The gun went off signifying the start of the five-mile road race and for a moment, I could not move. A pain in my back, more devastating than anything I had ever felt, held me back. I pushed past it, wrote it off. As a world-class triathlete with a slot to the 2016 Age-Group World Triathlon Championships in Cozumel, Mexico, I was used to pain. Nothing was going to stop me.
Everyone shot past me, including my UVM sweetheart and husband, Peter Newman (V’85); my body wasn’t cooperating. Still quitting wasn’t an option. Once when a swim buoy came loose in a triathlon, I pursued it, determined to get around it. It sailed away, taking us into treacherous ocean waters, well beyond the intended mile swim, but stopping never crossed my mind. Eventually the race officials caught us and told us to turn back. Today would be no different. I would finish no matter what. My pace slowed, and eventually I could only walk; each step forward was excruciatingly painful. Inside the tears and sorrow welled, but on the outside, I put happy face, waving and telling everyone that I was fine, even though I was shockingly shuffling. I’d many years of practice pretending one thing, while feeling entirely different on the inside.
The skill of hiding my feelings and morphing into someone I thought others wanted me to be, began in elementary school. And I got in better in middle school when the real teasing and bullying began. I gathered multiple masks, wearing them daily; anything to fit in, be loved, feel worthy. The negative words hurled at me, coupled with dyslexia and a heightened sensitivity to the judgment of others, tortured me. In time, I didn’t need anyone else to bully me; the task-master in my own head took over, pummeling my self-worth stealing hopes and dreams.
In high school, I nearly died of anorexia. A miracle saved me and I was free from the demon for a while. But unfortunately, the tentacles of the disease still clung to me, and at UVM, my beloved school, I became bulimic.
I hungered to learn every detail of nutrition and I did, earning a B.S. in Dietetics, and a masters degree in Clinical Nutrition. I passed my boards with flying colors, became a Registered Dietitian, and helped hundreds with their own eating disorder issues. But all the while, for twenty-five years or more, I suffered in silence, cloaked in shame, with my own bulimic demon. My secret flourished in the darkness, ruining my life. I believed the big lie that if I dared to be vulnerable and expose it all, that I would lose everything; my job, my husband, my children, my life. I couldn’t have been more deceived. It was a diagnosis of advanced breast cancer, at age 46, that pushed me over the ledge and gave me the courage to begin the long walk out of the dark abyss; to come clean, and be healed. Facing death, years of chemo, radiation and multiple surgeries, helped me open myself to love, to throw off the shackles of shame and realize what a blessing life is, how magnificent our bodies are, how vital we all are to this world.
While walking the final miles of the race, the heat was penetrating my skin. The water stands had been taken away and no other athletes were left on the course. No officials or friends had stayed. I’d told them to leave because the thought of burdening someone, even my husband, was still too great. Now I worried that I might collapse on the deserted country road. I lifted up a desperate prayer to God. The stored up tears burst forth. No longer could I hide the pain, the fear, the wonder. Why was this happening? I’d finally found my calling after nearly fifty years. Just days before I’d stood in a packed room as the first-ever non-famous person invited to speak at this prestigious luncheon. The standing ovation went on for minutes. My book “Just Three Words”—the story I never planned to tell—had recently been published and was healing and inspiring thousands.
Why now? Why this?
As I hobbled, I felt defeated. Three and a half years of my life had been devoted to the book. I’d sacrificed everything, my family, friends, training, “me time”. And now my dreams were being realized. Nothing made sense.
Another shooting pain nearly brought me to my knees. As I cringed, I heard a whisper from God, telling me not to lose hope, that I had the heart of champion. It gave me the strength to make it to the finish line, where I collapsed. My husband took me straight to the Emergency Room.
It was there, on Mother’s Day Weekend, that I was told that the cancer had come back in the bones of my pelvis and spine, stage 4 metastatic. I didn’t cry then. It wasn’t until I left the hospital that I wailed, not for me, but for my children. The thought of them having to tell them, having them go through this again was gutting.
Two days later, I gathered our boys in my arms and told them and then I told the world. No more hiding, no more shame, no more lies. And from that place of freedom, love poured in, giving me strength and courage to carry on. The response is helping me see the blessings and miracles all around. And I now have a deep, rising knowledge that God will work even this, for my good.
After weeks of rest and radiation, today I am out swimming and biking again. My whirlwind book and speaking tour continues, as does my dream of donning my Team USA uniform and competing in Cozumel this September. I’m not running yet, but I will. Nothing is impossible.
Are you facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge?
If you are, do not give up. Take one small step forward. And then another, and another.
The words you speak and believe are powerful. Don’t believe the negative ones. Instead conciously cling to those that bring life.
Dare to courageously believe that the best is yet to come.
You matter; your unique gifts are vital.
Time is short. The world is waiting.
Just Three Words:
Go for it.