Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Overcoming Adversity

This was me last month. Determined to overcome an injury and set an example to the young athletes I coach, I dug deep after a torn achilles tendon prevented me from achieving
some goals I had set for the summer and decided to hone in on a little piece of wisdom I received from my father many, many years before.

You see, as tenacious as I like to be when approaching various athletic endeavors, I used to have a very difficult time dealing with the adversity that comes with recovery from injuries and other set backs.

One particular event would shape the way I viewed adversity forever. I was 24 years old, just barely out of college and hoping to make the very difficult transition from amateur triathlete to endorsed professional. At 24, I was very, very young to try to make triathlon my full-time job,
but I had come off of a very successful couple of amateur seasons and it was suggested to me that if I could convince people I was serious and committed enough to do it...I might get some lucrative deals and endorsements to make it worth my while. After lots and lots of trying to sell myself as the newest up and coming triathlete, I ended up with ONE deal. Quintana Roo gave me a "trial" run by creating an aerodynamic, super-sleek, decked out bike for me to train with and demo at the USAT National Championships that year. If I did well, I got to keep the bike and win a sweet two-year endorsement deal. I took that bike with PRIDE, determined to win over Quintana Roo (and anyone else hanging around the finish line at Nationals that year). The bike was was like riding on melted butter with the super light aluminum frame, disc wheels, and aerobars. Oh yeah, I got pretty darn cocky on that bike! One day, six weeks before Nationals, I was riding with my training group before daylight and was hit by a car from behind. Hard. I was thrown several yards and briefly lost consciousness. I suffered a concussion, a broken arm, and lots of road rash. My helmet, (that the doctors said saved my life), was shattered. My coveted Quintana bike? Totaled. There would be no Nationals that year, no endorsement deal, no professional career. The road to recovery would test everything in me. Because six months after my accident, I was experiencing blackouts and minor seizures and it would take another six months after that...a full year to get the diagnosis and treatment. It turned out I had Grave's Disease--an auto immune disease that effects thyroid function, elevates heart rate, and causes weight loss, hair loss...and brain "fog". I was lucky. Gail Devers, olympic sprinter and champion almost DIED from the disease because it wasn't caught in time. And yet, she STILL managed to overcome the disease and went on to win gold SEVERAL times after her diagnosis!

Check out this article about Gail Dever's struggle and triumph:

At twenty-four years old however, I hadn't yet found the tools to barrel through this kind of set back with the kind of attitude that I needed to triumph in the end. One day, as I sat in front of the boob tube, pouting over my situation, my dad came into the room, looked at my pathetic self sitting like a slug and said this:

"The way I see it, you could either wallow in your own misery, OR you could do everything and anything to get better FASTER. You could treat your recovery as the TRAINING period for a race. Only this time the "race" is getting back your health. Train hard. Go above and beyond and defy the odds. Be the BEST patient the doctors have ever seen."

I only had to think about this for a second before deciding that YES...this is what I wanted for myself. To get my health back, and FAST. I wanted to set my sights again on that ultimate Nationals on that fabulous bike.

It was hard. I had lots and lots of setbacks in my recovery. But, like my idol Gail Devers, I triumphed in the end and overcame Grave's Disease. And I learned just how tough I could really be. I learned how imperative it was for me to treat the illness, the injuries and the adversity as a learning tool rather than a hindrance to obtaining my goals.

Now...I must confess. I never raced triathlon again. In fact, I never even got back on a competitive road bike SINCE that accident. One day, about a year after I had fully recovered, I attempted to take a leisurely bike ride on my dad's old ten speed. About a mile into the ride, I freaked out. I let the bike get out of control and hit a rock in the road, which sent me flying over the handlebars. Again. And helmet saved me. I suffered no major injury. But my ego was severely bruised.

After that incident, I didn't get back on a bike again for a LONG time. It wasn't until I was in my late twenties that I started dabbling with mountain biking. For some reason, flying down a mountain trail was a lot less scary to me. But I guess it makes sense...I had been HIT by a car on the ROAD. There was no chance of that happening again in the mountains, right?

I've been asked many, many times by fellow triathletes, why I stopped triathlon. And when I hear them talk about their training and racing, I feel sad. I throw a little pity party in my head and feel sorry for myself and what I've "been through". But I don't admit why I don't race anymore. I'm embarrassed. I'm not proud.

So, here's the thing... if I'm going to be a Gutsy Girl, if I'm going to talk about overcoming adversity, if I'm going to be a role model and an example of the kind of confident,
risk-taking, balanced, healthy person I want be...then I'm going to have to listen to my own advice. Fear is real. I acknowledge the fear I have. But I'm not one who wants to live with regret or hold back from trying new, amazing adventures because of my fear. To me, it's not a reason, nor an excuse. Fear can be extremely immobilizing, and I don't want that for myself. So... I've officially added the Vineman Triathlon to my "Can Do" Adventure list. I've taken steps to purchase a road bike from a friend and the next time my triathlete friends ask me to come out on a ride...I'll be ready. A little hesitant maybe. But READY!

Adversity comes in many forms. Physical, mental, situational. We will ALL experience adversity at some point in our lives and we will ALL have a choice in how we deal with it.

Here's a story that demonstrates an inspiring choice:

In 2006, Andrew Donnellan, a sixteen-year old elite gymnast walked out onto the floor and performed a routine, basic, single front flip. It was a move he'd done thousands of times. But that particular day, he over rotated the flip and fell to his head on the floor. In that single moment, he fractured two vertebrae and damaged his spinal chord. That single moment would paralyze Andrew. For three months, Andrew would rehabilitate at the world-renowned Craig Hospital in Colorado. When he entered Craig, the only thing he could do independently was breathe. He couldn't feed himself, he had to blow into a straw to move his wheelchair. But Andrew is a fighter and knew that self-pity would set him back from the possibilities of recovery and the things he wanted for himself...despite the hurdles he'd face. By the time Andrew left Craig Hospital, he had gained some muscle movement in his right bicep. And from there, the triumphs would continue. He graduated with his high school class. He was accepted at the University of Arizona and lives on campus. He can sit upright in his wheelchair, unassisted. He plays on the wheelchair basketball team. He's taking driving lessons. He wants to be a film producer and travel. He is amazing and I'm proud to know him. He inspires me and reminds me of the power of perseverance and strong will. True, adversity is relative. But WOW...puts things in perspective, doesn't it?

For more on Andrew's story:


  1. Wonderful post Erika. I love your posts and your focus on overcoming challenges and true adversity. The fact that you are inspiring your athletes just by doing it, in addition to what you put in writing, shows that you are giving back by example. Keep it up.

  2. very nice piece and very thought provoking. I have never had as many "guts" as you do but since starting Crossfit I have done things that 2 years ago I would have told you were insane. Good luck with your triathlon training. Somehow I am convinced that you will do it though!!