• Anibal Juncal survived breaking his neck and will now represent Australia at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii this month. (Supplied/Anibal Juncal)
Anibal Juncal once feared he would never walk again. Now he's off to compete against the best ironmen in the world.
By
Alyssa Braithwaite

5 Oct 2017 - 3:40 PM  UPDATED 6 Oct 2017 - 8:33 AM

Every day when Anibal Juncal jumps into his car after a hard day working on a construction site, he sees a Hawaiian lei hanging from his rear view mirror and a chill of excitement runs through him.

The garland of colourful plastic flowers was given to him in Port Macquarie back in May, when he qualified for the 2017 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii this October.

"Every time I look at it hanging there I just can't believe it," he tells SBS.

"I look at it, and I think, far out, I made it." 

It was the culmination of a 23-year dream of Juncal's, which began when he was just a boy, growing up in the beachside suburb of Maroubra in Sydney.

Born in Uruguay, Juncal's family moved to Australia when he was just three months old. His family's friends were all fellow South Americans, so he grew up speaking Spanish until he started school.

He says fitting into the Aussie beach culture was tough for a young immigrant.

"I always loved the water, loved the surf, but being from an ethnic background living in Maroubra you really didn't go to the beach and hang out," he says.

"Maroubra back in the 80s was not a pleasant place if you were ethnic."

"I always loved the water, loved the surf, but being from an ethnic background living in Maroubra you really didn't go to the beach and hang out," he says.

Instead, he used to watch ironman competitions on TV. He remembers as a teenager seeing Greg Welch win the Ironman World Championships and dreaming of giving it a go himself.

"I used to run and swim, so I thought, 'How hard could it be?'" Juncal remembers with a laugh.

At 19 he decided to give it a try. He quit smoking and drinking, and bought himself a bike.

For six months he threw himself into training, until one day he was riding his bike home along Southern Cross Drive through inner Sydney when he slammed into a car and broke his neck.

"I stood up when it first happened and I thought, 'You know what, my neck doesn't feel right.' So I lay back down," Juncal says.

"I was lying there and I just kept coming in and out of consciousness, and then all of a sudden I can't remember anything, and someone is calling out to me, 'Hello mate, are you alright?'. I said 'Yeah but my neck hurts'.

"Next thing I was getting put into an ambulance. When I got to the hospital they were sticking needles in my feet and I couldn't feel my feet. It was pretty terrifying."

"You're looking at other people that you know are never going to walk again, and it's pretty intense," he says.

Juncal fractured his second and third vertebrae, and spent three months in hospital - two of those in traction - as he worried about the future.

"You're looking at other people that you know are never going to walk again, and it's pretty intense," he says.

But Juncal was one of the lucky ones. After his time in hospital, he was able to walk again. But his ironman dreams were all but forgotten, as he started smoking and drinking again.

In fact, 17 years passed before he turned his mind to ironman again. He was 36, and taking his two young kids to Nippers when one of the members from Brighton Baths Athletic Club suggested he join in. 

Three weeks later he took his first tentative steps back into training, and before long he completed a 500m swim and a 5km run.

"It took me 56 minutes. I thought I was going to die," he says.

A few club members had done some ironman, and they took Juncal under their wing, guided and encouraged him.

First, he did a couple of short triathlons, followed by a half marathon, then a full marathon.  

"I thought these people were lunactics," he says.

"All of a sudden I understood why the Aussies went to surf clubs and things like that - it's a really nice atmosphere," he says.

"I'd run 12km with them and I thought 'I'm going to die'. Every time I did something else I thought, 'geez these people are crazy!'"

But for the first time in his life, Juncal felt part of the Aussie institution.  

"All of a sudden I understood why the Aussies went to surf clubs and things like that - it's a really nice atmosphere," he says.

"The old boys take care of the kids, they're always talking to you, there's a lot of stories, a lot of wisdom. They just kept me going."

After six months, spending Sundays at the club and competing in events became a way of life. 

He took on his first ironman in Port Macquarie in 2011 at the age of 38 - some 25 years after he first set out to take it on.

As he quickly discovered, training for ironman is a hard road. He would go for a 20km run and his kids would have to come along riding their bikes because they were too young to stay at home on their own.

"Talk to anyone who has done ironman training, it's a different life," he says.

"It's pretty intense for everyone - for your work colleagues, for family, for my wife Karina."

"I enjoy it sometimes - your body does get used to it. But sometimes you're just dead," he says.

In the lead up to the World Championship qualifier in Port Macquarie this year, Juncal went from training 20 hours a week to 28 hours a week, including 460km on the bike, 81km of running and 20km of swimming.

He spent just about every waking moment training, working or eating. To keep up with his gruelling regimen, Juncal was eating about eight meals a day, and burning through 4500-5000 calories in a day.

"I enjoy it sometimes - your body does get used to it. But sometimes you're just dead," he says.

"You're thinking, I don't know how I'm going to wake up tomorrow."

But all this time he had the goal of qualifying for Kona and the Ironman World Championships in his mind. 

In May at the Australian Ironman Triathlon in Port Macquarie, Juncal's chance came.

He felt good, but knew there were some amazing athletes he was competing against, and that getting to Kona would be no easy feat.

"I was running and dancing. It was just a party!"

Aware that there were only five qualification places in his 40-44 age group, Juncal focussed on a top five finish. 

He was feeling good throughout the race, and with 2km to go the adrenaline started flowing as he knew he was going to qualify.

"Oh, I was having a party," Juncal says.

"I was running and dancing. It was just a party!"

 

Juncal finished fifth, booking him a date in Kona on October 14.

"I'm stoked," he says, beaming.

"You have dreams when you're a kid ... and then your life goes in a different way. But yeah, all the hard work paid off."

As for his next challenge at the Ironman World Championships later this month, Juncal has just one goal in mind: "Finish it. Don't get me wrong, I want to go there and perform as best I can. But first and foremost is just cross that finish line and say, I've done it. I've done Ironman Kona. You might only get one chance."

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