From athlete to author 

Local Paul Suter releases memoir, Flat Out in Pieces, on how a concussion changed his life

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - race pace Paul Suter, competing at an Ironman in Penticton.
  • PHOTO submitted
  • race pace Paul Suter, competing at an Ironman in Penticton.

Paul Suter always knew he would write a book one day.

"I can't explain it," the long-time Whistlerite says. "I was more a science and math guy. But I had the idea that some day I would write a book—from my early teens, even."

His journey to that achievement has been long and hard, but on Thursday, July 26, Suter will officially celebrate the release of Flat Out in Pieces: An Athlete's Journey Back at the Maury Young Arts Centre.

"It's surreal, really. I never really imagined this opportunity. It is hard to believe that I wrote a book and many people find it hard to believe—mostly teachers from English class," he says with a laugh.

Suter didn't know it at the time, but his first step towards becoming an author started in 2006 after he suffered his most recent concussion while cross-country skiing around Lost Lake.

"I don't know how it happened. I don't remember. I ended up headfirst in some rocks ... That injury was around the fourth or fifth serious concussion and there were 12 less serious concussions before that. It was the worst one," Suter recalls.

The concussion was compounded by one big factor: Suter was a competitive Ironman athlete who had just come off racing three-and-a-half Ironman events, including the World Championships in Kona just two months earlier. "At the time (of the concussion), my body was already done," he says. "It had nothing left in it. Then I gave it a serious head injury. But I didn't stop there. I kept going. That was my mistake. If I had stopped and let my brain and body heal we probably wouldn't be talking right now."

Soon after the head injury, he had an opportunity to train with three-time world champion Peter Reid. He couldn't turn it down. "One month later I was training at a high level and it didn't go so well," he says.

In fact, it marked the end of his Ironman career. He could barely cut grass, shovel snow or take the dog for a walk before crushing headaches set in—let alone complete a race course that includes a 3.86-kilometre swim, 180.25 -km bike and 42.2-km run.

"I'm doing better, for sure," Suter says, after 12 years of recovery. "Physically, I'm definitely making some progress. I'm still not able to be competitive—nor do I want to. I'm past that stage now. A big part of that was accepting my injury and, once I did, I began to heal in a different way."

And that is the main crux of his book: the importance of acceptance. While it serves as a memoir of his struggles, at its core it's about his story of survival, Suter says.

But penning it in the first place was its own struggle. "I have no background (writing)—and I wasn't even sure at first if I had a story worth telling," he says. "Over the years I would tell different pieces of it to people who were very encouraging. That gave me encouragement to complete it."

While Suter picked away at the project for years, it wasn't until February 2016 that he set out in earnest to finish it. A publishing company called Tidewater Press was hosting a contest to discover unpublished authors.

"When I started writing, I didn't have an end to the story," Suter says. "I wrote for three years on and off. I had a boat in West Vancouver that I used as my writer's cabin. I would (emerge) with 10,000 words or more on a weekend. There were a lot of mistakes in it and some of it didn't make sense, but I didn't care; I just kept writing. It kept spilling out of my brain."

With help from a local editor, he cleaned and tightened up his story—submitting it to what turned out to be a national contest. "I didn't realize it at first," he says. "I thought it was a local competition."

In the end, he came in second. While it didn't nab him the first-place prize right away, Tidewater eventually decided to publish his book.

While it's been available locally at Armchair Books since this spring, Suter is celebrating the official launch on Thursday to coincide with this year's Ironman.

In the end, he says he thinks others can take away lessons from his story—whether they're athletes or not. "For years after my injury, I fought change," Suter says. "I didn't want to change and not be that athlete anymore. It wasn't until I accepted that that wasn't meant to be that I really started to change and heal properly."

The launch for the party takes place on Thursday, July 26, at the Maury Young Arts Centre from 6 until 8 p.m. Flat Out in Pieces: An Athlete's Journey Back is available at Armchair Books or at flatoutinpieces.com.

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