I have been blessed with an incredible career. In my first career, I was a high school math teacher and after that, I became a professional triathlete specializing in the Ironman distance: a 3.8 km swim followed by a 180 km bike ride and then a 42 km run. And now, I am a speaker, author and entrepreneur. But regardless of my titles, connection has always been the center of my success.
I resigned from teaching in 1999 to pursue triathlon full time. I left a noble profession where teachers share knowledge, insight, inspiration and compassion with their students every day. The best advice I was given as a new teacher was to love my students. When I did that, teaching was easy. I could handle every question, conflict, confrontation and challenge. When I loved my class – when I connected with them – I rarely experienced any difficulty. I held my authority but with a baseline of love.
Needless to say, when I stepped away from teaching, I was removing myself from this role of inspiring young minds. I knew that to have true success in sport, I would have to have impact. I didn’t know how I would do that but I trusted that I would find a way.
In 2000, I won my first Ironman and I was over the moon. But in 2001, after my second Ironman win, I felt empty. I needed more than trophies and accolades. I needed connection and purpose.
I have CF, a genetic lung disease which causes an abnormal amount of mucous to accumulate in the lungs causing chronic lung infections, lung damage, lung transplant and ultimately early death. It is a miracle that I am an 11-time Ironman Champion. Up until 2001, I had never spoken about having Cystic Fibrosis. I did not want sympathy or a ready-made excuse for a poor performance. But the emptiness of that second Ironman win forced me to realize that CF was actually my superpower. CF was my platform of hope for families with CF. Every race had meaning. I found success because I had a vital reason to succeed. Every finish was a win for CF and for hope. CF provided that connection to others who needed hope and that connection became my fuel for success.
Sometimes, I raced unwell. It would have been easy to feel sorry for myself and to play the victim of lung disease. At the Ironman World Championships in 2004, I was so sick, struggling to breathe and on a heavy regime of antibiotics. But as I prepared mentally for the event, I realized how lucky I was that I got to stand on the start line of the biggest race in triathlon and race the best women in the world. I made the decision to race with the intention of being the best person I could be with CF. I embraced who I was and I made the decision to love all of myself including CF. I would race for every person who had CF and could not swim, bike or run. My heart was so full on race day that there was no way to fail, regardless of the race results. I finished 4th place in the World on a day where most people would not have gotten out of bed. That is the power of the mind and the heart and of connecting with a purpose greater than yourself. That “win” was deeply rooted in fulfillment and connection.
Now, I am retired from professional sport. My start line has changed. My race is different. Like many of you, I find myself in a new arena. But the goal is the same: winning in life and that winning is rooted in having purpose and connection.
Finding new meaning in life beyond sport has been a tricky transition. But often when I feel a bit discontented, I am treated to a note like this, received in my inbox in 2016:
Our little boy that we adopted is 4. We are foster parents and have adopted nine kids with special needs. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Nathan’s future and have been a little down. So I researched people [with CF] who had reached 40 years of age. I found you. That helps. But it is still an overwhelming disease at times. Thank you so much. Your story has been inspiring for my husband and I.
There is no doubt that I have been blessed with two gifts: the gift of sport and the gift of Cystic Fibrosis. I have found meaning in my disease and that disease has become my power. If I can make CF my superpower, then what superpower is lurking in each of you that you have not even found yet? I have no doubt that it will bring you connection to self, to others and to purpose and when you find that connection, you will win in life. Be robust. Be courageous in your pursuit. Finish what you start and do it with heart.