The Williams Route 66 Marathon board of directors along with the Tovander family announced Dean Slatev as the recipient of this year’s Kjell Tovander Award at the 2010 Williams Route 66 Marathon Pasta Dinner tonight.
The award recognizes an individual who impacts the world in an uplifting way and is named in honor of Kjell Tovander who died while trying to complete the Route 66 Half Marathon on Nov. 16, 2008. Tovander, only 21 at the time of his death, spent three years studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was preparing for a career in the Navy.
“We continue to be amazed at the caliber of runners with inspiring stories who have overcome great adversity to participate in the marathon,” said Chris Lieberman, executive director of Tulsa Route 66 Marathon, Inc. “Dean’s story and his compassion for others made him an excellent and obvious choice as this year’s honoree.”
Slatev, 41, suffered a massive stroke in 2006 that left the right side of his body temporarily paralyzed with permanent loss of feeling in his right hand. The stroke was a result of a hole in his heart that allowed a blood clot to reach the left side of his brain. Six months after his stroke, Slatev had a surgical procedure to close the hole and prevent future strokes.
“People who have a brush with death say it is a life-changing experience and that every day is a new day to appreciate,” said Slatev in his nomination letter. “That is so true. Now I find myself trying to live a healthier life even though it wasn’t my bad health that caused the stroke. I do this for myself so that I may be there for my family and others who may need me.”
As a former high school athlete working to earn a walk-on position for the University of Oklahoma Sooners football team after graduating high school, Slatev had always considered himself athletic. His dream was to play for the Sooners, but a severe injury to his ankle prevented him from ever being able to suit up.
“My dream to play for OU is the only goal I will never be able to reach,” said Slatev.
While Slatev may never play for OU, it is not stopping him from helping other young players reach their high school football dreams. Slatev volunteers his time coaching young men at summer football camps with former Oklahoma Sooner Uwe von Schamann and OU head coach Bob Stoops. Former players Slatev has worked with include former Sooner Garrett Hartley of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and Jimmy Stevens and Tress Way of the current Sooners football team.
He also serves on the selection committee for the Jim Thorpe Award presented to college football’s most outstanding defensive back in the nation through the ESPN college football awards show in December each year.
A year after the stroke, Slatev’s son, Ashton, was a member of the McGuinness High School cross country team and questioned his father’s reluctance to run with him. Slatev contended that if it didn’t involve a ball running was pointless and he was not interested, but the question loomed and he decided to give running a try.
“I barely ran to the end of my block before I stopped to walk,” remembers Slatev.
It was a wake-up call for Slatev and he began setting new goals for himself. The man who had to relearn all the motor skills associated with the use of his right hand including eating, writing and brushing his teeth was now determined to run one mile. One mile was quickly followed by three miles and soon he was running his first half marathon. Slatev will complete his second official half marathon race on Sunday, Nov. 21 and is using it as a spring board to formally train for and complete a marathon.
“I consider being a stroke victim a badge of honor,” said Slatev. “I find myself trying to do things I never thought I could ever do like run a marathon.”
Slatev also volunteers his time visiting patients and families at the Jim Thorpe Rehabilitation Hospital and hopes his dream of running his first marathon as a stroke survivor over the age of 40 will inspire other stroke survivors to take their first step toward accomplishing what may seem impossible.
“Maybe I will inspire someone to take that first step to just walk again,” he said. “Winning this award will give me more confidence to preach the positive word and accomplish those dreams.”
Slatev lives by the motto, “Dream big. Work hard. Pray often.” He is so impassioned by these words he had them engraved on a stone outside the Jim Thorpe Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame as a reminder to himself, his family, his friends and everyone who passes through its doors that anything is possible.