Greg Shimizu was weeks from competing in the world triathlon championships six years ago when his bicycle was struck by a van a few blocks from his home in Edmonton.
He remembers nothing of the collision, but is haunted by it. He crashed into the vehicle face-first and was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury. He becomes nauseous when he closes his eyes, which makes it difficult to sleep. When he lies in bed, his head pounds from the pressure inside, like a swimmer who has just dived into the deep end of a pool.
“The worst time is at night,” says Shimizu, who competed in his first triathlon when he was 35 and is a former member of Canada’s national triathlon team. “All I want to do is shut down, but the minute I close my eyes, this concussion creature grabs hold and pulls me into a place where I feel way worse.
“It is hard for me to say I am getting better when I come back to the same prison every night. It is a brutal, constant thing. It wears you down.”
The 54-year-old’s recovery is far from complete, but he will compete Saturday in a triathlon in Edmonton for only the third time since his accident on June 18, 2012.
Approximately 750 of the world’s top para-triathletes and triathletes are entered in the International Triathlon Union event at William Hawrelak Park. After a stop in Montreal on Aug. 25 and 26, the nine-race series concludes with the world championships in Australia in September.
Shimizu finished fifth among 50- to 54-year-olds in the sprint division in Edmonton last year, swimming 750 metres, bicycling 20 kilometres and running five km in 1 hour 21 minutes 49 seconds. The time was good enough to qualify for the coming world championships, but he says results are no longer important to him.
He competes now to raise awareness about head trauma, and to raise funds for the Brain Care Centre, the facility in Edmonton where he has received help.
“The world of a concussion victim gets worse as you go forward,” Shimizu says. “It tries to take everything from you: cognitively, emotionally and physically.
“It was like my spirit left my body, but my body didn’t know it was dead yet.”
Grandparents were in internment camps
Shimizu sits in a studio behind his house on a lovely, tree-lined street near the University of Alberta. The T-shirt he wears has the words “Defy Limitations” written across the chest.
A replica of the armour worn by Oda Nobunaga, a feudal lord who conquered one-third of Japan during the 16th century, stands beside him. Nine taiko drums, Japanese percussion instruments, are stacked against the back wall. Shimizu and his fiancée, Twillah MacLeod, play them during performances of Booming Tree, the musical drumming group they founded in 2008 as part of a tribute to his heritage.
His grandfather, Shotaru Shimizu, immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s to work on the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. Shotaru and Greg’s grandmother, Kimiko, later established a 30-room hotel and 125-seat restaurant in Prince Rupert, B.C.
They lost their business and all but the few possessions they could carry when they were forced into an internment camp during the Second World War. For four years, they lived with their four children in a three-room cabin, a dozen people sharing a 16- by 28-foot space.
My concussion isn’t in the way of my life, it is my life. You learn what you can to make the best of it. It is like walking on coals every day.— Greg Shimizu
After their release, Shotaru moved his family to Edmonton, where Greg’s father, Henry, earned a medical degree and became one of the country’s first Japanese-Canadian doctors. He became a professor and surgeon, and in 1978 was part of the first team in North America to perform a successful limb reattachment. A three-year-old girl from rural Alberta lost an arm when her father ran over her while cutting hay.
In retirement, Henry Shimizu has served as a volunteer for a number of organizations, including the Japanese Canadian Redress Foundation, of which he was chairman from 1989 to 2011. He is among the last of 22,000 people who can still speak about the internment, and in 2011 was inducted into the Order of Canada.
Despite the transgressions committed against him, Shotaru Shimizu imported 1,500 cherry trees from Japan and had them planted at various locations around Prince Rupert. Some of those trees were destroyed this year – 76 years to the day that Shotaru and his family was shipped to the internment camp – as part of a landscaping project by Public Services and Procurement Canada.
Outraged residents of Prince Rupert saved wood from the trees and this week it was shipped to Greg in Edmonton. He plans to use the cherry wood to fashion Japanese drumsticks.
“It’s a way that I can continue the life of the trees my grandfather planted,” he says.
His family’s history is one of triumph and great loss – and Greg Shimizu sees a parallel between his troubles now and the misfortune experienced by his grandfather.
“My grandfather lived with the trauma of being forced into internment, and I feel like I am living in my own prison now with a brain injury,” he says. “I feel like I was stripped of my first life and am starting a second.
“Everything that was your identity gets changed, for a lot of us is forever different, and for some of us is dismantled. It has been a slow, long six years.”
‘It is a distraction that gets me out of my hell'
Greg Shimizu has been training hard for Saturday’s race. He has travelled the world to compete at six triathlon world championships as a member of the national team and as an age-group competitor, but none of those is more significant to him than this next one.
“The point of doing a triathlon is to steer your life in a better direction,” Shimizu says. “Anybody can do it. The only way to lose a triathlon is by quitting.
“It is a buffet of a sport, and that is part of the appeal to me. It is a distraction that gets me out of my hell. You have to find things to give you purpose and momentum.”
He ran a popular bar and bistro in Edmonton’s entertainment district before the accident, but had to sell it afterward because he could no longer manage it. His finances were failing, and he nearly lost his house.
He has since won a settlement that should keep him secure financially, and now works part-time delivering and planting trees for a landscape company. In his free time, he works to educate people about traumatic brain injuries.
“In a way, people with concussions have no voice,” he says. “They can’t articulate well, and can’t even tell a doctor what is wrong. The positive is that you get a chance to see things differently. You become way more mortal and understanding of people who have had trauma in their life.”
Shimizu looks forward to the end of the race.
“The joy of accomplishment is what I remember," he says. “I am able to find these beautiful things that have given me joy and given me life.”
When he is done, Greg and Twillah will set up their drums and encourage the other competitors with their taiko rhythms.
“My concussion isn’t in the way of my life, it is my life,” he says. “You learn what you can to make the best of it. It is like walking on coals every day.”