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Tampa principal racing after death in triathlon
Scott Rudes wants to finish what he started.
Just shy of a year ago, the 38-year-old Orange Grove Middle Magnet School principal was within seconds of the finish line at the St. Anthony's Triathlon in St. Petersburg when he collapsed.
With his son nearby to root him on at the end of a grueling race he had completed three times before, his body slammed to the pavement. His jaw absorbed the brunt of the impact. Blood covered his face.
His heart — which he knew had a defect from when he was a child, but which he didn't think was a threat to his life — had stopped.
Rudes' love for triathlons never ceased, however. And after less than a year of recovery, he will be back at it again Sunday, with his son by his side for the last part of the race.
On that Sunday morning last year, he was lucky his heart didn't quit on him in the middle of the one-mile swim in the bay. Or during the nearly 25 miles when he was zooming along on his bike. Or even farther out on the run, away from where people had gathered to watch the end of the six-mile final leg.
Instead, he lay there lifeless that sticky, steamy April morning on the hard asphalt of the St. Petersburg street. No pulse, no breathing, eyes staring blankly straight up at the sky.
“He was dead,” says Michael Finkelstein, an assistant principal at Orange Grove, a school for performing arts in East Tampa's Belmont Heights. “He died.”
At least for a few moments.
Judy Holbrook, in town from Atlanta, was seeking refuge from the heat under a shade tree waiting to watch her husband, Stephen, finish a race he, too, had run several times.
“We heard someone scream in a very panicked voice that they needed a medic,” Holbrook says. “They were really desperate in their voice. You knew somebody was in big trouble.”
Holbrook is a special education nurse in the school system in Atlanta. Her background is in emergency room care. She's a CPR instructor. She was with a friend who is an emergency room physician.
That meant Rudes was in good hands.
He needed to be.
“He looked like he was already dead,” Holbrook says.
She began clearing Rudes' airway while her friend did chest compressions, trying to will life back into the runner's body. At the same time, they yelled that they needed paramedics and an AED, an automated external defibrillator.
It took one shock from the device to get his heart started again.
Her face was right above his, and she was asking him his name. He screamed “Scott” and everyone there thought he was telling them to stop.
Rudes doesn't remember any of that. And he doesn't recall feeling ill as he approached the homestretch.
“I just basically blacked out and face-planted,” he says. “There were no warning signs. The heart valve just failed.”
The first thing he does remember is being in the ambulance and wondering where his son, Joshua, was.
Joshua had been sitting under a tree, listening to music and reading while he waited for his dad — competing in his 16th triathlon — to make the turn before the final straightaway. He was putting his book down when his dad went down.
“The next thing you know, there's a crowd of people all around him,” says Joshua, a freshman at Blake High. “When I saw him on the ground unconscious, it really hit me hard.
“It seemed like a dream, like it could not be happening,” adds Joshua, who is the oldest of three children and describes himself as his father's assistant. “But I knew he would pull through.”
Joshua rode in the front seat of the ambulance to nearby Bayfront Medical Center, where his dad was treated.
He had a broken jaw and he would need open-heart surgery after the jaw healed. But he was alive.
The next day, the phone rang at Bayfront. On the other end was a female voice Rudes had never heard.
“I know this is somewhat strange, but I was the one who got to you first,” Rudes recalls Holbrook saying. “I wanted to hear you were OK.”
Holbrook remembers that phone call as well.
“I started crying. I couldn't even talk to him,” she says. “It was the most unbelievable thing to think that 24 hours before that we didn't even know that he would be alive.”
Rudes, who is now 39, is very much alive these days.
He walks the campus during the school day at Orange Grove, making sure students are where they are supposed to be. He checks on them reading under the shade of a tree, just like Joshua was doing on that fateful day.
He also runs again, having recovered from open-heart surgery last June to replace his aortic valve. And he bikes. And swims.
He's also ready to compete again in the St. Anthony's Triathlon. At the spot where he fell, he plans to stop briefly during Sunday's race.
“I'm going to take a moment at that spot to give thanks,” Rudes says. “The first reason is to thank God for still being here.”
At that location, Joshua will join him and the two will run together toward the finish line.
“I think it will bring a finality to everything after all we have been through in the last year,” Joshua says. “It will bring everything to a close.”
For Rudes, competing again is less about him and more about bringing attention to the cause of children born with heart defects, kids just like him.
He was 6 when he found out he had a defective heart valve. He thought he would be in his 50s or 60s when it might need to be surgically repaired.
“I didn't see it coming,” he said.
Now he wants to raise money for the Children's Heart Foundation, an organization that supports research for youngsters born with heart defects.
“Hopefully we can find cures to these kinds of defects so these children aren't going through their lives with a question mark,” Rudes says.
At Orange Grove, a performing arts school nestled in the middle of Tampa, those who work with Rudes are worried about him entering the grueling race again.
“The man died and now he's running a triathlon a year later,” said Finkelstein, the assistant principal for curriculum. “Nobody's comfortable with him doing this, but nobody wants to tell him no.
“If he needs this, he needs this.”
Kind of like Rudes needed Holbrook on that day.
These days, Holbrook, a 50-year-old mother of three, uses Rudes as her poster child when she does CPR classes.
“Now when I teach the kids and the adults, I can tell them firsthand how it really does work,” Holbrook says. “It reaffirms my belief that we should all know CPR.”
The two never met in person after the incident, but they have talked on the phone and exchanged emails and social media postings.
“I get choked up every time I tell the story,” Holbrook says. “I use him as my example of how three kids still have their dad and a wife still has her husband because of CPR.”