One day a few months ago- Julie was reading a magazine and came across an organization called Project Athena. We did some research and were excited enough to ask them to be part of our Women’s Week. But we weren’t sure how to get a hold of them. The only way to contact them was through an email address, and we have been doing this long enough now to know that contacting someone that way is usually a long road to nowhere. But not knowing what else to do- I sent my pitch via email and figured we’d never hear from them again. I was shocked when literally 3 minutes later our phone rang- and on the other end of the line was Robyn Benincasa Project Athena’s creator and founder.
She apologized for being a little out of breath. She said she was hiking! In the mountains! And checking her blackberry!. Immediately I was intrigued. Speaking with her for a few moments only deepened my awe. I wanted to interview her for our blog so that everyone could hear from this amazing, warm, funny and inspiring woman,
She took time out of her insanely busy schedule to do a phone interview with me.
Below is the transcript of that conversation.
Jessica: First off, thank you for taking the time to speak with me .I know that you are crazy busy.
Robyn: (laughs) All true.
Jessica: Please tell me a little bit about who you are, your background, and what inspired you to create Project Athena?
Robyn: Ok, well, oh gosh, where do we start? Well why don’t we start with my athletic background? I was an athlete in high school ,a diver in college- graduated in marketing etc. etc. Tried to do the corporate gig and ah, discovered that I was allergic to panty hose and suits. (Laughs)
I did for it for 6 or 7 years and went on to do 6 ironman triathlons during the suits and panty hose days. I had read about adventure racing in Runner’s World, and I remember the moment that I actually read about it, and went, ‘This is the sport that I was meant to do’.
And since then I have pursued my dream of becoming a fire fighter- which I am now for the city of San Diego- been there 11 years. And for the last 15 years I’ve been a semi- professional Adventure Racer. Which means that we do it a lot, but make no money. (Laughs)
It’s just not a sport where anybody makes any money-I mean, ultra- endurance events are more for your soul than they are for your wallet.
But that’s what I’ve been doing the last 15 years all The Eco Challenge races, The Primal Quest, The Raid Gauloises-these 6- 10 day long non-stop ultra- endurance multi -sport races where you’re with a team of 4 people, they drop you in the middle of nowhere (Fiji, Nepal, Tibet, Japan)- I mean you name it, we’ve been there...And they hand [you] your maps and compasses, and you have your boxes pre- filled with some food you see 2 or 3 times, and some extra clothes and equipment- and basically once they say ‘Go’, you are on your own for literally 6-10 days non-stop. Just you and your 3 teammates doing whatever it takes to get to the finish line. And whoever gets there first wins.
And they are the craziest most remote places on earth, so it’s really a pretty epic journey and the ultimate in … synergy, and team work and ah- suffering (laughs)
Jessica: um yeah (laughs)
Robyn: (laughs) And I suppose what led me to creating Project Athena was that I had been doing that for about 15 years, and suddenly discovered in the middle of the World Championships in 2007 in Scotland -that kind of a nagging hip flexor pain that I had had -suddenly -it kind of forced my leg to stop working. Literally. Climbing the highest mountain in the race. And I had to spend the whole last 2 days of the race literally moving my own leg forward with my hand (laughs) to make it move.
Jessica: Oh my God!
Robyn: And when I came home I thought I had a pulled hip flexor or something like that, and I realized I had stage 4 osteoarthritis. In both hips. I mean, I’d never even been to the doctor at all about it, and suddenly he was telling me, ‘Hey guess, what? You’re probably never gonna run again. And you literally are bone on bone on your right side, and very very close to it on your left’ …Which explained a lot. But um, (laughs) it didn’t make me too happy.
‘Cause, suddenly there I was this pretty healthy person who’s been athletic at a pretty high level my whole life- to suddenly being someone who’s never gonna run again. And it was just kind of a slam it terms of the news. My whole life literally changed in about 30 seconds- which happens to most people who have some kind of medical setback.
Like suddenly you’re this healthy person and then the doctor’s telling you that you have cancer. Or you have a brain tumor. Or you’re in a car accident where you nearly die, and that’s how life kind of twitches on you. … You’re climbing all these ladders and suddenly your life has this big, huge, long chute. ( laughs) And you’re back to the beginning if not worse.
And it was kind of in that process of me thinking through, ‘Ok well who am I now that I may not be a professional adventure racer?...Hopefully I can still be a firefighter’ – and just me thinking through that process of how do I make it back to me? To who I was. Or maybe not so far back, but just, you know, just to be who I am- you know an outdoor athlete and a fire fighter. And kind of the journey to get back to that after having hip resurfacing surgery ( first on my right and two years later on my left).
It was kind of in that process that I thought, ‘You know what? It’s time for me- maybe you know when the universe closes a door it opens a window, and my window here is to help other women through this process- you know to help them see a future, and see the light, and see themselves again’ And to kind of shed that survivor label and say, ‘I want to be the girl I was- I want to be the person I was in spirit…before this all happened..’
And so much of that , in my opinion, happens through surprising and impressing ourselves through sports.
So my buddies and I, all of whom are survivors themselves, which was another irony that my best friends have all survived either breast cancer- or my other buddy, Florence ,is a two time cancer survivor. Melissa has rheumatoid arthritis – and we sort of put together a team called Team Project Athena. First of all to show other women what’s possible after these kind of medical setbacks- that it’s not over. It’s different, but it’s not over. You know? And you can still feel proud of yourself, and you can still have a positive spirit, and you can still – you know- be sort of the girl you were before this all happened.
And we wanted to show other women that despite these setbacks, there’s still much more than a survivor left inside of you. And that became- you know not only did we start out own racing team to show that- but the other half of Project Athena is to take other women under our wing, which we were all sort of doing anyway- and help them get their groove back. We all had the wherewithal as athletes to get our own groove back, but there’s so many woman out there who were struck with something. And after people stop, you know, bringing you roasts and helping you with your health work- and all that. Once you’ve gone through something bad- your whole family gathers around and rallies and helps you through something. But then once you’ve survived you’re sort of alone. And that’s where we come in. We take survivors and help them live their athletic dream as part of their recovery.
Jessica: It’s interesting to hear that you felt this experience was an opportunity for you to help other people. I am not sure everyone would have gone there. How did you get there?
Robyn: I don’t know - it seemed so powerful to me that I had my girlfriends - all of whom have had worse medical setbacks than I. The fact that, you know, Melissa for example, she’s the engineer that drives our fire engine – she’s on our racing team - she has rheumatoid arthritis – and it was just so neat to have her there…, ‘cause I couldn’t run for a long, long, long time after both of my surgeries. And she would just go, ‘So what?..So what? Let’s walk. Who cares?’ You know? And that was a big deal to me -who’s like “Oh my God, I can’t run.” It just became a walk. And it was OK. You know? At least we were out there. And that’s kind of what we want other people to see. It really led me to say … so many people go, ‘Well I’m not a runner, I’m not an athlete- I’m not…“ But there’s that person inside all of us, at whatever level you want to do it. It’s just the act of being out there and doing it …Being out there with your girls and having that support, and that’s what we wanted to provide.
For more information please visit ProjectAthena.org