On July 24, I crossed the finish line of my first triathlon, arms held high. I’m incredibly proud of this sentence alone. This is a feat that I had never dreamed of attempting until a few years ago. And the circumstances that brought me to that finish line make it even more special.
I can clearly remember the physical exhaustion and hopelessness I felt during much of 2019. I was inching my way through treatment for stage 3B triple negative breast cancer. Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation were a triple whammy to my body and mind–I experienced frequent fatigue and I struggled to take even short walks. I felt I had lost ownership of my own body, as treatment and recovery imposed many restrictions on what I was able or allowed to do. At age 32, I was devastated to trade in an active lifestyle for countless hours at hospitals and on the couch.
With time on my hands when I’d otherwise be outside playing Ultimate or going for bike rides, I found myself scouring the internet for glimmers of hope. What could I do when this was all over to reclaim my body, my mind and my life? I didn’t want to be trapped in this dark place for a second too long.
That’s when I came across Team Phoenix, a triathlon training program for female cancer survivors. The program runs in the Milwaukee area starting in the spring, culminating with a sprint distance triathlon (400 yard swim, 15 mile bike and 5K run) in July. It includes training with professional coaches, medical staff, volunteer alumnae support and built-in inspiration from a cohort of fellow survivors sharing the experience. Reading the description and browsing through photos of previous years’ athletes, I knew I had to do it.
I had originally hoped to train with Team Phoenix soon after I was cleared for physical activity from my final surgery… which was in February 2020, just before the world shut down. Needless to say, the in-person Team Phoenix training and triathlon participation took a two-year hiatus. When a call went out on the email list to register for the return 2022 season, I jumped at the opportunity. After two years of recovery post-treatment, I was itching to rebuild and reclaim what cancer took away.
Team Phoenix encourages all athletes to show up as we are. There are no expectations to be a certain shape, size or fitness level. As we were told many times, the only qualification was one that no one would wish for but that we’d all been through: a cancer diagnosis–any type, any stage, and at any phase of treatment or survivorship. In our first orientation meeting, the few dozen athletes gathered around to get our first glimpse into the program and what the upcoming 12 weeks of training would entail. A bit of nervous laughter gave way to hugs and the promise of new friendships forming. Looking ahead, we’d be sharing many hours in the pool, in lakes and on the trail in no time.
From the first practice, it was clear to me that Team Phoenix would be a life-changing experience. The coaches poured their hearts into each session, truly showing up for us and helping each individual make it to the finish line. Whether a Team Phoenix athlete had never swam before, didn’t own a bike or felt winded after a short walk–or whether they were already comfortable with some level of training–the coaches helped us gradually improve over the course of the training program, showering us with encouragement.
And all along, Team Phoenix athletes truly went from strangers in the “cancer club” to a close-knit team. We got together to train on the weekends, cranking out miles on the bike trail and discovering some of the area’s best outdoor swimming spots. We learned to use our equipment and determined which apparel would work best for each of our bodies–scars, surgeries, radiation damage and all. We reminded each other that we’re strong, and our bodies can take on incredible challenges. Despite the triathlon being an individual competition, training and bonding together in Team Phoenix was the ultimate reminder that we are not alone.
Even amid all the support and encouragement from coaches, the medical team, program director and volunteers, there was no shortage of intense and emotional moments among the Team Phoenix athletes. We each challenged ourselves physically, striving to reach new distances week by week. We took a hard look at our comfort zones and gradually pushed them to new levels. We opened up to each other about how cancer changed us–our new bodies, our identities as survivors and our perspectives on the world around us. Tears were certainly shed as a result of this incredible bonding and growth we experienced together and as individuals.
Twelve weeks of training flew by, and just like that, it was race day. A few minutes after 5:00 am on July 24, we gathered at Ottawa Lake Park in the Kettle Moraine State Forest. We stood on the lake’s sandy shore to watch an amber sunrise glow through the thin layer of clouds. That day, we pushed past fear and trusted our training. There were plenty of nerves as we waited for our starting call, but we had each put in the work and could see it through to the end. Each one of our 30 athletes successfully swam, biked and ran their way to Team Phoenix triathlete status.
We each have so many special moments to remember from triathlon day: the cheers from family, friends, each other and even complete strangers. The rush of water on our skin as we plunged into Ottawa Lake. The breeze on our face as we soared along the rolling hills of the Kettle Moraine. The solid ground beneath our feet as we followed the running trail all the way through to the finish line. And beyond the pure pride in this athletic achievement, this program serves as a reminder to ourselves and to all cancer survivors that it is possible to reclaim your body from cancer. As we say in the Team Phoenix cheer, “We are strong, proud, alive and redefined!”