As Cyril Del Pistoia sat on the edge of his hospital bed, struggling to move his legs, the likelihood of ever competing in an IRONMAN event seemed an unattainable dream.
The Frenchman, who now lives in the US, was recovering from leukemia and underwent invasive treatment, including a bone marrow transplant, which left him with the task of learning to walk again.
But, 10 years on from his transplant, Del Pistoia lined up to compete at this year’s IRONMAN World Championship event in his hometown of Nice, France which saw competitors complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and a marathon-distance run.
It was a moment the 35-year-old had always hoped for, but one that seemed impossible when he was in the depths of recovery.
“It was always a dream, it has always been in the back of my head,” he told CNN Sport.
“But while in the hospital, to be honest, at that point it was just survival. It was just, I want to be able to walk a little bit. You’re just focusing so much on the little things.
“It just hurts so much just to even eat food. At that point, my goal was just to be alive.”
Del Pistoia has always been interested in sport, playing rugby as a child in France before taking up cycling and eventually participating in triathlons.
He fell in love with the “strategic components” of triathlons, learning how to best pace himself throughout the swim, cycle and run elements.
Despite not becoming a professional athlete, he continued pursuing his love for the sport, balancing it alongside his education and career.
But, in 2012, everything changed.
Del Pistoia had been travelling a lot between France and the US for work and began feeling more fatigued than usual.
After experiencing pain in his upper chest, he eventually went to his doctor and was handed a devastating, life-changing diagnosis.
“When she [the doctor] got the results, I just remember the look on her face and she just told me to go straight to the hospital,” he said.
He underwent more tests to confirm the initial suspicions and was eventually told that he had leukemia.
“It was really tough,” he recalled. “For some weird reason, I always felt like I would go through something tough, medically speaking, so I was like ‘all right, this is the time’.
“You’re just there processing the information.”
He was admitted to intensive care the very next day where he started chemotherapy. Initially, the treatment worked, but after a month-and-a-half in the hospital, his recovery started plateauing.
He then says he opted for a new experimental treatment which offered new hope. It worked and reached a point where doctors could no longer find measurable amounts of cancer cells in his blood.
However, to decrease the likelihood of the cancer returning, Del Pistoia underwent a bone marrow transplant.
Learning to walk again
Matching with a suitable donor was not an easy task and after eventually finding one the Frenchman had to go through radiotherapy to receive the new stem cells.
He remembers very little of that time, describing it like “living a parallel life” where his body was in the hospital, but his mind was elsewhere.
“I have no memory of what happened,” he said before explaining how the treatment effectively burnt his entire body.
It left the sport fanatic with a number of lasting issues, including damaged lungs and very low resistance to heat – not ideal for someone who was desperate to get back to the sport of triathlon, he joked.
But, after weeks of treatment, his body started to respond. Del Pistoia was then able to turn his attention to recovering from an ordeal that had weakened him so much even sitting in bed was a struggle.
He remembered how painful it was to even attempt eating and drinking small amounts of food and water, as well as the intense feeling of having his first shower in almost two months.
“I remember sitting on the bed with my feet hanging out and just trying to move my legs up, just a few centimetres each, little by little, trying to regain control of my legs.
“Then, at some point, I was able to stand up. Then, after being able to stand up, I was able to walk.”
Recovery was slow but, bit by bit, Del Pistoia started to rebuild his life.
After a year, he started working offshore again and also began rebuilding his fitness. In the early days of his diagnosis, he had asked for an exercise bike in his hospital room. Now, he was able to go wherever he wanted on two wheels.
Training was an important aspect of his life before the illness, but sport took on a slightly new meaning post-recovery, he said.
Instead of focusing so much on times and physical improvement, Del Pistoia enjoyed every bit of his “second chance at life.”
Return to sport
In 2020, he competed in the biathlon at the World Transplant Winter Games in Canada and returned to the world stage in April to compete in the triathlon at the World Transplant Summer Games in Australia, finishing first in his age category.
The Games, which occur every two years with summer and winter sports taking place in alternating years, are primarily open to people who have received a solid organ transplant (liver, heart, lung, kidney, pancreas) or bone marrow transplant.
“It’s amazing because you compete with people with similar difficulties in life. They all have been through something and they all have a story to tell,” he said.
“People look at me and I think I’m really fit. I can run pretty fast and I can cycle pretty fast, I can do an Ironman.
“But at the same time, I still have a lot of limitations. So it’s good to be around people that really, truly understand that.”
This year, in a full-circle moment, he was invited to Nice as a special participant in September’s IRONMAN World Championship race.
Knowing he was not able to compete with some of the the top athletes in the world, Del Pistoia was just thankful to be given the opportunity to participate.
It being hosted in his hometown made the experience all the more symbolic, he said.
“My performance was very, very secondary there. I just wanted to enjoy every aspect of it,” he added.
“I wanted to make sure my story was heard, because that makes me really happy to see. At the end of the day, that’s what drives me the most, if I can inspire people.
“If I know people are struggling in the hospital right now and are hearing a story like mine, just helping them go through to tomorrow, then I’ve won my day.
“Just for them to know there’s more than just the light at the end of the tunnel, you can still do extraordinary things with life.”
On the day, Del Pistoia was happy with the swim and cycle he put together, but said he overheated during the run.
It meant he had to take the final leg of the race slower than he wanted, but crossing the finish line was no less emotional and he couldn’t hold back the tears.
Now, with a IRONMAN World Championship race in the bag, Del Pistoia is on the hunt for more challenges.
He says he hasn’t ruled out qualifying for an Ironman 70.3 World Championship race – otherwise known as a half IRONMAN – in the future and has some long-distance running races on the horizon.
Away from sport, Del Pistoia has recently qualified as a seaplane pilot and wants to use his platform to raise awareness and improve accessibility for those living with disabilities.
“I would love it if I can share my story more and more in a way that I can inspire people and I can help people. That’s very much where I see my value in this world,” he said.
“If I can help people while they’re struggling, that truly makes me happy, more than any [sporting] performance.”