In the July/August 2015 Issue of Endurance Racing Magazine, we interviewed Robyn Bennincasa and her organization, Project Athena.
An Amazon Heart: Love Beyond Winning
By Chelsea H. Bryan
“I’ve been an athlete since I was a kid: gymnastics 4 hrs a night/6 days a week, track, diving, cross country in high school. Then diving at ASU, followed by triathlons when my new sales job brought me to Ironman mecca, encinitas, ca. I did my first Ironman at 23, then completed 7 Ironman distance races and 3 Konas by the time I was 28 or so. Then the bug hit me to try to go even longer, as that seemed to be my strength. When I read about Adventure Racing in Runners World, I knew that it was the sport I was meant to do with my not small body and my lifetime of multisport training. Not to mention the desire to be part of a world class team. I tried out for the female spot on Mark Burnett’s racing team in 1994, and then ended up on an all-female team racing against him in the Raid Gauloises in Borneo. The rest is history, 40+ expedition races later, with the best teams in the world.” —Robyn Benincasa
When Robyn Benincasa came to the end of her career as a top-ranking world adventure racer, she thought she’d give paddling a whack. “I knew I was okay, but I didn’t know that I really had a talent for it.” That talent surfaced in her first race, a 460-mile paddle from White Horse in Yukon, Canada, in which she placed third as a solo paddler and eighth out of the total 110 boats in the race.
Hidden talent soon became record-breaking talent. A year later on the Missouri River, she went 330 miles and set the course record. The world record for flat water in October 2010 took the stakes to Guinness World Record–level, and she didn’t stop at one. She took the world moving water record in June 2011.
“I raced with Robyn on Team Merrell from 2008 to 2012. Most notably, she was the team captain and the ‘glue’ for the team. We competed at the World Championship in Brazil in 2008 and finished 2nd at Primal Quest Montana in 2008, which was the biggest race in North America at the time. … Robyn is one of the most experienced athletes (male or female) when it comes to adventure sports. She has won big races, including the Eco Challenge, and she’s a compelling and inspirational leader.” —Travis Macy, Benincasa’s former teammate
“Now I’m going for open water,” says Benincasa.
The tour de force Amazon in the water started as a world-class adventure racer who completed over 40 expedition races in 16 years, one of the few who swam in class three and four whitewater rapids back when the sport was less-regulated; a woman whose lowest lows and highest highs were spent scrambling over hills cold and wet in the middle of the night, and getting through physical, emotional, spiritual and mental trials with the selfless aid of teammates. “When you’ve been really successful at a point, it’s hard to be out of the top five,” says Benincasa. Of course she and teammates were still holding spots in the top five, a testament to her drive, athleticism, and—as Benincasa emphasizes—teamwork.
Benincasa was also plagued by a different obstacle than her usual challenges of traversing staggering distances and rugged terrain at breakneck speed with few resources and almost no sleep: she was facing her first hip replacement.
“So I started doing what I normally do, which is put some stuff on the calendar so I have something in my future to keep me from falling into deep depression … to keep your spirits up and keep yourself focused.”
Benincasa noticed that her friend, Louise, was keeping herself centered in much the same way—by creating a horizon to journey forward to. “My friend Louise was going through chemo … she was this little bald girl, but she was always like, ‘Well, I have to be ready, I’m climbing Kilimanjaro, I’m climbing Denali.’ She said breast cancer gave her that drive even more.”
“I have known Robyn for many years. I met her at the first Eco Challenge in 1995. She was amazing and hard-core then and she is still amazing and hard-core now. Hard-core meaning ‘strong, fit and beautiful’ on the inside and outside.” —Former teammate Lisa Smith Batchen
Louise’s cancer and Benincasa’s hip inspired a brilliant idea: Benincasa would help other people in the same way she and Louise were helping themselves stay positive. In a phrase, they would, as Benincasa now so often says, “Inspire other people to amaze and inspire themselves.”
That dream materialized in Project Athena, a nonprofit that takes survivors of disease and injury, true overcomers and survivors, and sends them on expeditions to fulfill long-held dream accomplishments. For those who don’t have a specific dream race or location, Athena sends them on group endurance expeditions. “Gods and goddesses” are Project Athena fundraisers who race alongside survivors, the very people for whom they are raising research and cure funds. Someone raising money for cancer research and participating as a goddess may paddle along with a Leukemia survivor. It’s the ultimate motivation to give of all your resources to help another—and redefines the word “team.”
“Everyone is equal in that there’s the same result, you’re watching people have those moments … that sense you can do anything, with the right team,” she said.
MY LIFE NOW:
“I train alone a lot these days due to my crazy schedule.
After having 4 hip replacements in 4 years, from 2007-2011 I turned into more of an ultra paddler and ultra cyclist than a runner. I have a dry land kayak trainer on the apparatus floor at my fire station, and I train on it all afternoon between calls. I have two of the 4 Guinness world records for longest distanced paddled in 24 hours by a female (flat water and moving water) and I’m going to go for the open water record this spring.
In my spare time, I have a corporate team building business that does 40-60 keynotes/year for fortune 1000 companies and run the Project Athena Foundation between shifts at the fire station on my all chick crew.
In my life, there is never dull moment. I have a boyfriend of 14 years whom I met in the fire academy and we do everything together. He even comes with me on the road. We see our house 2-3 days a month, so no kids, just a hibernating desert tortoise.”
And Benincasa knows about teams. In describing some of her best experiences, she says, “It has to be a team where everyone cares about the others as much as themselves. These moments where it’s just literally one heart and one mind—sharing everything, your food, your heart … my most memorable [times] are really the ones where you’re crying and someone says just the right thing. I don’t think any other sport has that—where you’re together, that in-depth and that much on the razor’s edge.”
The weight of Benincasa’s times of total exhaustion in the competition utterly pale in comparison to the joys of team unity those trials brought. It seems to have taught her a lot. “You can’t be at the top of your game as an athlete forever and I think you have to get to that point where you have to give back.” That, she says, is the reason she started Project Athena and what keeps her going during competition.
“We provide coaching, entry fees, world class teammates, travel, gear–everything they need to make that transition from Surivor to Athlete!” —Robin Benincasa
ALLI MORGAN, AN ATHENA IN HER OWN RIGHT
The first time her doctors mentioned the word “amputation” to 20-year-old Alli Morgan, she was in the hospital for a skin graft—one of many she’d had over the previous five years since tearing her ACL in a field hockey game in her sophomore year of high school.
At first, in the months following her ACL surgery in October of 2005, everything had seemed fine—Alli had undergone the operation the common injury requires, and it seemed life would go on normally. But then Morgan was suddenly unable to progress in physical therapy due to intense pain. Months later, she found out that the screws holding her reconstructed ligament in place had migrated into the joint space, and that her ACL was too long. She underwent a second surgery to replace the ACL, but a Staph infection set in post-surgery and, as Morgan says, “This was the point at which my life really began to revolve around my medical care.”
The incision that had reopened with the Staph infection refused to close, and Morgan became septic on many occasions. “I was constantly in and out of the operating room for wound debridements, skin grafts, and other orthopedic procedures. A significant portion of my high school years were spent in the hospital,” says Morgan. Doctors had mentioned amputation before, but always as a worst-case scenario—never as a real possibility of recovery.
Though Morgan had had many skin grafts, none had taken; and while in the hospital for yet another, her doctor looked at the skin above her 61-square-inch wound and told her that they were going to take some skin from the thigh above it because they had run out of skin on her left leg. They mentioned that they didn’t want to take too much, though, in case she ever had an amputation. Morgan began contemplating the word less as horror and more as possibility.
“[The word amputation] had such power at the beginning, but now I throw it out there and it’s no big deal. It was always that distant threat, I never thought it would be a solution,” Morgan says. “By the time I turned 20, I had been on crutches for five years, had undergone 40 surgeries, and although I had proved to myself that I could handle the mental and physical demands that came with my condition, I realized that it was time to take control over my life. I recognized that I had found a powerful sense of hope and faith through the adversity I faced, and it was through that hope for the future that I knew that ‘getting my life back’ involved having my leg amputated.”
Morgan had heard about Project Athena in 2009 and applied for an Athenaship. She got it, and was sent a bike in 2010. However, she was unable to participate at the time, as her health only deteriorated. Seven years and 46 surgeries later, she had gotten rid of everything holding her back and became a Florida Keys Athena, cycling 129 miles from Key Largo to Key West with three other Athenas.
“My leg was dead weight. Dead weight that needed daily dressing changes, pain medication, blood transfusions, and surgeries to keep from wreaking havoc with the rest of my body. Once I began to research the idea of amputation, the thought became liberating. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the thought of losing my leg gave me hope for my future. … I called Robyn and I said, ‘I’m getting rid of it.’”
The amputation was finalized in October of 2011, and, like Benincasa, Morgan referred to her final surgery as a beacon of hope: “It was very powerful that I was making this decision. I was putting a date on the calendar … it was the first time I felt I had control.”
Over a year later, Morgan has gotten her life back and more. In the first week of March, she became the first United States Female Adaptive Skeleton athlete and first Female Adaptive Bobsled Brakeman. She is training for the Paralympic 2018 bobsled races, skiing on an adaptive biathlon team, and doing road and mountain biking while training for her first century ride in May. She plays sled hockey recreationally, and also climbs at a gym to keep her leg in shape.
Like Benincasa, Morgan used her deep desire to use her body fully to motivate her through her medical journey. During long hospital stays, she dreamed of being outside; she watched the Tour de France and Kona Ironman on TV as forms of therapy: “As reminders that I would be able to reclaim my body and mind.”
The deepest part of the Athena experience for Morgan is the community of athletes’ recognition that not only the body is reclaimed, but the whole person.
“You lose a sense of your personhood. But this was a chance to reclaim that … These people got it, they get that you don’t just fix the body, you fix the soul. Project Athena really stood for that and it was through athletics, which is even better. You need your team with you … such an inspirational group of people all at once who understand that.
“I dream about being able to make a difference in the ways that so many others have helped me. I dream of being able to share my experience and how it has rekindled my hope with those who may need it. The Project Athena Foundation is about reclaiming your sense of self through the support of a team of people who understand your pain, your passion, your perseverance to keep pushing.”
To learn more about Project Athena and to get involved, go to http://www.projectathena.org/.