As you may know, last weekend I had the privilege of spending a fantastic weekend in the company of some of the most awesome people I know at a Leadership Seminar here in San Diego. During the course of the 4 days that we were there we heard some incredible speakers…inspiring, insightful and beautifully real.
But one of the highlights for me was listening to a woman called Robyn Benincasa. Her achievements include being a female firefighter here in San Diego, a state and national gymnast, diver, cross country runner and martial artist, ironman triathlons, a Guiness World Record holder, a multiple world champion adventure racer…and a beautiful soul. Her talk on teamwork was thought provoking as well as inspiring and had plenty of humour along the way. If you want to know more about her incredible journey, then check out the video here: http://youtu.be/8L6MDOnruZk
But these are not the reasons that Robyn is today’s Fabulous Friday Female.
Her ability to turn a devastating blow to her life’s passion into a beautiful gift she gets to share with others is the reason that we are celebrating her today.
I’m going to share with you now Robyn’s story, in her own words, that brought her to launch the amazing Project Athena…an organisation that helps survivors of medical setbacks to experience their own adventures, through support, teamwork and love.
The following is an excerpt from Robyn’s book, How Winning Works:
Why did Project Athena become a reality? Sometimes a setback offers us a beautiful gift. Here’s the story:
After 15 years of Adventure Racing, with 36 of these crazy 8-10 day long non-stop multisport team adventures and many many podium finishes under my teams’ belts, I hit the deck in the 2007 world championships in Scotland , meaning I was in so much pain that I took one final step and fell to the ground on the fifth day of the race, the day that my team was climbing the biggest peak in the country, Ben Nevis. My teammates took all of my gear and put me on a tow line. Often during the last thirty-six hours of that race, I had to physically pick up my leg and move it forward because it would no longer respond to signals from my brain. My body knew that my race was over long before my mind did. Against all odds and through amazing synergy, we did cross the finish line, but in a disappointing sixth place.
I felt terrible about letting my team down on the final day. It was completely out of character for my body to not rise to the occasion during a race. I knew on a gut level that something was terribly wrong. My fiance Jeff had to carry me on and off the plane, and I finally had to admit that this wasn’t something I could just work through, as I had done with every other setback in my athletic life. A few days after we arrived home, I saw an orthopedic surgeon. After listening to my symptoms, he took an X-ray and popped it up onto the light box.
“Yep, just as I thought. You have Stage Four osteoarthritis in both hips,” he said without flourish or preamble. “No more cartilage – just bone on bone now on this side. Your racing career is over. You’re never going to run again.”
Osteoarthritis? I think my grandmother had that in her knuckles. He could not be talking about me. This wasn’t happening. This was just a bad dream. I was going to wake up at any moment. I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. Waves of nausea crashed over me and the room started spinning. I was only forty years old – the prime of my life as an endurance racer. I wasn’t ready for this. My adventure racing friends called me the Human Cockroach because I could make it through anything: freezing hail, blazing 130 degree heat, days on end with minimal food, no sleep, and little water. I had never had any major physical issues, rarely even a blister; no knee problems, no race ending injuries. I was the girl who moved forward on the course at all costs, never lightning fast, mind you, but never stopping. I was going to be the last woman standing in the nuclear winter! And something like osteoarthritis was going to take me out? No way.
I explained to him that he was wrong about my never running or racing again, and that I was positive I could make it through with some good anti-inflammatory meds. He smiled and wrote me a prescription for sixty Ibuprofen 800 tablets. I grabbed the prescription and told him I’d see him in two years, to which he replied, “I’ll see you in two weeks.”
Guess who was right? I’ll give you a hint. Not me.
I just needed time to wrap my brain around the fact that my body, which had done seven years of elite gymnastics, three years of track, six years of diving, six years of judo, ten Ironman Triathlons, and thirty-six expedition length adventure races had given up the ghost. My crazy Rottweiler of a body, which for years had successfully raced among the little greyhound endurance athletes of the world, had ground to a halt. The Human Cockroach had inadvertently wandered into a roach motel.
It took a few days to finally stop figuratively kicking and screaming and have a little personal “come to Jesus” meeting with myself. I had had forty amazing years of competition and adventures. I might have to switch sports for a while, but this wasn’t cancer. This was not a death sentence. This was just a chance to become bionic! I think when I made the conscious decision to put on my beanie cap of gratitude for what I still did have (versus mourning what I was losing) and the fact that in the lottery of life’s setbacks, this was a winner, it changed everything. Into every life some rain must fall. At least this was the sun shower of rainstorms. I decided to be ruled by the hope of success and to opt for the chance of getting my life back, in the form of two total hip replacements.
I was on crutches and a cane for four weeks, and then I slowly but surely got back to work, back onto my bike, back into a boat, and finally back to running. In early 2008, I ran a 155-mile multi-day ultra-marathon in Vietnam with my team. It hurt, but I was getting my life back. I was going to be OK(ish)!
Then, as if on cue based upon my surgeon’s predictions, the other shoe dropped. In June of 2009, I hit the deck again in the middle of a race. Only this time, my teammates had to carry me that last eight miles to the finish line. The pain was off the charts. I couldn’t put an ounce of weight on my leg without the feeling that someone was jamming a knife into my groin. Not again. Why couldn’t I have issues with something that we only have one of? I was pushed through the airport in a wheelchair, pulling my bike box and my gear box along with me on either side. This is definitely a lot funnier right now than it was then. I was back in surgery for my second resurfacing ten days later. And this is a picture of my butt, which means that now we are all best friends!
The reason I share that x-ray with you is because (a) it’s cool, and (b) it represents more than just a couple of super hero hip joints. Going through the process of getting these bionic hips (3 hip replacements now, with a fourth in December 2011—don’t get me started :), I realized how important and how precious it is to be able to get out and play with my best friends in the most remote and stunning places on Earth, and what that deep connection to our friends and the planet does for our psyches and our soul. I had taken it for granted when I was healthy, and I knew I would never take it for granted again. If I could only run again, if I could only race again, I would embrace and be grateful for every moment, and not just fear failure, as I had done for the majority of my prior races.
Right after my first hip resurfacing, I started planning adventures in my head and putting together a roster of the people with whom I would like to share these adventures. At the top of the list were my two best girlfriends, Melissa Cleary and Louise Cooper. They had also been through hell as survivors of rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer, respectively, and they would be right there with me in person and in spirit if I had to walk instead of run sometimes, or ride bikes instead of walk, or eat chocolate and drink wine instead of any of it. They would understand completely, as they had been through it themselves.
And then it hit me. What about other survivors of medical setbacks who don’t have adventures to look forward to? What if they don’t have this amazing circle of understanding and like-minded goddesses to help them through their recovery? And so the non-profit Project Athena Foundation was born. I was so grateful to have adventures ahead and awesome ibuprofen-sharing, limping, giggling, suffering, inflamed friends to do them with; I wanted to give that sense of hope and excitement to other women like us to help them with their own recoveries, and to help them see the light at the end of those long tunnels of hopelessness in which they wondered if anything was ever going to be OK again. I chose the name Project Athena because Athena was the Goddess of Wisdom and War. My wise friends had proven to me that through war comes wisdom. I was inspired by them, just as I hoped that together, we would inspire others.
Project Athena isn’t about being everything you were. It’s about making the very best of what you are today, and giving you a sense of belonging, confidence and connection to your new self and the goddesses and gods who’ve helped you get your groove back. We’ve been giving out grants to survivors for equipment, airfare, entry fees, coaching, and whatever else they need to help them live their adventurous dreams since 2009 – everything from running on the Great Wall of China to crossing the finish line at a local 5K, and it’s the most rewarding thing I have ever done in my life. I am certain that Melissa and Louise, Project Athena’s Angel of Hope and Chief Inspiration Officer, would agree with me.
Eventually, we hope to extend our reach to hundreds of survivors each year, and to that end, we are expanding our Fundraising God/Goddess Adventures (for regular healthy people who want to help us raise funds for our Survivors) to include Grand Canyon treks, multisport adventures in the Florida Keys, and mountaineering trips. You can find the scoop on these events under Fundraising Adventures on this site!
I guess the moral of the story is that none of this life changing and life affirming stuff would have happened had there been more cartilage in the world. Sometimes a little setback is the universe showing us a new way to leap forward.
Love and Adventure Always! Xo Robyn
So I would like to ask for you to join me today in honouring, acknowledging and celebrating Robyn and the heart and passion with which she has transformed her biggest setback into her biggest gift to others…I hope she inspires you to do the same.
As you know, I would love to acknowledge, honour and celebrate the women who have inspired you as well. So if there is someone that you believe should feature as a Fabulous Friday Female, then send me an email (email@example.com) with 3 simple details:
- Who is your Fabulous Friday Female? (Her name and location in the world)
- Why is she a Fabulous Friday Female to YOU? (How do you know her? What does she do? In what way is she inspiring?)
- A photo or link to a picture of her online (if there is a reason that you would prefer not to include a photo, just let me know)
So help me to share with all of our lovely ladies the real women who inspire YOU.
…and remember, as always, to Stay Fabulous too!