It’s the Climb

Shoutout to LP for this solid Miley Cyrus reference and metaphors and laughter – oh and also life changing trip. Thank you.

“The important thing is not to win – but to take part.”

This well-known quote from Pierre de Coubertin about the importance of showing up that is very familiar in the Olympic/Paralympic realm.

This summer felt like that opportunity was taken away from me. I had achieved national team standards, new regional records, won Paralympic team trials – yet did not hear my name called to compete in Tokyo. I was devastated. I felt robbed because of nuances in selection criteria and a dash of bad luck I would miss out on a chance to show the world my hard work.

The hardest part about missing this Paralympic team was that not only did I feel betrayed – I felt like the betrayer. I had uplifted not only my life but my partner, and family members lives so that we all made decisions based on this one goal. We moved states, endured a pandemic, spent time and money that took us away from other things all in support of my making it to Tokyo. I had done everything I could to keep up my side of the deal – to make everyone’s sacrifice worth it. I still came up short.

Not making that team given the circumstances felt isolating and deep down inside, I was afraid to say – I felt really guilty. There were even more people I hadn’t even known were cheering for me and proud of my hard work and I felt like I let everyone down. I didn’t feel like a failure, I felt like a victim and a villain. I suffered and caused suffering.

After a very public display of distress from the choices of faceless entities that chose my fate – I got a phone call.

LP (Lauren) Panasewicz was a friendly voice I had heard over the course of the years. I’m not sure of the inception of our relationship – either a running clinic years ago in Colorado or a social media connection. We had had a few passing conversations about Climbing for ROMP. I remember vividly talking to her in my apartment in Austin, and immediately thinking, “a trip to Ecuador would be amazing… but I would never climb those mountains. At least not until I’m done with track.” Those years prior – and like much of my life – the timing didn’t line up because of my track season.

“I don’t want to be insensitive – but I have a feeling your passport is up to date?”

This clever woman, she was right! It was ready to be stamped but now had no real destination.

“We would love to have you come and join us with an Elite Team Climb in an attempt to summit Cotopaxi.”

At this point – I was desperate for relief. I wanted to run away from the reality I had to face and galivanting off to Ecuador to skip on top of some mountains was the best opportunity to find who I was again – outside of the track.

With no plan at all, I agreed. I had had the best track season of my life and had figured I was in good enough shape I should be okay. Hiking is just walking, right?

The Range of Motion Project (ROMP) Global mission is simple – to provide mobility to underserved amputees. Currently they serve populations in the US, Ecuador, and Guatemala. The Elite Team Climbs are one of their largest fundraisers they do annually to provide prosthetic and mobility devices to people. It is actually astonishing that the numbers show 90% of people who need assistive technology do not have access to it globally.

I have a coach I worked with years back that was helping me, not just with technical mastery but in a weird time of my life where I was managing a lot of emotional turmoil. He asked me to help another teammate with a history of cancer. When I expressed my hesitation – I wasn’t in a good head space, I was going through my own stuff, I don’t know what to say – he reminded me that sometimes we fill our cups by filling others.

After team selection I felt broken, but I kept hearing him say those words to me. I had learned how difficult it is to advocate for oneself against giant systems designed to make you feel disposable.  But even in my own pain – I realized my life over the years has been decorated with privilege. To a non-disabled person this can seem confusing but to people who know what it is like to have to wake up and deal with the involuntary physical repercussions of your past – this makes perfect sense.

I had only had one bad prosthetic experience. That is basically unheard of. For the majority of my life I have worked with one clinician who told me early on “if there is one day out of the entire year that you are in pain because of your socket – then I am not doing my job correctly.” That was a statement we both took seriously and honored. I would tell him what I wanted to do and how I wanted to look. He would do everything he could – sometimes to the point of obsession – to make it happen. I was able to play and do every sport I wanted, including competitive cheerleading that eventually led to a Div I athletic scholarship. When I started track and field, I was never met with resistance of how I was going to be able to get equipment. I had such a strong support system that everyone in my environment was going to do their best effort to see I succeeded.

And I have. Regardless of the things I cannot control, I have been able to achieve every physical feat I wanted to. From cheerleading, to track, to wearing a machine gun and 6-inch heels to even moon walking dance moves just to show off – I have always been supported in a way that is incredibly unique to the average amputee experience. No one ever doubted my ability and there would be nothing that stood in my way.

Having this physical autonomy over one’s body is a human right. People are entitled to attempt whatever it is they desire for themselves and have control of how they can physically achieve that. It’s an unfortunate reality that this essential element of being is restricted solely by financial and/or geographical access.

What ROMP is doing and stands for is something I have supported in my heart through my years with the Amputee Coalition and working with their youth camp (as we lovingly call it “Amp Camp” now and forever).

This was a cause I could easily support. I had no experience in most anything mountaineering – despite being a Colorado native – but I knew my life experience, my voice, and even my pain could fill the cup of others while I waited for healing for myself.

I had no plan, but I agreed to go. Shortly after our confirmation I realized I had little to no chance of fundraising the amount of money in time of our deadline. Regardless of esoteric beliefs, everything seems to work out as it should. I shortly got a call after the myriad of Zoom meetings with LP from a friend named Kirstie Ennis.

Kirstie is basically a rainbow glittery unicorn that also knows how to shoot machine guns and fly a helicopter. If Rambo and Glenda the Good Witch had a baby it would be close to the embodiment that is Kirstie Ennis. I met her when I had to interview her for a prosthetic manufacturers video web series and was immediately impressed by this woman’s fierceness, intelligence, and empathy. We kept in touch over the years, swapping some tips and tricks for our amputation levels and prosthetics.

“I am going to sponsor you to summit Cotopaxi.” My brain didn’t even process her sentence to me. She has used her foundation, The Kirstie Ennis Foundation to help numerous amputees of all levels and from all reasons to create opportunities for them to enjoy the outdoors and simply move their bodies.

My agreement to do this trip was an understanding that I was going to use my experiences, my knowledge and my privilege to help others. I should have known that this was the introduction of my having to surrender my own pride and accept the help and support of others as I attempted these summits.

Hyper-independence is a symptom of a lot of things to many different people. I think when it comes to trauma and people who acquire their disabilities – it comes from guilt. The actual guilt of having something so extreme happen to you that you are forced to depend on others to take care of you. It doesn’t just disrupt your life, it disrupts everyone around you. As women especially, we are raised to be small. Not make noise, be as agreeable and accommodating as possible.

Genetically, I am not designed like that. Layer that on top of a disability that required the care and attention of others in order for me to survive – I spent decades of my life trying to ‘make up’ for needing help. Sometimes I call it, “super-amputee,” where I would prove to everyone – most importantly myself – that I didn’t need anyone to take care of me. That I was so “able” now that I could be forgiven of the sin of being dependent.

I played sports. I got good grades. I got scholarships. Graduated Cum Laude. Became a professional athlete. Became the best in the country. Performed on the biggest stage in the world. Started my own business.

The competitive drive to conquer has always been in me, but a part of it came from a place of shame. When the inevitable and uncontrollable life factors came my way – there was no muscling my way out of it. This is where my relationship with my psychologist became integral to my sport performance, sure, but also in my life and self-regulation.

The funny thing about mental health, especially after you have sorted through some deep seeded stuff – is it doesn’t every actually go away. You carry it around and just learn to manage it better while still moving forward with life. I came into therapy only knowing how to use a hammer when it came to smashing out my problems, and my psychologist helped me find new tools to handle life’s new complications. As it turns out, not every problem needs like a nail. Some are screws. Some are tacks. And some are even ropes attaching you to two other people on a glacial volcano in the Andes of Ecuador.

There was something almost spiritual about that trip. If you made it to the summit, it was driven by you, but you were chosen by something outside of you.

I found out quickly that a track and field background was not going to translate easily into summiting mountains. I was more nervous for our “training” hike as on paper – it looked longer. Quickly I found out distance to mountain people and distance to athletics are somehow not the same. The Ruminahui hike was just a taste of how hard it would be to make the summits this week. The sand would slide under my feet, and I would feet gravity try to pull me back down. Sarita, a woman who has transcended friendship and has now become my family was literally pushing me up at points so I could keep moving forward.  At one point a hand reached out towards me. My guide, Paul, who so clearly was the work horse assigned to the higher-level, lower skilled amputees was spending his time and efforts pulling me up this mountain.

Photo by @andresmolestinag IG

I would love to assert that I handled that first climb with grace. Depending on your perception of elegance – I would argue that I did not nail it in the poise department. I began this trip, and this summit with the intention of just learning. I felt this summer I had tried so actively to take control of my life I wanted a change of pace and to just be the observer. There was a sponsor for the organization, Kaspersky, that was contracted there to follow me and the technology I use in my daily life and to summit these volcanoes.

Even being acutely aware of having my every word recorded – I still surrendered to the mountain. I learned quickly this was more than a hike. This was more than a climb. This was an opportunity to look into a mirror made of the earth when I was being pushed to a point of frustration and discomfort.

I can handle a lot of things. Many of them I have seamlessly navigated in my life but I realize the harder the challenge the uglier my fight. After months of feeling like I was being pushed back down after all of the hard work I had put forth for a dream – there were hands reaching for me pulling me back up. Physically pushing me up and forward. The amount of profanities I was shouting in between shallow high altitude breaths would even make my Italian grandmother blush, but when we reached the summit of the first volcano – I wept.

Photo by @andresmolestinag IG

I didn’t think I would. I was overcome with emotion in a way that I was frustrated by how terrible the terrain was yet – I was supported enough by people surrounding me that I could still overcome those obstacles.

To them, this was a daily occurrence but in that instant my brain was like the spinning buffering ball on the computer trying to figure out what was actually happening. I have now spent a decade mastering a craft so that the execution of one sport would feel automatic – effortless. 8 hours on a mountain was just a condensed version of those efforts and it was a physical, visual, real reward waiting for me.

On the way back down – I felt electric. I was buzzing. I probably should have worked more on regulating my breathing as we dropped down in altitude, but I have a hard time regularly with not talking and after a big achievement like that – it was impossible.

Photo by @andresmolestinag IG

Karl Egloff – casually the fastest man to summit these mountains spent time talking with me. Naturally, the conversation turned to the athlete lifestyle. For as different as mountaineering is from athletics, the mindset of the elite athlete is often the same. You spend most of your life either training or thinking about training. What I like to call “unplugging from the matrix” of sport is almost impossible. You miss important social and family events in a quest to conquer a vision that only you can see. There are few people who support the dream, but you’re the one left in the arena. There is something mystical that pulls you away from yourself in the mastery of one task not for any reason other than the task itself. You learn more about yourself in the meters, or centimeters, of progress than any formal school will teach you. It’s a gift and a curse. When it goes well, it’s the best high in the world. When it doesn’t go well, or go at all – then what do you have to fall back on?

We had a day and some change to recover and get ready for the big one – Cotopaxi.

You would think after my run-in with Ruminahui that I would heed the warning of the summit that wait for us. The distance was shorter, I felt like I had been acclimating to the altitude decently, and I now felt I had “experience.” There was a part of me that was hopeful that since Cotopaxi is a glacier, a harder, snowier surface was going to be more manageable than loose sand.

I panicked upon the realization as the gusts of wind were hitting me that we had to do a preliminary hike just to get to the refuge on the mountain. We packed only the essentials – which for me consisted of things including a nice moisturizer and a book from the airport… just call me madam mountaineer. We had to carry it up about a mile to the refuge from the parking lot. The bus ride to the lot was, like most of our rides, hilariously an inconceivably bumpy but fun. Filled with laughter and singing along to Vanessa Carlton – I felt myself vibrant with anticipation of what was to come. This group of dynamic people – a mix of disabled and non-disabled people who care about something greater than themselves – felt like family.

Before this trip, I was hesitant to see if I would even enjoy the company of “mountain people,” as I knew this was so far out of my element I might as well have been an alien from another planet. Oh boy, was I wrong about that. I’ve invited people to the track from time to time to train with me. In their discomfort learning drills and basic technical models of running, they would laugh and be silly. Of course, I am not one to shy away from a good time, but I always felt an annoyance in that. Rarely do people have an opportunity to go to someone’s work just to try it on for size – and then make a little joke out of it when they turn out to be bad. I often took it as an uncomfortable disrespect. I felt shame that the tables were turned and now I was someone who entered a sacred space for these people – and didn’t honor it the way I knew that they did. But they welcomed me anyways. I was clearly the slowest, weakest, and loudest person to climb along (behind) them – and they made me feel cared for and important.

Here is a signature little league pose I do right before I am forced to learn about myself (Photo by @andresmolestinag IG)

As I struggled and complained on the way to the refuge, Karl offered to grab my backpack. When he took the load from me, I almost felt like I levitated. I didn’t understand, in any of the contexts from most of the week – how hard this has been. I felt a shock run through me as I was reminded of a quote I used to love, “it’s not the load that breaks you down – it’s how you carry it.”

That was probably the most moving part of the entire trip. Of course, it feels overly broad to say ‘the people’ were what made this trip so memorable. But I had lost a sense of faith in my fellow humans that these mountaineers helped me find it along the way. I was carrying so much guilt and shame of things beyond my control that I didn’t realize how heavy it felt. As a professional athlete, it’s virtually impossible to separate your value as an athlete from the value you bring just by existing. Being alive is enough to be celebrated and cared for – this is something that ROMP abides by in their cause to bring mobility to everyone with needs who simply exist.

The night before the Cotopaxi summit – felt a lot like a competition to me. There were nerves. You could sense dread in some of us. I was nervous mostly in that I didn’t even know what to expect at this point. The refuge was at about 16,000 feet in elevation so our sleeping and eating routines were definitely not optimal. The guides had a meeting to decide who was assigned to which guide and what time they would leave.

So much of this trip had forced me to feel like a little kid. I constantly needed help, explaining and now I felt like I was waiting to be picked for teams again in primary school. I really can’t remember a time in my adult life where I had been forced to be so vulnerable in every sense of the word.

Just being helpless for the millionth time that week

I texted my dad – who is my coach – after summiting Ruminahui. He was so excited for me to be on this trip, proud of me for being adventurous and trying something new which part of me didn’t understand. We come from track and field so the idea to being open to other activities is pretty much off-limits. There are certain times, in our one-month off-season or in this instance, in my emotional recovery of the Games that never came for me – I needed something drastically different. Even though LP assured me I would make it on this trip, I think TJ understood the assignment better than I did regarding the level of difficulty I was going to be exposed to.

ask me how bad I wanted to just respond – “dad, it’s *you’re” but as a woman in my 30s I now have to use discretion and choose when to be snarky or not

My name was first – we had to leave at 10p. Our rope team consisted of:

1) Paul – inconspicuously the strongest and most patient man alive

2) me – none of those things

3) LP – who made this trip happen as seamlessly as our newfound friendship. I was looking forward to having her enthusiasm alone.

I walked downstairs before we got our gear on to see Paul. We both laughed as we shared that we slept a total of zero minutes before this attempt. In a track setting this would have completely derailed me. At this point, however, there is nothing to do but keep moving forward. As we started and I began to feel a sense of dread well up inside of me – this entire hike was going to be fucking sand. If there is a hell for amputees, it’s covered in sand and ice. This sucker has both. I wanted to enjoy being able to see the lights of Quito, the silence of the cold air around me but all I could think about was how annoying that for every single step Paul took – I needed about 6 as the sand pulled me back down with every movement. LP realized that she could use her ice ax to help leverage my back foot, my prosthetic foot, so I had something to push off.  She also slept zero minutes so for the amount of brain power she used to try and find my rhythm is something holy.

Physically, my nervous system was shot. I didn’t present as tired, but I felt something on a cellular level feel like burning with the amount of energy I was putting out to keep moving forward. The air was thin. I am crazy claustrophobic so the cute little thin fabric ‘buff’ I was given to protect my face remain unused as I tried not to panic about my oxygen levels. If I exerted a lot of energy in a movement, I would feel nausea. At one point, I became hopeful that if I moved enough and puked maybe Paul would let me quit. Not only is Paul an amazing mountain guide, he could moonlight as a mind-reader because at some point of our summit he turned around, looked me in my eyes and said “okay, we are not turning around now.”

Somewhere in my exhaustion and general hopelessness, freezing on the side of a glacial volcano, I recognized in his face that we were not going to give up. Of course, I loved flirting with the idea of somehow ending back up at the Four Seasons where I was just weeks prior to that moment filming a national commercial. When I wanted to stop he would let me rest – but then we had to keep going.

I realized quickly that climbing an icy mountain in sheer darkness with no experience was going to require one main thing – mental toughness. Panic is the enemy. Thinking about how bad it’s hurting or will hurt is not helpful. Worrying that you cannot or are not getting enough oxygen is not a productive thought. The only thing I could think of telling myself in these moments was what my dad texted to me after our training hike – “you’re tougher than you think.”

This worked for maybe 85% of the summit. The time laid suspended in darkness and it really seemed to last both forever and pass in an instant. However, when the sun started to rise and I realized we weren’t close (according to mountain people, we were close) to the summit – it started to feel impossible. At this point, Karl had probably done his full calisthenics routine up and down the glacier 3 times and decided to check in on our rope group. My foot kept sliding and he started just grabbing my feet trying to place them onto something more substantial. Of course, at this point I’m catastrophizing thinking I am about to puncture the foot of Ecuador’s favorite mountain hero with my rented crampons. Between Paul, LP, and Karl, I was pushed, pulled, nearly dragged for what felt like an eternity once the sun rose to get to the top.

I couldn’t help but laugh at how hard it felt just to move. One pull and my arms had lactic like I had just tried to do 20 pull ups in one minute. It was shocking. I almost didn’t recognize my own body or how it worked. When we would take breaks – we would try to eat. I remember taking a bite out of a protein bar, or a jerky and my mouth was immediately like “I will not be swallowing this.” At one point, Karl literally fed some energy goo to me like a child (remarkably accurate consistency in this theme here) while comforting to experience a very strong dad moment, it was slightly aggressive to the 32-year-old woman hanging on to the shred of dignity I still maintained.

The thought of reaching the summit, even by being able to see it at this point – seemed impossible. I have never experienced the amount of energy and exhaustion I felt just to do one or two steps. In any other circumstance, including this reflection of it now, I am kind of mortified by that. I have spent my entire life trying to compensate for something that happened to me that was out of my control. It was a theme I keep running into but I had no pride, no guilt, no shame in this moment because I literally had no other option besides to keep moving forward.

At one point I think I was even bargaining with native-Spanish speakers using very estadounidense cliches saying “listen guys, I don’t have a dog in this fight. The sun is already up, the view is still really beautiful from here I’d be happy to call it if you guys are cool, we could totally stop.”

Slowly. Painfully slowly – we made it.

Reaching the summit, I was surprised I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel much of anything in any singular way. I cried and panicked the night leading up to the summit. I was petrified by the fear of failure – not in myself but in the way that I would have let everyone around me down. Again. I was so tired of this being on this road of hyper-independence I felt obligated to follow in the pursuit of not ruining peoples hope in me that I forgot that it isn’t the actual success that people support it’s the effort. The continual and collective effort. When we reached the top, I looked at my guides face. He had tears in his eyes as he looked around. As I took steps back toward the group waiting for us – I felt myself dissolve into something bigger than me. These people who quickly became my family. This group, this energy, the whole meaning behind ROMP was my existence in that moment. My success relied solely on the strength and perseverance of others. I wanted to cry – I had literally cried every day on that trip except in that moment I didn’t feel a release from frustration. I felt joy.

It was simple, subtle. It was the same as the years of mastery in the long jump – a humbling and quiet joy.

I know Cotopaxi is a glacier, and ROMP’s motto is “what is your mountain,” as the summit itself is a metaphor for overcoming life’s challenges – primarily access to mobility devices – but to me Cotopaxi was something different entirely.

An iceberg is part of a glacier that is floating off somewhere in water –made famous to more recent generations by the 1997 film Titanic starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The icy body you see above water usually pales in comparison to the amount of substance underneath the surface of water. The base of the iceberg is made up of the things that have happened to us, that we believe about ourselves – that which we carry around. Even though all you see is above the surface but just as Karl took my backpack – it’s the way you carry that load that makes it heavy. Cotopaxi, to me, is an iceberg. Everything that had broken me, made me hard, preserved, and frozen in time over the years of my life were attached to the roots of who I am today. The summit wasn’t what was important that day, or even in that moment. What was important was finally getting on the other side of the water for me. I had spent so much of my life building and believing so many things about myself that when life inevitably knocks us down – it’s hard to see we are attaching ourselves to the unhelpful part of the iceberg that sits below the water’s surface. Getting on top of that iceberg isn’t be done in solitude. When you get pushed down it is several things, often people, who extend a hand, offer to carry your bag, and help pull you back up.

Wikipedia photo

It took a whole trip to Ecuador with strangers to help me forgive myself and finally break the surface of that water and take a breath of fresh air.

As I looked out around me on top of the glacier – it was like standing on a different planet. We were tens of meters (ask the mountain guides they might say anywhere from 4cm to a kilometer I have no idea) above the cloud line. You couldn’t see Quito, you couldn’t see much of anything other than blankets of bright white rolling hills, smiling faces. It felt infinite. It was actualized peace. We were above the surface of the iceberg and it felt like after all of these years – life still offered something new. Something fresh. Above the line where you were unrestricted by the accumulation and gravitational draw from painful events and unproductive beliefs. The struggle, the exertion up the mountain existed as a test to see how far you needed to go to break away from the things that pulled you down daily.

I came on this trip to offer my experience as a professional athlete and offer the resources I had that I thought would be helpful. Consequently, in sharing myself, I was helped more than I could have ever imagined. The experience on the mountain, with the iceberg, climbing for ROMP and essentially in life outlines one certain fact: we rise by lifting others.

Photo by @andresmolestinag IG

2 Comments on “It’s the Climb

  1. TJ was right . So well written . George and Virginia are so proud of you. We’re all proud of you .

  2. There are always mountains. Sometimes we get a hand, sometimes we give a hand.

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