From Tragedy to Transformation

Why do tragedies disrupt our lives? Why do unforeseen hardships rock our worlds? Why do catastrophes shake us to the core of our beings? The only certainty in life, it seems, is that there is uncertainty in life, and that unfortunate events befall us all. It’s how we deal with them that determines the course and character of our lives.

Thirty-one years ago I lost my baby sister, Cindy, to meningitis. It's a story I rarely talk about. It feels strange to even mention it. I'm doing it for one reason: to share something that shaped me into the person I am today.

When I was nine and Cindy was four months old, I came home from school one day and checked in on her, which was my custom. But that day, she looked different — like she was sleeping and only slightly moving. When I got my mother and told her Cindy was ready to be fed, my sister didn’t respond. So my parents rushed her to the clinic down the street while my neighbor stayed with me.

My mother and dad later returned home and when I asked where Cindy was, they simply gave me a blank look, obviously still in shock. I knew immediately Cindy was gone.

I watched my parents suffer for a long time in trying to make peace with the tragedy while trying to raise my two other little sisters and little brother. They did a beautiful job of comforting us and raising us. But to say it shattered my safe, little childhood happy place is an understatement.

We didn’t find out that Cindy had meningitis until later. Of course, early detection methods today are much more proactive and dependable, but back then they weren’t. To me, I couldn’t trust doctors anymore because they didn’t even detect her sickness. I couldn’t even trust God because He took my four-month-old sister away, this sweet, innocent, little baby. I had a hard time reconciling how cruel and evil this world could be.

A part of me was left frightened and lost. Scared to live. Seemingly hurt beyond repair. This led to years of anxiety and being afraid to put myself out there. If Cindy could be taken that quickly, then why couldn't I?

So I lived with that fear well into my 30s. Nothing helped. I was afraid to do anything. My greatest fear was living because I was afraid of dying. I stayed in my safe, little world, living with anxiety and depression for a very long time. I was diagnosed with panic disorder. It was a very scary life.

Little did I know that it would be running that would change my life,

Though I had been involved in weight training in my mid-twenties, it wasn’t until after my second child that I started running — to lose some baby weight that couldn’t be shed any other way. Up to that point, I hated running. It was so hard.

I was still afraid, though. Afraid to push too hard or go too far. During my first half-marathon, I texted my husband, Keith, in the middle telling him how scared I was to run. What if my heart stopped? What if I can't do it? I had so much irrational fear in my head. How could I ever go 13.1 miles?

But I did! Only because of others believing in me and helping me learn to find that strength I had all along. It was the little things that helped me out of my bubble and showed me that I wasn’t a victim. And that I wasn’t going to die doing this.

It wasn’t long until I entered a sprint triathlon with a friend. And then a half-Ironman. And then I became an IRONMAN. In fact, I’ve completed six IRONMAN competitions, seven half-Ironmans, and two 100-mile races. Overall: more than 100 races of different types and distances. And last year I even started coaching.

Now people tell me how crazy I am for running ultras or doing multiple Ironmans. "I could never do that." "It's too dangerous." "You could die running." "What's the point?" "I don't even like going that far in my car!"

Do you know why they’ve all been worth it? They've gotten me out to live my life. To meet inspiring people. To travel. To push my limits. To start a dream career of coaching others. To become a race director. To inspire my children. To watch others cross their first finish line and overcome their own fears.

Even now, as I’m facing one of the greatest challenge of my professional life—raising $40,000 for Women for Tri and being a representative for them at this year’s IRONMAN World Championship in Kona (October 8) — I have no doubt that I can better face it because of what I’ve had to overcome. You can check out how I’m doing in my fundraising efforts by clicking on this link. The deadline for my fundraising goal is December 31.

Some people face tragedy and never overcome it. It defeats them and destroys them. But it doesn’t have to. I choose to look at the death of my baby sister and the obstacles I’ve had to endure because of it almost as a gift to me, reminding me to appreciate and cherish every step along life’s journey. And every breath.

Most importantly, I’ve learned not to fear living but to fear NOT living. None of us can truly say for sure what tomorrow will be like. Go out and be the best you can be. Do what you love. Never ever let fear be the reason you don't live out your aspirations. And become the best you can be.

Life hasn’t been an easy road, but it’s been a rewarding, purposeful, and wonderful one, as I’ve chosen to go from tragedy to transformation—to triumph!

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