Dathan Ritzenhein knows what it’s like to make an Olympic team. He also knows what it’s like to fear that it’s all over: the 29-year-old spent much of 2011 fighting a gruesome Achilles tendon injury that put his career in peril.

Last winter, Ritzenhein was bothered by an irritated sheath of his Achilles tendon. As injuries go, it should have been minor, but injections meant to calm it led to a bad reaction and surgery in March. When it turned out that he was allergic to the dissolvable stitches used internally and antibiotics failed to curb the subsequent infection, he underwent a second surgery, in June, to have the stitches removed.

By that point, there was so much tissue damage to the skin that the wound wouldn’t close: he could actually see the tendon as it moved.

A third surgery would have meant immobilization for six to eight weeks. Instead, Ritzenhein wore a device called a Wound VAC, for vacuum-assisted closure, in a pack around his waist – even when he ran. Connected to his Achilles, it provided a type of therapy used to close chronic wounds.

Finally, it healed. On November 5, Ritzenhein stood on the starting line of the NYRR Dash to the Finish Line, his first race in a year almost to the day.

“It would be difficult for me to fully express what was going on in my head,” Ritzenhein wrote recently in an e-mail. “It wasn’t fear or nerves, I was very calm, I had been through more than I could handle and came out better on the other side through the grace of God!  I was really broken and didn’t have anything left, but that is the place where you find out what matters and it was an epiphany for me. … I knew standing on the line, no matter the outcome, that I had made it back.”

Five kilometers and 13:56 seconds later, he was elated with his third-place finish. “Of course I would have liked to win,” he said, “but that was not really the point.”

Now the point is: can Ritzenhein make his third Olympic team?

In 2004, despite limping home last in the Trials with a stress fracture in his left foot, Ritzenhein earned a spot on the U.S. 10,000-meter squad by being one of the few men who already had the “A” standard. At the time, he was just 20 and still competing for the University of Colorado.

He failed to finish in Athens. Four years later, however, he was runner-up in the Olympic Marathon Trials and ninth in Beijing, the top American finisher. Despite his long layoff Ritzenhein says his training has jumped “leaps and bounds” since the race in New York, and he comes to Houston as a favorite to repeat.

It’s been a roller-coaster quadrennium. In 2009, Ritzenhein ran 12:56 for 5000 meters, at the time an American Record, and won a bronze medal at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships. In 2010, he won his third USA Cross Country title at 12K. Then, the 2011 washout season.

“Four years ago seems like a lifetime ago to me, so many ups and down along the way,” he reflected. “There is no success without failure, and I’ve had both. From the year I had in 2009 … to the year I had just now, it is all part of the journey, and the person toeing the line on January 14 is so much stronger than four years ago.”

Ritzenhein’s family life hasn’t stood still, either. On July 23, 2010, he and his wife, Kalin, welcomed their second child, a boy. Their daughter, Addison, is four. He said he can’t remember what life was like before having kids, and from the sound of it he doesn’t want to. They often make appearances on Twitter and in his blog. Recently, Ritzenhein attributed a month-long gap between blog entries to Addy dropping the computer. (A further investigation revealed that Mommy and Daddy had just put Jude to bed and had settled in to watch some TV when Addy, watching a movie on iTunes, dropped the laptop because, she explained, she had to itch her leg.)

Having a family to share the ups and downs, he says, has smoothed even the bumpiest roads on his journey the past four years. They often travel with him, and are spending the last six weeks before the Trials at altitude in Albuquerque.

Ritzenhein calls his wife amazing for her help and willingness in helping his stick to a training routine while uprooting the family, even at Christmas, to make life feel more normal to both him and the kids.

“Just having them with me makes me train better because I feel complete with my family,” he says, “and being able to share with them what I love to do is priceless.”

By Barbara Huebner