HAYDEN - As "The Star-Spangled Banner" was sung, 18-year-old Brenden Nichols and his father, Ken, were side-by-side Saturday morning at Honeysuckle Beach, among hundreds of athletes prepared to participate in the Hayden Triathlon.
Like a sign of what was about to commence, a bald eagle, the United States' symbol of strength and endurance, flew across the sky, high over the athletes' heads.
Moments later, Hayden Price, 14, was pulling on a wetsuit. Brenden Nichols looked up from where he sat, on a three-wheeled recumbent bicycle, and smiled at his teammate.
"I'll see you in about 15 minutes," Hayden said, before walking down to the water to complete the half-mile swim portion of the sprint triathlon.
After spending weeks in a coma, and enduring months of physical rehabilitation with more ahead, Brenden, of Hayden, was about to compete in his first triathlon since being critically injured last fall in a car crash on U.S. 12 on the Montana-Idaho border. He broke his neck and ribs and suffered a collapsed lung and brain trauma.
"It's all a miracle, the grace of God and the power of prayer," said Brenden's dad, Ken, of his son's continuing recovery. "Brenden has a ton of faith and a strong desire to get back to doing what he did before."
Brenden graduated from Coeur d'Alene High School as salutatorian of the Class of 2011. At the time of the vehicle crash, Brenden was a freshman at Carroll College in Montana where he planned to study pre-med, with a goal of becoming a neurosurgeon. He was also an athlete, training to compete in Ironman Coeur d'Alene, a high endurance, long distance race in which individual athletes swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles.
Ken said his son is recovering well because he was in "the best physical condition of his life" at the time of the crash.
With Ken riding a recumbent trike by his side, Brenden completed the bicycling leg of the triathlon. Stu Fitch, an 11-time Ironman completer who's married to Ironman pro Ali Fitch, filled out Brenden and Hayden's team, completing the 3.1-mile running portion of the triathlon.
Connie Price, Hayden's mom, an Ironman triathlete and close friend of the Nichols family, said she didn't really believe in faith and the power of prayer prior to Brenden's crash. Now, she said, she and several other friends and family members are discussing getting ladybug tattoos.
The tiny insects, with their familiar, shiny, often red or orange wing-covers dotted with black spots, became a symbol of hope and faith for the Nichols family and friends.
The bugs began appearing at St. Patrick's Hospital in Missoula while Brenden was in the intensive care unit, Ken said, in Brenden's room and at the hospital's family housing room where Brenden's parents, Ken and Jodie, stayed.
Ken said Jodie thought ladybugs were lucky and a sign that God was listening to their prayers.
"They kept popping up," he said.
As Brenden's condition improved, he was treated at other health care facilities, and ladybugs were there too - at North Idaho Acute Care Hospital in Post Falls and at St. Luke's in Spokane. Real insects appeared, but there were also images of ladybugs, graphic designs on everyday items that came into Brenden's life.
When Brenden and Ken attended the VIP dinner in June prior to Ironman Coeur d'Alene, Ken said a ladybug landed on his badge, a possible sign of what's ahead for Brenden. "One of his goals is to do Ironman," Ken said.
When Brenden was in the hospital, Ken said he promised his son he would complete an Ironman triathlon with him.
Brenden and his family have documented Brenden's journey to recovery online at www.caringbridge.org, often comparing Brenden's challenges to an Ironman race.
Stu Fitch said he thinks Brenden has got the focus and drive to get to Ironman.
"It's a real honor to be on his team," Fitch said. "He's a real Ironman."
Brenden completed 8 miles of the 12-mile bicycle portion of Saturday's triathlon in Hayden, and his team earned a first place VIP award.