When I was in grade 11, I wanted to be a French teacher. Then I got a summer job as a French camp counselor and realized that I wasn’t French enough to be a French teacher. The reality was that when a child stuck their hand close to the campfire, I would yell, “get your hand out of the fire” instead of the French equivalent! And so, I began my quest for my teachable subject. This is where the irony began. Ms Bondi was my math teacher and my track coach. Not only did she convince me to pursue a career in mathematics, but she also convinced me that I could run track and get high marks at the same time. In fact, in grade 13 Calculus, she had me NOT study for a test just to convince me that I could balance sport and academics. She would drop the test if I didn’t get my usual grade. Thankfully, I kept on running, I got my scholarship to university, and I learned how to balance athletics and academics. In 1992, I was officially a math teacher. I had no idea that that would evolve into a career as a professional triathlete.
In 1999, having raced as a professional triathlete at multiple World Championships, the Pan Am Games and Ironman and after 7 years as a math and computer science teacher, I resigned to pursue sport full-time. My mother was horrified. Teaching is an honorable profession. She could not understand how I would get any fulfillment or have any impact as an athlete.
Moms are usually right. But it wasn’t until I won my second Ironman in 2001 that I felt a bit uneasy with my career choice as well.
I crossed the finish-line, and the win felt a bit empty. Winning an Ironman is not easy, and it was to be celebrated and yet, I felt hollow. Clearly, I needed more than a “win”. I looked inside my heart and recalled the Serenity Prayer. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things that cannot change, the courage to change the things that can be changed and the wisdom to know the difference.” I looked deeper.
There was a reason I was winning races. And I asked myself, “what am I going to do with that win?”
Sport had taught me to love myself as myself with all of my imperfections. It had developed my self esteem and my confidence. It had brought me both joy and sadness but made me alive. When I did triathlon, I felt like a loved member of the triathlon community. I knew that I needed to share sport with as many people as possible so that they could have that same growth and feel that same sense of joy. Purpose at last!!
But that was only half of my mission.
I was winning races despite having Cystic Fibrosis – a genetic lung disease that causes chronic lung infections, lung damage and ultimately early death. That wasn’t a coincidence. Sport could be my platform to deliver hope to families with CF. They could see that their child could be healthy and active just like me. Moreover, they could see that sport would keep their lungs healthy, enhance their self worth and make them feel alive and vibrant.
I remember being on intravenous medication for 5 weeks once-upon-a-time. I administered the medicine via IV 4 times per day every 6 hours. But for one hour each day, I would ride my bike inside or go for a jog. And for that one hour each day, I didn’t feel as if I had CF. Sport made me alive and so happy. That message was my mission.
At last, thanks to that soul searching emptiness from my second Ironman win, I found my purpose and the fuel for my career.
I firmly believe that I would never have raced 33 Ironman races and I would never have won 11 Ironman races without CF. And that is a bold statement from someone who uses her lungs as her engine. But CF became my superpower and triathlon was the vehicle to encourage others to embrace sport and find new life and inspire them to re-create themselves.
Now as a coach, I know the power of sport. The best prescription for anxiety and sadness is a pair of running shoes. Running shoes are the gateway to adventure, fulfillment, and purpose. They provide a scary journey outside of the comfort zone, but the good stuff happens on the other side of the comfort zone. It may be frightening to start but it is more frightening to stay stuck in patterns that may not make you happy.
Yes, I love my sport because it has literally changed my life. When I feel afraid, I go back to the lessons learned in sport. If I could do “that” then I can do “this” NOW. I remember in 2005 when my appendix burst at the Ironman World Championships. I was being rolled into the operating room and I took a deep breath and I visualized myself on the start line of a race being calm. Having surgery was a different fear but no different from the uncertainty of racing. I put myself in my happy place of racing and nailed the surgery jitters!
Sport makes me believe that I can handle anything. I can handle any disappointment. I can handle any curveball. I can handle any obstacle. I can problem solve. I can find a plan A, plan B and plan C. I can ask for help. I can find greatness in any adversity. No matter what life throws at me, sport has armed me with a skill set to rise to every obstacle and turn barriers into opportunities.
And sport keeps my lungs healthy and strong which means that I am a thriving CF adult hopefully motivating other CF patients to embrace fitness and longevity. When we replace the “I” with a “WE”, illness becomes wellness.
Ready. Set. Go. Let’s run (and swim and ride and hike and play)