By Jim Melwert
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A Montgomery County man who became the first cancer survivor and heart transplant recipient to ever finish a full-Ironman distance race now has a ticket to take part in one of the most prestigious athletic events on the planet.
Four years ago, Derek Fitzgerald spent the holidays in the hospital in need of a life-saving transplant after the chemotherapy that saved him from non-Hodgkins lymphoma destroyed his heart.
This year, in addition to celebrating his daughter’s first Christmas, the 41-year-old Fitzgerald is also celebrating word that he’s won a spot at the starting line for the 2015 Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii in October, beating out dozens of finalists to go with the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training.
“Team in Training is the group that trained me for my first half marathon,” he says. “They were the group that trained me for my first 100-mile bike ride, they were the group that trained me for my first triathlon.”
Fitzgerald says he’s thrilled for the chance not only to show anyone battling cancer that there is life after treatment, but also…
“To let people know that organ donation and heart transplants are not the end of anything,” he says. “It’s the beginning of something and there is really no limit to what we could do.”
His new heart has over 70 endurance events on it, including not one, but two full-Ironman distance finishes, a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run.
To raise money and awareness, Fitzgerald plans to ride his bike across the country, from Los Angeles to Atantic City, next June, in an event he’s dubbed “Tour for a Cure.”
“The ticket to get into Kona was epic, and I wanted to do something just as epic, that was fitting of this opportunity,” he says. “A little over 3,000 miles in around 45 days.”
In addition to Kona, Fitzgerald, who founded a 501(c)(3) called RecycledMan is also planning to race Ironman Mont Tremblant just three weeks after his cross-country bike ride.
“It’s amazing feeling,” he says. “Every step you take out on the trail or out on the road, I close my eyes and I think about being sick, and it’s just a whole different world.”
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