In 2008, I began the transition from doing “well” in adventure races to doing “good” for Survivors. After 20 years of endurance racing, including 10 Ironman Triathlons and 40+ 6-10 day non stop multisport “Adventure Races” like the Eco-Challenge, I discovered that, what I assumed was a pulled hip flexor, was actually stage four osteoarthritis in both of my hips. The very first time I set foot into the office of an orthopedic surgeon, I left 30 minutes later with the words echoing in my ears “you’ll probably never run again…and you need two hip replacements. Talk to my surgery scheduler on your way out”. I left in a daze. I had never even sprained an ankle competing in 5 sports since the age of 8. And I suddenly needed TWO HIP REPLACEMENTS? And so my journey to become “bionic” began. Hey, it worked for Jamie Summers, The Bionic Woman! “We can rebuild her…better…stronger….faster” (cheers to the people in my age group for knowing that reference!). It took me a couple of weeks to wrap my brain around the prospect of setting off the metal detectors at airports and museums for rest of my life, but given my Femoral Acetabular Impingement (a fancy word my surgeon used for a common hip/femor angle issue that tends to wear away cartilage with enough use :), hip replacements were only a matter of time for me. And it was time.
I love the Chuck Yeager quote “You do what you can for as long as you can. And when you finally can’t, you do the next best thing. You back up, but never give up”. So after my first hip replacement, I planted the seed in my brain to think of something awesome to be my “never give up”; Something that would allow me to share with other people who have had medical or traumatic issues that it’s not about the setback, its about the COMEBACK. And nobody knew more about the comeback than my good friend, Louise Cooper. Louise, an incredible endurance athlete and now 2x Breast Cancer Survivor, had always been an inspiration to me because for her, Cancer was merely a minor inconvenience that she had to deal with while she was training for her next epic adventure. As I crutched my way around the hospital trying to channel my inner Louise and plan my next big adventure, a brainstorm hit me. Why don’t Louise and I get together and help other Survivors like her live a huge hairy audacious adventurous dream as part of their recovery!
And so the Project Athena Foundation was born. Together we are better than we could ever be alone….I had learned this life principle through competing in and winning the toughest races on earth with my teammates. Now the universe was telling me that it was time to take those human synergy skills that Louise and I had learned from Adventure Racing and help others regain their confidence and amaze themselves on their journey back from the edge. In the past eight years, my team of coaches (aka ‘Chief Inspiration Officers’) and hundreds of ‘Fundraising Goddesses/Gods’ have run, hiked, paddled, and cycled alongside Survivors who are completing awe inspiring adventures like running a marathon on the Great Wall of China, hiking across the Grand Canyon (and back!) in two days, and kayaking and cycling 120 miles from Key Largo to Key West. All of our adventures are designed for Survivors and Fundraisers to amaze and inspire one another and themselves with their tenacity, teamwork, and grace. Our Survivors (aka Athenas!) are crossing finish lines that most people without setbacks could never imagine, and therein lies the magic and the thrill. No longer fragile, sick or a source for pity, our Athenas are out there to show others “what’s possible” and to unleash their inner badass for all the world to see! Watching our new ‘Athenas’ cross these finish lines, transformed and transcendent on their mission from Survivor to Adventure Athlete, is a gift beyond measure, and something that Louise and I will probably be doing together until we can no longer take a step, pick up a paddle, or turn a pedal. Which we hope will be a very very very long time. Who knew that GIVING a hike or a ride with a team would be even more inspiring than taking one?
Robyn Benincasa is a 2x World Champion Adventure Racer, a full time firefighter for the City of San Diego, the New York Times Bestselling Author of How Winning Works, and as of May 2014, on of the 2014 CNN HEROES for her work with the Project Athena Foundation! If you know a Survivor/Athena that Project Athena can help or you would like to join Project Athena on one of their 2015 Adventures in the Grand Canyon, Florida Keys, or San Diego, go to www.projectathena.org
–Written for the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons.