — one of the major post-op symptoms — he was bedridden for close to a month. Even after a month in the dark, the light sensitivity made attending class problematic.

“The sunlight is bad enough, but you wouldn’t imagine how hard it is to look at projector screens,” says Whelan, who managed to get by with notes from classmates.

Whelan feels fortunate that he wasn’t alone through his ordeal. His mother, Dr. Kathy Whelan, was 40 minutes away in Toronto completing a one-year fellowship at St. Michael’s Hospital, and his girlfriend, Louise Twells, was also attending McMaster. Unable to leave his room for the first month, it was Twells who made friends and helped Whelan integrate with a social circle.

“She told them, ‘Marty had a surgery, so he’s not too good with the light.’ She was a huge help for that kind of stuff and really got me through the first semester. I’ve made a lot more friends than I would have expected.”

With the light sensitivity, even when he did get back to classes and into social situations, he wasn’t often spotted without a pair of sunglasses. Even today, Whelan, who has never before needed corrective lenses, wears a pair of tinted glasses to protect his eyes.

“I’m sure people didn’t know what to think. I’m sure they had their opinions,” he laughs.

The biggest downside to his surgery was that it kept him out of the water with the school’s Marauders swim team, meaning Whelan’s training plan for the upcoming season would be cut drastically short.

It was February before he was back in the pool.

“But at that point, you have some major swim meets coming up and a lot of tapering, so unfortunately I did miss the first three months of base training. My coach realized that and suggested I start on a fresh schedule next year.”

Undaunted and determined to make the most of the upcoming triathlon season, Whelan began training with Hamilton’s Tri Hart Triathlon Racing Team’s high performance program, taking part in their open water swims, as well as their biking and running sessions.

After placing seventh in a Virginia triathlon, Whelan had a disappointing 41st-place finish amongst junior men at the Pan American championships in Dallas, arguably the biggest race of his season.

“I thought maybe I could hope for a top 20, but when the race came around, there was this huge bike pack. That ends up being a running race, and no real placing is based off the swim or the bike because everyone’s together.

“My biking and swimming have maybe gotten slightly better. I was hoping to make something out of that.”

Whelan considers himself an average runner, and after sacrificing his own legs in the 20-kilometre bike stage to help advance teammates, he was spent by the time they approached the 5 K run, finishing three minutes off the lead group’s pace.

“It wasn’t the result I wanted, but it was a great experience. I know a lot of things I would change if I were to have a second chance next year.”

In Triathlon Canada’s junior series races since, Whelan has two 10th place finishes and a 17th.

The results have led him to question whether he made the right choice in attending McMaster instead of taking up the invite to the University of Guelph and a spot at its well-respected regional triathlon training centre.

Whelan settled on McMaster because of its top-notch engineering program.

“I’ve been reassured by my family and coaches that I took four months off and I need to realize that,” Whelan.

“I’m not worried now. I know if I swim varsity for three months and get back into a training routine again, it’ll be a much better year next year for me.”

Whelan has one race remaining this year, the Pushor Mitchell Kelowna Apply Triathlon, the last junior series race of the season, Aug. 16-17 in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley.

“That’ll be a really good one for me because it will be my most trained-for race,” says a confident Whelan. “I’m hoping to finish top eight.”

After a brief trip home to visit family and friends, Whelan is now back in Ontario training, meaning he won’t be around to defend his St. John’s Triathlon sprint title next Sunday.

“If I can make it back, I’d love to do it,” Whelan says. “It’s a fun race and it’s a great atmosphere.”



Twitter: @telykenn