CYCLING: Utahn beats odds after brain injury

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Posted: 6:34 PM- Nerves. Anticipation. Fear. Memories.

Those were just a few of the emotions the parents and fiancée of professional bike racer Saul Raisin were dealing with Saturday morning at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Raisin, surprisingly, said the nerves weren't really there - before the race, anyway.

By the time he reached the end of the Porcupine Hill Climb, there were plenty of emotions on display from the entire clan - just much happier ones like relief and joy as he kissed his bride-to-be, Aleeza Zabriskie, and hugged his parents.

"We had to stop talking, we were about to cry," said Yvonne Raisin, Saul's mother. His father Jim was equally relieved and misty-eyed, "He knows to do what he did today, it was more than a bonus in life for him. We were told 14 months ago not to expect him to get out of a bed or wheelchair."

Saul didn't win Saturday. Didn't really come close. It didn't really matter, either. Saturday marked the first race since April 4, 2006 for the 24-year-old Georgian, who now lives in Sugar House. He finished minutes behind Salt Lake City professional Jeff Louder and behind a handful of the state's best amateurs. It wasn't a performance you'd expect from the only guy in the field of 500 or so riders sporting a jersey from a ProTour team - not unless you consider that living, much less riding, didn't seem likely a little over a year ago.

"A few times, I heard 'Go Saul,' and I got a little emotional," Saul said, leaning on his carbon Look bicycle in the Brighton parking lot, signing autographs and mugging with kids while their moms snapped photographs. "It brought back great memories of racing."

The wreck Saul was billed as the next big star in U.S. cycling. He was still years from his prime cycling years but had already landed a spot on the French squad, Credit Agricole, and possessed the the rare combination of desire, drive, pain tolerance and the perfect physiological gifts to be a future Tour de France contender.

He was on the verge of competing in his first grand tour (cycling's trio of three-week races), the Giro d'Italia. During a tune-up race in France, just a few kilometers from the finish, Raisin went down - a crash likely caused by a patch of gravel. The injury originally seemed minimal, but took a turn for the worse. His parents had to agree to brain surgery over the phone. By the time they arrived in Angers, France, their son was in a coma, and doctors weren't giving him much hope of survival. Thoughts of funeral arrangements were already creeping into their heads and the Raisins had already begun to discuss organ donation. If Saul recovered, life, doctors said, would never be the same. Racing bicycles wasn't even a consideration. Walking was out of the question. Paralysis, they said, was inevitable.

Days later, Saul came out of coma. "It's not like television," Yvonne said. "You know how they wake up and say, "Oh, hi!"

Thoughts of days like Saturday - surrounded by loved ones and racing up canyons - weren't even a consideration. It took months before Saul realized he had a brain injury. Those days in Angers don't really exist in Saul's mind, save for a few flitting memories.

Slowly, and with intensive physical therapy, Saul relearned to perform the most basic tasks again, ride a bicycle and walk.

"He went to an hour [long] therapy class and the only thing he had to do was take his shoes and socks off and put them back on," Jim recalled. "He was wearing Crocs, that you slip on and off, and it took him the whole hour to do that. After that he had to go take a nap."

It was the mental sessions that took the most out of him. Therapists "told me the cognitive tests are going to be harder than the physical therapy and I was like, 'Whatever,' " Saul said. He quickly understood. "You say your name and age and you're just out."

It was the bike, however, that seemed to have the strongest rejuvenation powers. "They set him up on a [bike] trainer in the hospital . . . [the doctors] said they'd never seen anyone so alive," Yvonne said. "It just came so easily, but they said they knew the bike would get him back to where wanted to be."

By early 2007, he was back riding with his teammates in France. Life only seemed to get better for Saul with each passing month, though he might point to March - when he was "shot by Cupid's arrow" - as the high point.

Love and SLC Though Salt Lake City is a training paradise for bicyclists, it was love that drew Saul to town, not the canyons.

"I fell in love with the most beautiful girl in the world and we're getting married on December the first. Turns out she's from Salt Lake City, I moved here and I love it so far," Saul said.

Their meeting was like something out of a romantic comedy. Raisin was running late for a flight home from LAX following the Tour of California. Aleeza - who had been there to see her older brother, pro cyclist Dave Zabriskie - overheard Saul speaking the French he'd learned riding for a French team. She figured it must be Saul and introduced herself. They two spoke until he was on the verge of missing almost missed his flight.

"He wouldn't get on the plane," she recalled. As soon as he boarded, Aleeza turned to her sister, Michelle and said, "There goes my husband."

Raisin felt the same way and started sending her text messages as soon as he landed.

"I tell her to this day, she says I'm too mushy, but she said she prayed for me and I tell her, 'God sent me an angel. He sent me her.'

"She's the best thing that ever happened to me," Saul said.

The future Some aspects of Raisin's future seem certain: His recovery is progressing quicker than anyone could have guessed. He has a wedding to look forward to. He'll obviously ride bicycles for years to come, but at what level is still in question, though not in his mind. Saul claims he'll be back to "110 percent" of what he was.

He'll fly to France later this month for some physical testing. It's the mental aspect that can't be determined easily. Saturday was a good sign, according to Yvonne, who watched her son race from a car. "He went back to his racing mode." meaning he sat comfortably with a pack of riders and didn't show any tendency to list to the left, the side that was injured in his accident.

Saul's team, which has steadfastly stuck by him since the injury, also plans a series of controlled rides and races in early 2008 to make sure he's ready for pro racing. Again, that's some something experts never figured possible, but Saul has made a habit of beating the odds.

"My doctor in Atlanta said, 'You know I can't tell Saul he can't race again because he'd go prove me wrong. We thought he might not walk again,' " Saul said of the doctor who jokingly started using reverse psychology. "He looked at me and said, 'You can't race,' because he knows I'm gonna prove him wrong."

Wrong again.