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Lancaster man dies in Kentucky triathlon Encountered distress while in the water

Lancaster resident Mark A. Wezka was ready to be an Ironman.

He'd lifted weights and done extensive athletic training for a year to prepare for his first Ford Ironman triathlon Sunday in Louisville, Ky., his mother, Celia, told The Buffalo News late Monday.

"It was his first one -- he wasn't there to win," his mother said. "All he wanted to do was finish."

But the 46-year-old computer programmer and systems analyst never got that chance.

Wezka encountered distress shortly after starting the first leg of the competition -- a 2.4-mile swim -- and had to be pulled from the Ohio River. He was pronounced dead in University of Louisville Hospital a short time later.

Wezka, a 1983 Depew High School graduate, had been in the water less than eight minutes Sunday, according to a report by the Louisville Courier-Journal. Fellow competitors noticed Wezka's distress and held him up in the water, yelling for help from race officials.

They were able to lift him to a boat that was dispatched for the rescue. Efforts to resuscitate Wezka began in the boat, according to the report, and continued on the way to the hospital. Wezka, however, never regained consciousness.

Wezka's mother says some family that lives in the Louisville area -- including at least one of his five sisters -- watched him start the competition.

"He was in good spirits, ready to go," she said. "He dove into the water for the first event. Then, [family members] couldn't see him any more, and they went to the second station. That's when they got a text message to go to the hospital."

Preliminary autopsy results were released Monday by the Jefferson County, Ky., Corner's Office and showed Wezka's death was "consistent with drowning, complicated by cardiac disease," according to an Associated Press report.

The autopsy showed Wezka had hypertension, but additional tests would need to be done to determine whether he suffered a heart attack during the initial leg of the competition, which also included a 112-mile trek on bicycle and a 26.2-mile marathon run.

Wezka's body is expected to be returned later this week to Western New York, where a wake and funeral services will be held. Arrangements are not complete, family members said.

Wezka, according to his mother, was a devoted father of two sons, Anthony "A.J.," 19, who is studying at Erie Community College, and Matthew, 18, who left earlier this month for Parris Island, S.C., where he is in basic training for the U.S. Marine Corps.

Besides his sons and mother, Wezka leaves behind his father, Anthony, five sisters and nine nieces and nephews.

"He was a real good role model for the kids," his mother said.

Family members were still coming to terms with Wezka's unexpected passing Monday at the family's Lancaster home.

The man who was fond of hunting and fishing, outdoors and athletics -- and who had even made the Buffalo Junior Sabres hockey team after he'd been away from the sport for several years -- was there and gone in a moment.

"For everyone, it's just a shock -- it's unbelievable," said Celia Wezka, who noted that although there is some family history of cardiac disease, her son never mentioned suffering from it. She said Wezka had really pushed himself athletically, especially in recent years.

Wezka placed in several recent races from around the area, including the Tops 5K Run, which Wezka completed in 2009 and 2010, and the Derby Fair 5K in Derby in 2008.

In the 2009 event, Wezka competed with his son, Matthew. The elder Wezka finished 99th out of 370 entrants and seventh among males in the 40-44 age group completing the race in 24:18, according to the race log.

Last year, Wezka improved upon his time and standing. He finished 79th out of 399 entrants -- sixth among males age 45-49 -- with a time of 23:30.

This year, his eyes turned toward the Ironman, his mother said.

"Everyone who knew him knew he was excited," she said. "His time when he was training was pretty good.

"I don't think he doubted he would finish."

email: tpignataro@buffnews.com