In June 2014, when Tad Weiss saw his 19-year-old daughter lying comatose on a hospital bed with broken bones and a traumatic brain injury, his only prayer was for her survival — and perhaps that she might someday walk again.
Competing in the 2023 Ironman World Championships was nowhere on the wish list.
But in September 2022, there was Maggie (Weiss) Swanson, strong and vibrant at 28, smiling triumphantly as she crossed the finish line in the amateur women's division of the Wisconsin Ironman, pointing heavenward as she punched her ticket for the world championships. The 140.6-mile race, which combines a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, is Oct. 14 in Kona, Hawaii.
"Yet in 2014 we were just praying for her life and hoping she would be able to use her mind as before," said Weiss, 60, of Victoria.
Swanson, now a 29-year-old Shorewood resident, was only 10 days into a summer of study abroad following her sophomore year at St. Olaf College when, while on a morning training run in Seville, Spain, she was struck by a city bus that ran a red light at nearly 40 miles per hour.
"Maggie was launched 25 meters [more than 80 feet] into the air and landed on the pavement," Weiss said. "It's a crazy story, and there's no explanation for her survival other than we believe God saved her. We've been trying to discover the purpose for that ever since."
In August 2022, Weiss published a book, "25 Meters to God," about his daughter and her recovery, aiming to process her journey and share a real-life story of overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds.
"Maggie healed amazingly," he said.
Swanson was in a medically induced coma for nearly two weeks, having suffered traumatic injuries in two regions of her brain, plus a shattered pelvis, seven broken ribs and a broken elbow. But by September 2014, she was able to resume a part-time college schedule, and, just a month later, she began running again.
Though it took years to catch up in all areas of her life, Swanson eventually returned to competition with the St. Olaf women's track and cross-country teams and graduated in May 2016 with majors in Spanish and Latin American studies. She's been a certified financial planner since 2020.
"I had such big support from my family, friends and church following the accident," said Swanson. "The community came alongside me and my parents, and I wouldn't be where I am today without everyone around me."
An indication of that ongoing support: Swanson and Weiss collectively raised $350,000 benefiting four charities as part of their 2022 Wisconsin Ironman experience.
A gritty competitor outfitted with a no-quit attitude and above-and-beyond resolve, Swanson has emerged as a contender in every race she enters.
"Maggie wasn't an athlete in high school — she'd done choir and theater instead, though she swam as a freshman and ran the Twin Cities Marathon with me when she was 17, and she joined the St. Olaf cross-country team as a sophomore," said Weiss.
"After the accident, she was getting such joy from running that it was helping her heal. I'd done a triathlon in the past, and my wife, Wendy, and I thought, 'She can run, she can swim, maybe if we got her a bike.'"
Only 14 months after that fateful collision, Swanson competed in her first triathlon — and won the women's 20- to 24-year-old age category.
"It was a great boost for her confidence," said Weiss.
In 2018, while racing in a half Ironman, Swanson suffered a stress fracture that halted her training for several months. At the time, it looked like more bad luck — but it turned out to be just the opposite when she reluctantly agreed to join her parents at the high school graduation party of a family friend.
"Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have gone because I was scheduled to have a race the next day," said Swanson.
A cousin of the graduate, Paul Swanson, wandered over to the table where they sat. His hat bore the logo of the bike brand Swanson rode.
"Dad told him, 'Maggie loves to ride bikes,' and I was thinking, 'He's pretty cute,' and then Paul said, 'Yeah, we should totally ride some time,'" recounted Swanson.
"One thing led to another. We got engaged nine months later and were married in September 2019. Meeting my husband Paul was the blessing from that stress fracture."
Finding the upside
Realizing that good outcomes can sometimes emerge from disappointments — even near-tragedies — is a lesson Swanson has come to embrace.
So when on May 21, Swanson's left Achilles tendon snapped during a half Ironman in Chattanooga, Tenn., she refused to assume the worst.
"It couldn't have snapped in a better spot," she said sincerely. "I fell into a gently sloping upward hill. And I'm grateful the surgeon could get me in so quickly."
But after surgical repair on June 2, recovery in time for the Ironman world championship just four months away seemed daunting.
"On the fast end, recovery from an injury like that might mean a little running at the six-month mark," said Dr. Andrew Moran, director of physical therapy at Odom Health and Wellness, Minnetonka and Swanson's primary physical therapist.
"To be told, 'You're good to go' in half that time? That's pretty incredible."
Once again, Swanson defied the odds when her surgeon cleared her return to running on Aug. 15.
One key to her rapid recovery from her injuries is precisely following orders from doctors and physical therapists.
"Maggie has that gritty mentality and loves to roll up her sleeves," said Moran. "She asks, 'What's the top end of what I can do without compromising my situation?' She's remarkably consistent throughout her whole training and rehabilitation process.
"Maggie is living proof that it's not wise to count people out when they're determined and have a goal in front of them. And she's in the habit of overcoming obstacles. This is a tough injury to rehab and come back from — but in the grand scheme of things, she's been through worse."
Her husband similarly marvels at her tenacity.
"She takes it one day and one exercise at a time and listens to her body and her doctors," said Paul Swanson. "Her dedication and discipline make Maggie stand out."
And she's resilient. Consider: 15 months after nearly dying in Spain, Swanson returned to Seville to reclaim her study abroad experience.
"I stayed with the same host family, went to the same school and ran the same route — but I was much more traffic-conscious the second time," she said.
"Honestly, I forgave the bus driver; we live in a world where accidents happen. It was unfortunate and obviously set me back for a while, but so much good has come out of it that I can now say I'm grateful for how it's been redeemed."
The bottom line: Life's twists might knock her down, but never out.
"It's not what happens to you; it's how you overcome it that really sets you apart," said Swanson. "It's hard in the meantime, but you have to keep going and trust that what you're doing is working."
Jane Turpin Moore is a Northfield writer.