When the Going Gets Tough

World Champion Adventure Racer and CNN Hero Robyn Benincasa talks about how life is not about the setback, it's about the comeback.

July 9, 2019

At one time or another, most of us have been in a place where we honestly question whether we have the resilience to overcome. That uncertainty might arise from an unexpected diagnosis or an injury that left us dealing with chronic pain or a life experience that shook us. No matter what the circumstance, we face a fork in the road and decide: Where do I go from here? 

Maybe we look to well-worn adages like “when the going gets tough the tough get going” and “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” to motivate us. Or, perhaps we commit to a recovery plan that will help us get back to our normal or “new” normal. Whatever the route, everyone has had that moment where they needed to dig deep and find a reserve of strength they might not have known existed until tested.

As a massage therapist, you’ve probably had clients on your table working through life change—big or small. You, too, have likely faced down your own challenges. Maybe you had an injury that sidelined your massage practice or a personal issue that weighed you down. Whatever the obstacle, working your way through inevitably makes you stronger and helps you better understand just how deep your reservoir of resilience runs.

At the AMTA 2019 National Convention, Keynote Speaker Robyn Benincasa, World Champion Adventure Racer and CNN Hero, will talk about overcoming challenges—and how her Project Athena Foundation focuses on helping people who have had life-altering medical setbacks find the inner strength to tackle what often might seem like impossible tasks. In her own words: “It’s not about the setback, it’s about the comeback.”

Massage Therapy Journal had the opportunity to sit down with Benincasa and ask her about her own setbacks, where she finds inspiration and how we can all focus on making our own comebacks!

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your own life that helped you better understand your philosophy of “It’s not about the setback, it’s about the comeback?”

Benincasa: After 20 years of endurance racing, including 10 Ironman Triathlons and 40+ multiday, multisport Adventure Races, I discovered that I had stage 4 osteoarthritis in both of my hips! I thought I had a torn hip flexor, but when I got home from competing in the Adventure Racing World Championships in Scotland, X-rays showed I had zero cartilage left on either side. It was pretty awful for a few weeks because I knew my career in competitive adventure racing was over.

But then I started focusing on what I could do instead of what I couldn’t do, as well as how I could use my background and experience in adventure and endurance sports to somehow help others—and myself.

For myself, I decided to try my hand at being a competitive ultra-endurance kayaker after my first hip replacement (I didn’t need legs for that!), which is my new love and something  discovered I’m super competitive at.

For others, I teamed up with my awesome friend and two-time breast cancer survivor Louise Cooper to found the nonprofit Project Athena Foundation.

Can you tell us a little bit more about the Project Athena Foundation?

The Project Athena Foundation trains survivors of medical or traumatic setbacks to tackle awesome endurance challenges as part of their recovery. It’s their big comeback party where they show the world, their families and health care providers how strong they are after their setback!

Every year, we take survivors (and our fundraisers, who we call Gods and Goddesses) on adventures like hiking across the Grand Canyon rim in one day, or kayaking and cycling 120 miles from Key Largo to Key West, or hiking a guided marathon (26.2 miles) down the coast of San Diego.

Louise, who always put a huge, adventurous goal on her calendar when going through chemotherapy and radiation, showed me that you’re never defined by your setback, you’re defined by your comeback—and now, together, we get to help others make that big comeback, too!

What are some of your sources of motivation and inspiration when you’re facing some of life’s challenges?

Of course, Louise is my inspiration, which leads me to a larger point: Find people in your life who you aspire to be more like.

I also find that I need a mission to get me out of a funk. I have to find my next thing, whether it’s a new race, planning my next project or planning an adventure with the Project Athena Foundation. I like to create action—especially things I have to train for, save for or focus on, which, incidentally, all help me focus on helping others through tough times, too.

For massage therapists who might be dealing with a health care issue or injury, what would you say to them so they can better keep their attention focused on the positive?

Again, I think it’s important to search for and find your next big “thing” that captures your imagination, your heart and your attention. It doesn’t have to be physical. You can learn a new language or finally learn to play the piano or volunteer at a local animal shelter.

I am lost without my “next thing,” so I’m always searching and tapping into the universe to find what speaks to me. There’s always something out there that captures us— find it and make it happen!

How does having a goal help people who have survived a medical setback?

People who have been sick or injured for a long time are done with being the sick one, the weak one, the one who their family and friends are constantly worrying about or fawning over. Our Project Athena adventures provide all the training, tools and inspiration to help people shed that label of being the sick person and add a brand-new title to their life resume: endurance athlete.

It’s a huge mental shift for survivors—and their families—when they accomplish something their perfectly healthy friends would never even dream of attempting.

What role does massage therapy play in your health and wellness regimen?

I can’t live without my massage therapist and my active release techniques (ART) team! I’ve had deep tissue massage regularly for the last 20 years after my six hip replacements, and I pretty much live in my ART team’s office. They both put me back together, literally. I am a mess without them.

You believe teamwork is the key to winning. What qualities do you look for when creating a team?

I’ve always said that the key to winning in the long run isn’t choosing people who are necessarily the best at each sport or skill needed for the journey, but choosing the best people for the journey. In other words, when times are tough, you don’t simply want the best team members, but the best teammates.

When people are not just at work or on a racecourse with each other but for each other, that’s when the magic happens.