Otter attack leaves triathlete with 25 bites

As a teenager, Leah Prudhomme dreamed of doing missionary work in Africa. In 1999, she traveled to Kenya to fulfill that goal, but the experience didn’t unfold as she imagined. While in Kenya, Prudhomme got sick with malaria and rickettsia, and she vowed never to return to Africa.

Six years later, Prudhomme was packing her bags to do master’s work in South Africa, her fears of the continent gone.

Add in a car crash in which she was thrown through the windshield and a bout with thyroid cancer in 2003 that returned as lymph node cancer in 2005, and Prudhomme seems downright fearless. An experienced triathlete, she believes her life has been characterized by setbacks, but each time, she’s managed to overcome them.

That’s why on Sunday, just 11 days after an otter attacked her while she was training on Island Lake 17 miles north of Duluth, Prudhomme will return to the lake for the Buzz Ryan Sprint Triathlon. She isn’t going to let anything stop her, not even 25 bites and an experience that could have left her with a debilitating fear of water.

Last Wednesday, Prudhomme, her children and her friend Heather Huseth visited Prudhomme’s father, John Riesgraf, who owns a home on Island Lake. In the evening, Riesgraf watched the children while the two women went out for a few hours of triathlon training.

After a run, Prudhomme and Huseth decided to do a 1.5-mile swim in Island Lake, on a route Prudhomme has taken 20 or 30 times before. At about 7 p.m., the women were on the return leg, entering the bay near Riesgraf’s home. That’s when Prudhomme felt the first two bites at her ankle.

“I thought it was like a musky or a northern pike,” said Prudhomme, a 33-year-old from Anoka, Minn. “I was panicking in the water, and no one was able to see anything. I ended up getting more bites on my ankle, and then to my shin.”

Eventually, the animal – which can range in size from 36 to 60 inches — popped up out of the water, and Prudhomme recognized it as an otter. She tried to kick water at it and swim backward, but she was unable to escape. Her wetsuit was being torn to shreds, and the bites kept coming. In the meantime, Huseth swam to shore, where Prudhomme’s father and children could hear her screaming. Her father, who was beginning to panic, got in his boat and eventually brought Prudhomme to shore.

From there, Prudhomme was taken to St. Luke’s Hospital in Duluth, where she received a rabies shot in each of the 25 bites and in her arm, along with a tetanus shot and an antibiotic to prevent a staph infection. She’s since had a follow-up rabies shot; she’ll have another on Wednesday and a final one next week. She isn’t allowed to swim for now due to potential bacteria in the water, but doctors have informed her that she can begin swimming again Sunday — perfect timing for the Buzz Ryan Sprint Triathlon, which is held that very day on Island Lake.

“I said yes,” Prudhomme said of signing up for the race. “I’m going to get over my fear of water. I have some bigger races on the books coming up. I was going to do a half Ironman this coming Sunday, but there’s no way I can run 13 miles on this ankle right now.”

Although the Buzz Ryan race is held only about a mile from where Prudhomme was attacked, it’s in an area that is far less hospitable to otters and similar wildlife. The race is held near a swimming beach and campground area, on open water without the bogs and islands that appear near Prudhomme’s father’s home. Race organizers have said they’re not worried the otter will travel so far on race day. In fact, the Department of Natural Resources told Prudhomme that they’ve located the otter’s nest. It was likely a mother protecting her pups, and they may even have been displaced by the recent Duluth floods.

With her goal of getting back to racing on Sunday in mind, Prudhomme resumed training on Monday, just five days after the attack. She set out on a run but ended up walking for part of the workout. One deep bite that went to her ankle bone made her feel as if she had intense shin splints while she ran. That’s not going to phase Prudhomme, though; she’s done nearly 50 triathlons in her life, and she won’t let one bout of bad luck stop her.

It hasn’t even been a week since the attack, and Prudhomme is already able to make light of it. Instead of seeing the negatives, she now realizes how lucky she was. That evening, it was sunny and about 90 degrees in Duluth. It was unseasonably warm, not the kind of weather that makes a swimmer want to get into a full-body wetsuit. But even after Huseth urged her not to, Prudhomme insisted on putting on her sleeveless suit, which saved her legs from even worse injuries.

Quintana Roo, the company that made the now-shredded wetsuit, has sent Prudhomme a new, long-sleeve suit to wear in future races. She’s excited to try it and thinks it will be ideal for the Ironman Wisconsin race in Madison in September, but she may wait to debut the new suit until after next weekend.

When she signed up to compete in the Buzz Ryan race, organizers asked Prudhomme if she might be willing to wear the shredded suit one last time. It’s ruined, but she might be able to get one last use out if it, and if she does, she’ll spray paint the suit with a slogan like “Otter Proof” or “You’ve Otter Try.”

Plenty of athletes can turn injuries and setbacks into motivation, but what’s so remarkable about Prudhomme is the speed with which she’s been able to find the positive. She’s already ensuring that the attack won’t have physical and mental effects on her in the long run, and she’s also begun to use the event to motivate others to become more resilient. Her very presence at Island Lake on Sunday will do that, and she’s also planning to discuss the attack on the Fitness on Request cycling DVDs in which she appears.

“My motto is to overcome adversity, and sometimes adversity comes looking for you when you’re not looking for trouble, and you just have to keep going,” Prudhomme said.

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