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Triathlete Battles Arthritis--Wins

October 24, 1985|LYNN SMITH | Times Staff Writer

Those who know George Yates say the contrast was unbelievable.

Yates at 28 was tanned and taut, his body conditioned for world-class competition. In fact, he ranked ninth that season among long- and ultra-distance triathletes--those super athletes who can swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles and then run a marathon--26.2 miles--all in a matter of hours. Yates at 29 was gray and shrunken, bound to a wheelchair. His skinny legs looked like they had swallowed grapefruit that got stuck at the knees. An unexpected and acute attack of arthritis had transformed him.

"When I first laid eyes on him, inside I was saying this guy is not going to make it," said his running coach Ruben Chappins, a fellow triathlete. "All of his muscles had atrophied. . . . He looked like a cancer victim. It looked so hopeless."

But Chappins said he also saw something else when he looked at Yates. "I saw desire in his eyes. In an athlete's eyes is where you can tell everything about him. I saw that in George. His eyes told me he was going to come back or he was going to die trying. . . ."

This Saturday, Yates--who started running again only last March--is going to compete in another grueling triathlon. To the pride and amazement of his doctors, Yates will enter the Ironman Hawaii Triathlon--the world championship of one of the toughest endurance contests ever created.

During the year and a half Yates pulled himself through a self-designed, accelerated program of therapy and training, he said he used the 1985 Ironman as his goal. "It's the Wimbledon or Super Bowl of the sport," Yates explained. "I only want to prepare for one race, the Ironman. I don't care about any other race."

His racing bike against the wall, he sat on the edge of the couch in his Corona del Mar bungalow, rubbing a sore hip. It was 10 o'clock in the morning and he had just returned from a 45-mile bike ride to Huntington Beach.

'Close to Remission'

Now 30, he is "as close to remission as you can be," said one of his doctors, John Curd of Scripps Research Clinic in La Jolla.

Yates is bronzed, lean and muscular. At 160 pounds, he has regained the 35 pounds he lost. His manner is relaxed, his words casual and slow; but his ice blue eyes are fired with a single purpose. Coming back.

Something snapped inside him, he said, when the first doctor who diagnosed his illness told him he would never compete again. "That instilled a spark in me to go and fight this thing. I can honestly tell you I have fought it to the maximum of my ability."

As a professional athlete, training and competing dominated his life. Starting 15 years ago with motocross racing, he turned to cycling, competing in national and international events. From 1976 to 1982 he was a nationally ranked Category I Bicycle Racer and in 1982 set a course record for the bike segment in the Hawaii Ironman triathlon. He finished seventh in the 1982 Ironman; but the following year, he placed a disappointing 48th.

For nearly a year, Yates said, he had been discounting a growing stiffness in his back and pains in his knees as part of training and racing fatigue. Then on April 17, 1984, two days after a 70-mile bike race from Orange County to La Jolla, Yates awoke and found he could not move.

He stayed in bed for five days, gradually getting worse. "I'd go to sleep at night, wake up in the morning and my ankle had turned like somebody popped it out. The next day it was my right ankle. The next day, my right knee. Next day, left knee. Then it was my back. You couldn't touch me; I would scream bloody murder. It was like somebody was sticking a knife in my back and not pulling it out."

Eventually, he said, he collapsed after an hour's effort to make it from the bedroom to the bathroom. Fifteen minutes after he regained consciousness, a friend happened by and called the paramedics who rushed him to Hoag Memorial Hospital in Newport Beach. There, after more than a week of testing, it was learned he, like 8% of the population, had a genetic predisposition to arthritis.

The word frightened him. "Whenever I heard it, I thought of a cripple; you can't move, you're old and you're on your way out."

In fact, many arthritis victims are young. With at least 100 forms, the chronic crippler affects 37 million Americans of all ages, including children. The disease is so devastating many people give up and think their lives are through, a spokesman for the Arthritis Foundation said.

Negative Message

A few days later, Yates recalled, a doctor came in his room and sat on the bed. "The doctor said, 'Forget it. You'll never compete.' I said, 'Wow, this guy is giving me a bad dose of pessimism.' I want to at least hear something like, 'Hey, George, maybe we can get you therapy.' " Instead, Yates said the message was: "Go home. Here are some pills and try to live your life." The doctor, Yates said, offered "no hope at all. No hope. Period. He left."

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