Many participants arriving at the Ironman Canada finish line in Whistler later this month will be able to say they just overcame one of the biggest challenges they've faced in life. For Stephan Moreau, just being on the start line will mark the end of an even bigger challenge.
The former Whistler resident is viewing the Aug. 25 race as a way of bringing his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol abuse full circle. Once a regular participant in triathlon races held around his Victoria home, things changed suddenly for Moreau after a horrifying incident in 2004, when he was a leading seaman in the Royal Canadian Navy.
"Right from the accident, my life started going downhill," said Moreau, 40. "I nearly lost everything because of it."
The Quebec City native was part of a unit undertaking routine training exercises close to port in Victoria as it prepared for deployment. But a piece of equipment that was activated by Moreau ended up malfunctioning, causing another naval officer to be set on fire.
"I felt responsible," said Moreau.
Deeply affected by the accident, he tried to continue racing in triathlons, but soon found that a return to normal life wasn't going to be possible.
"I kept doing a few races, but I had zero motivation," he said. "Then, things regressed and I started using alcohol to cope. I didn't talk to anybody about how the accident affected me. I kept that to myself and chose to medicate myself with alcohol and prescription medication for years."
It wasn't until 2010 that Moreau was admitted to a treatment centre for alcohol abuse, where he began to open up about the accident and the guilt he felt over it. That led to further care at a PTSD treatment centre, where he started to regain some motivation to get back into swimming, cycling and running.
Moreau worked as a ski tech for Whistler Mountain during the winter of 1997 and said he "fell in love with the town." So when it was announced last fall that Ironman Canada would relocate to the resort this year, "everything clicked."
"Everything was lining up for me," said Moreau. "I always wanted to do an Ironman but was never in the mental state to get motivated to train.
"When I heard about Whistler, I started jumping."
Participating in his first full Ironman event will mark a huge personal achievement for Moreau, but the full-time mechanical engineering student said he's also racing as a way to send a message to others going through the same battle he did.
"There are tons of people out there with PTSD of some sort," he said. "(I'm doing it) because of the challenge, but also to prove to people that even if you have obstacles to overcome in life or bad things thrown at you, there is a way out. You can do whatever you set your mind to."
Moreau said he's extremely grateful for his wife, Leah, who stayed with him through the dark period following the accident and continues to be a huge source of support.
"Without her, I wouldn't be alive today," he said.
Moreau is also receiving support from the Soldier On program, which assists injured or ill members of the armed forces return to a healthy, active lifestyle. Soldier On has helped him with things such as race registration fees as he prepares for Ironman Canada.
"They've been really helpful and it's a great cause," he said.
Moreau has shed 35 pounds since starting his training less than a year ago. He has recently completed multiple triathlons in the lead-up to his return to Whistler, including the famous Escape From Alcatraz race in San Francisco and an Ironman 70.3 event in New Orleans.
Distance-wise, a full Ironman race will be an altogether different beast compared to those events. Moreau is hopeful he'll be able to run across the finish line at Whistler Olympic Plaza on Aug. 25 without any problems, but knows he will already be feeling triumphant when first diving into Alta Lake to begin the race.
"It's going to mean a lot just to start it," he said. "I'm pretty happy to be in the state of mind and physical shape just to be there.
"Of course I want to finish, but it's more the journey that I'll be celebrating. I've already come such a long way that I'm already a finisher before the race has started."