A half-mile swim, 12-mile bike and 3.1 mile run. In cities across the country, thousands of women do it every year. But for the 26 women of Team Phoenix, it’s more than just a race. It’s a journey. A journey of hope, healing and inspiration. For each of these courageous women are not only taking on a triathlon, they are doing it after battling breast cancer. Some had finished treatment just weeks before training began back in May, while for others it had been as many as nine years as a survivor. Their reasons for joining Team Phoenix are as individual as they are. But they all share one goal … to cross that finish line.
I had the privilege to meet Team Phoenix a couple weeks ago during the pre-race day activities of the Iron Girl Triathlon in Pleasant Prairie, WI. After talking to just a few of them, what I knew in my head was soon felt in my heart. Before they would even set foot in the water, these women were winners. Cancer did not defeat them and it would not define them.
Team Phoenix formed in 2011 – the creation of Dr. Judy Tjoe, a breast cancer surgeon at Aurora Health Center in the Milwaukee area and an Ironman finisher. She stresses to her patients the importance of regaining fitness after breast cancer treatments. But unlike the clear regimen they experienced during treatments, they don’t have one to follow afterward.
“We guide her telling her everything that’s going to happen when. Then she finishes all the treatments. She’s feeling weak, emotions are spent. She’s told she needs to stay healthy and exercise. But we don’t have the same type of regimen for that. They need to find their way on their own.”
No surprise it was actually Dr. Tjoe’s Ironman training that sparked the idea of creating an exercise program for these women, with the end goal to complete a triathlon. But she felt to do it right, it required not only the bikes, swimsuits and running shoes. It also needed the medical back up. So Team Phoenix’s training is conducted by a full team of professional coaches, therapists, other medical staff, even some Team Phoenix Alumni – all volunteers – with Dr. Tjoe leading the charge. The first team had 13 members and has since doubled in size.
Why did these women join Team Phoenix? For some, it was a checkmark for their bucket list. For some, a way to embrace life or at least take control of it again. Many were looking for the motivation to exercise and be as active as they were pre-diagnosis. Before Michelle’s diagnosis, she was very athletic, running 5-10 miles. But like so many have said, the treatments zap all of your energy. She remembers the first time back out there. “I was dressed, all ready to go. I made it a quarter of a mile. That’s all I had. I was in tears.” Still others were simply inspired by the courage of their fellow cancer survivors. Cory recalls, “I never thought of myself being able to do anything like this. But after hearing the stories and what they’ve been through. The guts these women have is so impressive. If they can do it, I can do it.”
This year’s team also included a pair of sisters, Mary and Kathryn, who were diagnosed with breast cancer just months apart. There was a bit of arm twisting that went on between them for one to get the other to commit. (No surprise for anyone who has a sister!) But both agree this whole experience has made them stronger.
Mary adds, “Team Phoenix has made me proud of my battle scars. Proud of how far I have come. The coaches made me see what was hiding inside.”
Whatever their reason for joining, this special group of women, who range in age from 37 to 64, agree being a part of Team Phoenix has given them so much more beyond training for a triathlon. It’s the camaraderie and simply each other that have motivated them, inspired them and forever connected them. As proud as they are of their own accomplishments, they are even more proud of each other’s. And their courage is contagious. They’re confident, empowered and realize they are more determined than they ever gave themselves credit for. But they also send a huge thank you to the coaches and the rest of the volunteers who have helped them get there. For Lynn, being a part of Team Phoenix has given her the experience of a lifetime. “You have turned a negative into a positive – new friends, new abilities, confidence, laughter and smiles. Thank you!”
And once they found out I worked for Lands’ End, they were thanking me too. For the past two years, Lands’ End has provided swimsuits for Team Phoenix. With different types of treatments, the women had different needs, including some who needed mastectomy suits. Dr. Tjoe was thrilled to have Lands’ End’s support. “Allowing these women to feel confident in a swimsuit is one more step toward feeling normalcy. The swimsuits solve the challenges and the quality is amazing.” And the women echoed the same sentiments.
“I didn’t even know how to swim when I started training, so finding a suit was scary for me. Thank you for helping me feel confident and offering me a swimsuit that didn’t draw attention to my chest, but rather made everything look natural,” touts Kay.
Sunday, August 11th. Race day has finally arrived. Team Phoenix joined over 1000 women, including myself as well as several past Team Phoenix members, as participants in the Iron Girl Triathlon. After 14 weeks of training, it was time to put it all together, and to reflect on how far each has come in such a short time. Running, biking, swimming, training 5-6 days a week. That’s a tough schedule for anyone. For some, the training posed an even bigger challenge, like for Mary Ann, who didn’t even know how to swim before this. It wasn’t until about a month into the training when she recalls her “ah ha” moment. Getting across the pool and being able to do laps she realized, “I think I can actually do this.” She wasn’t the only one who couldn’t swim. There were others who had never biked and those who couldn’t run from here to there. But the coaches and volunteers were as determined as they were and put their heart and soul into preparing every member for the event.
Team Phoenix led the first wave. And as each woman swam across the lake, Coach Leslie (the team’s chief physical therapist) was there to greet her coming out of the water. And at the start of the bike route and along the run, it was hard not to notice the sea of purple supporters (one of the team’s colors) and hear the whistles and cheers as each went by. During the race, I encountered some of the women along the way. Even during the rigors of the race, they were smiling, cheering for each other and taking it all in.
Near the finish line, Dr. Tjoe was waiting, sending a little extra boost for that final stretch. One by one, they crossed the finish line. Arms raised high in the air with an “I did it!” attitude. After I completed the race, I waited at the finish to cheer on those still coming in, especially the women of Team Phoenix. There were hugs, smiles, even some tears as Coach Leslie congratulated each and every one, accompanied by a family member or friend who had the honor of placing the medal around their loved one’s neck.
Perhaps no one heard more cheering at the finish line than Jacqi, who happened to be the very last finisher of the race. She confides the whole thing was a struggle due to her many health issues and was often tempted to quit. She herself is a health care provider and knows the value of exercise, but admits it is difficult to practice what one preaches. What kept her going? “Having the support of Team Phoenix helped me to achieve a level of wellness that I would not have previously thought possible.” She may have been last but she finished, and with a smile on her face.
“Do you know what they call the person who finished the triathlon last? A triathlete.”
So what’s next? “To cross that finish line is like a start of their new life, a new journey,” says Coach Kim. Cancer is not a choice but how women live in survivorship is a choice. They’re energized and plan to continue being active. While many do not forsee another triathlon in their future, several are now hooked on biking. And Beth, a two-time cancer survivor, and Cory both plan to pay it forward and help future members in some capacity.
As a physical therapist at Aurora Health Care, Coach Leslie has walked through the cancer journey with many of these women. She believes curing their cancer is not successful treatment anymore. Exercise and rehab is also critical. Today these women are doing more than they did just a few months ago. It is truly amazing to go from not exercising, and some just in a hospital bed to doing a triathlon.
“We have women who have crossed the finish line who aren’t supposed to be alive. But they’re still here. We can remove the cancer. We can rehabilitate you back to who you were. But cancer takes something away that we in health care can’t bring back. And this is what does that. It gives you your mojo back. And there’s something about challenging yourself beyond a point where you think you can. That’s Team Phoenix.”
We are STRONG. We are PROUD.
We are ALIVE. We are REDEFINED!
WE ARE TEAM PHOENIX!
A special thanks to Erin, a 2012 member of Team Phoenix, for helping bring Team Phoenix and Lands’ End together. And thank you to all the team members and staff for sharing your stories with me. Maybe we will meet again at Iron Girl 2014.
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