Victoria Gilbert, who grew up on the Peninsula, has qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Here she is with her husband Robert Johnson in the backyard of their Brentwood Bay home. (Alisa Howlett/News staff)

How one Central Saanich athlete came back from injury to qualify for the 2017 Ironman World Championships

Victoria Gilbert qualified for the World Championship at the North American Ironman Championship in The Woodlands, Texas on April 22.

For over three decades the Ironman World Championship has brought the world’s best athletes together in competition, including one of Brentwood Bay’s very own, Victoria Gilbert.

Gilbert, who grew up on the Peninsula and just recently moved back after having completed school in Vancouver, qualified for the World Championship on April 22 after finishing second among 52 athletes in her age group (25 to 29) at the North American Ironman Championships in The Woodlands, Texas.

While completing a swim, bike, run event in a time of 10 hours, 11 minutes and some odd seconds is an impressive feat in and of itself, what’s more impressive is that Gilbert, 28, secured her spot for the World Championship shortly after recovering from a severe concussion.

“I had to stay here and live with my parents for about a month after my accident because I coudn’t make decisions for myself. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat for breakfast. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted peanut butter or jam on my toast, like I just couldn’t make abstract decisions like that,” Gilbert says.

In June of 2014 Gilbert was riding her bicycle training for the Victoria 70.3, a half Ironman, when she was struck by a work van on West Saanich Road. Luckily she didn’t break anything, aside from her Cervelo bicycle, which was mangled on impact.

After the accident that left Gilbert with a severe concussion and covered in road rash, which she says she remembers next to nothing about, she wasn’t able to work for about four months, let alone train for triathlons.

“With training, there were some things that came back fairly quickly, like my ability to run came back much faster than my ability to feel confident on my bike. That look a lot longer because I didn’t trust myself to keep myself safe. Because with my concussion, there’s a period of about 48 hours I do not remember.

“I don’t remember the accident happening … so that’s why I really struggled on the bike because I had no idea if I had seen that the car was going to do something that it shouldn’t, I don’t know if I tried to brake, I don’t know if I tried to swerve or avoid it and that’s why I really struggled on the bike to trust myself that I was keeping myself safe.”

On average Gilbert spends around five hours a week swimming and depending how close she is to a race, anywhere between three-and-a-half hours to six hours running and six to nine hours biking.

The Ironman World Championship, held in Kona, Hawaii each year, sees around 3,000 qualifying athletes compete.

Prior to Gilbert’s accident, she qualified for the 2014 World Championship at Ironman Arizona. A few months later she was hit by the van. In no shape to train competitively Gilbert at the very least was determined to “participate,” as she puts it, in the triathlon.

“My goal was just to be fit enough to get there. I didn’t care how long it took me to bike or if I had to walk the marathon instead of run it, I just wanted to be there,” she says, adding that her road to recovery was long. “I walked a lot. I went to Panorama and kind of floated in the pool and did a little bit of swimming, but I was very determined not to let that driver and that incident take away any more from me than they already had. So I was very determined that I was still going to get to Hawaii and I was still going to be on the start line that year and I wasn’t going to let them take that away from me as well.”

Gilbert says in the summer of 2016 she felt like she had almost regained her level of training before her accident; but then her husband Robert Johnson, also a high level and accomplished triathlete in his age group, suffered an unfortunate injury. A glass given to Johnson, 35, on the podium for winning a race shattered in his hands, requiring him to have surgery. This compelled Gilbert to take a few months rest from training to care for him.

“Victoria kind of sacrificed her race season last summer because I was injured and we just weren’t able to manage everything. So she’s back now and everything is normal,” Johnson says, smiling at Gilbert. “She’s done awesome and I’m really happy to see it.”

Despite their dumb luck and serious accidents, the couple is still in good spirits.

“It’s really nice to be back to where I was before my accident and to have qualified again and so it’s really exciting this year to be able to go and well – so long as nothing happens, knock on wood – to go (to Hawaii) with the intent of competing,” Gilbert says.

Johnson interrupts his wife with a laugh saying, “If you see us on the road training this summer, don’t run us over.”

“That’s why I say knock on wood. Nothing’s going to happen this summer,” Gilbert says, laughing.

Gilbert will be competing on Saturday, Oct. 7 in Kona. She says she hopes to finish in the top five of her age group.