Brian and Kevin Leske are sitting in the living room of Brian's Georgetown townhouse, where a half-dozen birthday cards remain on the fireplace mantel, three days after the twins turned 30. The wrought iron and glass coffee table is covered with triathlon magazines and green mugs filled with French roasted coffee. Their second cups of the day. They both drink it black.
Both are wearing gray Ironman Triathlon T-shirts and faded blue jeans. Brian sits on the beige leather couch and Kevin is on a matching chair near the window. Both are sitting with their legs crossed, left over right. Kevin's left ankle rests comfortably on his right knee. Brian's left ankle rests right above where his knee would be, if still he had one.
Ten years ago, Brian was involved in a boating accident that caused his right leg to be amputated just above the knee. He was living at his parent's home on Long Island during his summer break from college when the accident happened. He prefers not to talk very much about it.
"It happened, and we moved on," he said. "It's not as if we act like it never happened. We dealt with it and now we move on."
What is more significant than the accident, he says, is what he is doing 10 years later. Brian, Kevin and their father, 61-year-old Gary Leske, are competing in the Ironman Triathlon World Championship on Saturday in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
"Our older brother thinks we're crazy," Brian said.
The Ironman is the hardest of any triathlon. It consists of a 2.4-mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bicycle ride, followed by a 26.2-mile run. (By comparison, the Olympic Games triathlon involves a one-mile swim, 25-mile ride and 6.2-mile run, approximately). Conditions in Hawaii can be tough, with high humidity and temperatures above 90 degrees. Winds often whip across the cycling course at 60 mph.
To become one of the Ironman's 1,500 annual participants, competitors must be among the top 15 men's or women's triathletes at Ironman events worldwide, be the top triathlete in their age group or win one of 150 spots that are reserved for Americans and filled through a lottery and selections by race organizers (another 75 spots are reserved for international triathletes).
Gary Leske, a world age-group triathlon champion, qualified by winning his age division at St. Anthony's Triathon in St. Petersburg, Fla., in April; Kevin, one the nation's top triathletes, was invited by Ironman organizers; Brian, the U.S. and world champion among triathletes with similar disabilities, got in via the lottery.
With the help of special prostheses made by a Virginia doctor, Brian is planning to complete the race in 12 hours--about the same time as the average Ironman finisher in 1998. Last year's winner, Canadian Peter Reid, finished in 8:24:20.
Brian will be the second above-the-knee amputee to compete in the Ironman without planning to use a wheelchair for the run, according to race organizers. An Argentine competitor did it in 1996. For this race, Brian will swim without a prosthesis, ride his bicycle with one type of prosthetic, then run with another.
"It's very rare for someone with an above-the-knee amputation to be able to [run or cycle] the long distances that he does," said Brian's doctor, Charlie Crone, a certified prosthetist with Nascott Rehabilitation Services in Fairfax. "Brian has a high level of pain tolerance and he is very determined and very focused. Ever since I've worked with Brian, he's been that way. He's sort of above the norm."
A Boating Accident
It was the summer of 1989, between Brian's sophomore and junior years at Dartmouth. He and Kevin, who attended William & Mary, were living at their family's home in the village of Old Field, N.Y., where their house overlooks Long Island Sound.
Brian and his family are not trying to forget about the boating accident, which occurred Aug. 5, 1989, but they have put it behind them.
"It really doesn't serve too much of a purpose to talk about it," Brian said. "It's too easy in life to say 'what if,' and that doesn't do you any good. So why rehash it?"
After the accident, Brian spent several weeks in a hospital. He was fitted with a prosthetic leg and started 30 hours a week of physical therapy. He never doubted he would walk again.
"He was positive as soon as we got him home from the hospital," Gary Leske said in a telephone interview.
Brian's rehabilitation caused him to miss the fall semester at Dartmouth, but he returned to school in the spring of 1990 and basically resumed his usual activities. He made up the classes he had missed by attending New York University that summer, and he graduated with the rest of his class at Dartmouth in 1991.
That summer, he and Kevin backpacked in Europe together. Then they worked as ski instructors in Utah for a winter. There, they played doubles tennis together, just as they did when they were younger.
In 1992, Brian moved to Washington to attend Georgetown Law School. He graduated three years later and joined the law firm where he still works.
"Some of my friends [and colleagues] don't know the extent of my injury. I don't go out of my way to hide it, but I don't publicize it either," he said.
What he does publicize, mostly to other amputees, is that there is no limit to what they can do. Crone said Brian has spoken to amputees at several running clinics in Virginia. "The confidence he has and how symmetrical he looks when he runs is a big inspiration," Crone said.
A Father's Inspiration
Brian and Kevin Leske grew up playing sports, but their father always has been the family's most serious athlete, they said.
"We grew up with him getting up at 5 a.m. to go for a run," Kevin said.
After semi-retiring a few years ago as a professor of children's dentistry at SUNY-Stony Brook (now the University at Stony Brook), Gary decided to try triathlons. He approached Rick Usher, a neighbor and two-time Ironman finisher, to help him train. Kevin soon joined. Brian followed.
"They saw my enthusiasm and jumped on the bandwagon," said Gary, whom Brian called "probably the hardest-working athlete I've ever seen."
Among 60- to 64-year-olds, Gary is the two-time defending U.S. triathlon champion in the Olympic distance and the 1999 world champion in the long distance (2.5-mile swim, 75-mile ride, 19-mile run).
Kevin has qualified for the U.S. triathlon team that will compete in the world championships in April in Australia. This year, he has participated in more than a dozen triathlons.
The 10th anniversary of Brian's accident notwithstanding, many reasons make this the perfect time for the Leske men to train and compete in the Ironman.
Kevin, who lives in South Royalton, Vt., graduated from Vermont Law School in May. But he was able to delay finishing the one-year clerkship the state requires of all aspiring lawyers, so he could train for the Ironman. (Still, he passed the state bar exam while training more than 20 hours a week.)
"I couldn't do this without my brother," Brian said.
Brian, a lawyer specializing in appellate litigation, went to part-time status to train. Now he is on a one-month leave of absence.
Neither of the twins is married or has his own family, so they have plenty of time and space to train. "Though this isn't going to help us get married," Kevin said, joking.
For two years, the brothers and their father have trained individually but talked or e-mailed each other at least five times a week. Kevin became the expert on nutrition. Brian helped arrange trips to triathlons across the country. Gary played his given role of father, asking his sons if they were logging enough miles and getting enough rest.
And getting them hooked on coffee. Thick, strong, dark Colombian Supreme in which you could stand a spoon. Two or three cups a day. In fact, the coffee maker is one of the first pieces of equipment packed for each road trip.
The Leskes departed for Hawaii last Tuesday, nearly two weeks before the race, to acclimate themselves to the heat. They rented a three-bedroom condominium near the triathlon's starting line. The rest of the family will join them next week. Until Saturday, they will continue training, swimming, cycling and running along parts of the Ironman course.
If all goes as planned on race day, Brian will emerge from the water after the 2.4-mile swim and change into his cycling gear, which includes a specially made prosthetic leg.
Because Brian does not have a right knee, he can power his bicycle only with his left leg. His right leg mostly is used just for balance and cadence. He will ride along the course, which follows a highway and traverses dry lava beds.
The transition from cycling to running is tough on triathletes. Because the muscles used for cycling are different from the muscles used for running, they tend to be a little wobbly for the first hundred yards or so. The transition is especially slow for Brian, because he has to change into a prosthesis designed for running. And running is the most strenuous portion of the race for him.
"I have a great gait, but [running] requires an incredible amount of energy," he explained.
Except at some of the turnaround points on the course, Brian likely won't see his father or brother during the race, because they all keep different paces. But they plan to see each other at the finish line, because they all are determined to finish. They see no other way to conclude two years of preparation, and each is inspired by what the others have accomplished.
"We set high goals, and we work toward them," Brian said. "We are a very, very driven family."