Last year at this time, George Yates was just getting used to walking again. At 29, Yates, a world class professional triathlete from Corona del Mar, was stricken by a severe case of polyarthritis that twisted and crippled his ankles, knees and lower back and shriveled his muscles.
Though bedridden for a month, he would not accept one doctor's prognosis that he would never compete again. As soon as he was out of the hospital, Yates starting planning his comeback 18 months later for the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
With the help of doctors and coaches, he embarked on an accelerated rehabilitation program and a year later started training for the grueling endurance race in which competitors swim 2.4 miles in the ocean, bicycle 112 miles and then run 26.2 miles.
He had to walk the last six miles, but Saturday, Oct. 26, Yates did what he set out to do--finish the Ironman and show that he would not be beaten by arthritis.
Yates placed 122nd in a field of 1,100 in 10 hours and 50 minutes, a few hours behind the winner, Scott Tinley of San Diego who finished the course in 8:50:54. Yates, who placed seventh in the 1982 Ironman, had set a very competitive pace early in Saturday's race: After the ocean swim, Yates said, he was in 24th place, and had moved up to sixth place following the bicycle competition.
Seventeen miles into the marathon, however, he said his calf muscles tightened up "like rocks," forcing him to stop. When he crossed the finish line, he said, friends had to carry him to his hotel.
Yates' rheumatologist, Dr. John Curd of Scripps Research Clinic in La Jolla, speculated that an anti-inflammatory medication Yates was taking might have caused a metabolic problem during the long race. Or, maybe, he said, Yates was just worn out. In any case, he said, the problem was not arthritis.
As a former arthritis patient, Yates is satisfied with his performance. But as a professional athlete, he is not. The thrill of finding himself in sixth place, he said, was turned into a "lesson in humility" the last six miles of the race as others sped past him.
Yates had considered this race mainly a tool for his rehabilitation, and his participation a symbol for other victims of arthritis. But now, Yates said, he'll begin training in January for next year's Ironman. This time, he wants to finish in the top 10.
Yates also plans to seek sponsors (Curd said he is helping), devote time to his Corona del Mar-based bicycle products business, Tri-Cycle, and work as much as he can with other victims of arthritis. He hopes to speak for the Arthritis Foundation and help develop exercise programs through clinics or hospitals for arthritics.
Since his story appeared in The Times, Yates said, several people a day contact him, desperately seeking solutions to their arthritis problems. "Arthritics need to know it's not drugs (alone) that make them better," Yates said. "It's attitude. And an exercise program combined with some sort of medication."
Considering Yates' withered condition last year, Curd said, he is astonished that Yates could run in the Ironman and finish. "I'm impressed anybody can do that. But the difference in him is like black and white."
What about next year? "If George Yates said he would finish in the top 10, I would bet money he will," said Curd. "He's just amazing."