How Triathlon has Helped this Age Grouper While Her Husband Fights Brain Cancer

By Nick Hehemann | June 19, 2019, 6:14 p.m. (ET)

Stephanie Van Bebber and her husband

During National Triathlon Week, USA Triathlon looks to honor someone in the community who has used triathlon to reach for an aspirational goal life. Each year, we award a free USA Triathlon Lifetime Membership to this individual who aims for a finish line that inspires.

In 2018, Stephanie Van Bebber, an age group triathlete from Northern Virginia, shared her powerful personal multisport journey with us and was awarded as the "What's Your Finish Line?" winner.

While her husband, Chris, has been battling brain cancer for nine years now, Stephanie has used triathlon as an outlet to reach for a finish line that brings her joy, community and fulfillment. Her now public testimony has inspired many in the triathlon community and beyond.

Ahead of National Triathlon Week in 2019, we caught up with Stephanie to see what’s changed since she shared her story, and to get her advice on how other athletes can cope with difficult life circumstances.  

USA Triathlon: What have you been up to this past year? How many races have you completed?

Stephanie: I decided to do Miami (the USA Triathlon Multisport National Championships Festival) at the end of 2018. I ended up getting a slot for Team USA in the long course, and I decided to go. Much of my triathlon training this year was getting ready for Pontevedra (the ITU Multisport World Championships in Spain from April 27-May 4). That was a super positive experience.

I found it pretty challenging to train over those months living in Virginia, but I got it done. I think I had a pretty good race. I was pretty happy with it. I generally felt like Team USA did an amazing job. I loved all the people and I loved cheering for everybody.

I put in a lot of winter hours training (for Pontevedra). I also did a lot of new things, which was fun for me. My training this winter involved me getting a gravel bike. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get outside very much in my time trial bike, so I put in a lot of time on the gravel bike this year. That was super fun. I’d highly recommend it.

I had a few people that I rode with over the winter who knew all the routes and could show me where to go and how to get the most benefit out of it. We’d be out there in 28 degrees all bundled up and having a blast. It gets you outside in the winter. It was nice to rediscover biking this way. 

USAT: What was your reaction when you won our Lifetime Membership last year?

Stephanie: It was incredibly humbling. I couldn’t believe how many people reached out to me and were just so very excited for me and super supportive of everything I was going through. I had a number of other folks who either had survived cancer or had cancer or had a spouse or family member with cancer reach out and share their story. They were just saying to keep on keeping on. It was really nice. I work in the field, too (as a senior director at the Inova Schar Cancer Institute in Northern Virginia), so I see folks with cancer every single day in my job. 

We all have our story. This just happens to be mine. I’ve found that triathlon has given me an outlet and a purpose and a community. It’s something that I feel like I can share with people and hopefully encourage some new folks to give it a try and not let other things get in the way of accomplishing a goal. It doesn’t have to be a huge goal like Spain. Just having a goal is so important when you’re going through something like this, just to be constantly looking forward and having a life for yourself that you can be happy with. I continue to feel supported in this sport. 

USAT: How is your husband doing right now? 

Stephanie: He’s on a new treatment, and you hope that it’s working but you never know. We just take every day as it comes. Right now, he’s stable and with this new treatment, we’ll see where it goes. 

It’s been nine years now (that he’s had brain cancer). The last nine years have definitely turned my life around 180 degrees. There have been times that have been filled with moments of grace and times that are super hard. You have to find joy somewhere. So much of my joy is in triathlon and in the friends that I have made doing this sport. 

Chris is one of these lucky folks who has managed to beat all the odds in this disease he has. The prognosis is not a very good one for brain cancer of any type. He has done extremely well to be here with us nine years later. I often tell people that we’re at the juncture that is both a blessing and a curse. You can celebrate that you’re the outlier. But, it’s the stuff you deal with. You know, the cancer is the easy part. It’s the other stuff that comes along. Some of the treatments that folks get, including Chris, have long-term side effects that we deal with now that are not easy to navigate. 

But, we try to focus on what he can do instead of what he can’t do. We’re just lucky that he’s still here with us. I have a lot of help from friends and family. 

USAT: When you share your story, what kind of responses have you seen from people?

Stephanie: It is very heartfelt. My first reaction to people (who have similar stories of cancer) is “I’m so sorry.” I wish nobody shared my story. But, I also think it’s really critical that when you share your story, you make yourself vulnerable in a way that opens the door for others to reach out to you who maybe would not otherwise. Some people just get it, and you know you can offer some insight of how to cope. When you talk to someone who knows what it’s like, it can be really helpful. It allows people to be more honest with me than they would be with other people. 

USAT: What advice would you have for other athletes who are going through similar difficulties at home or in life?

Stephanie: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Find something you love that’s just for you — something that’s unrelated to everything else that’s going on that’s hard and a struggle. It doesn’t have to be an athletic endeavor. It can be knitting. It can be reading. Find something that takes you out of that space and lets your mind just be.

Forgive yourself a lot. It’s okay to say no. People who are well intentioned when you’re going through things ... it can be exhausting to navigate a lot of help at once. It’s okay to say no to things.  

USAT: How has your life changed since you won our Lifetime Membership and shared your story with the public? 

Stephanie: It gave me a whole new perspective on triathletes I don’t know out there who need encouragement. I’m happy to talk to people. People can reach out to me. I know a lot about this world of cancer, both personally and professionally. I think you can do better with friends and people who can answer questions.

I think that was the first time I decided to share my story publicly. My good friends knew, but I’d never been that vulnerable, with this going out to people I don’t know. They’re going to know me for what I’m going through in life. It brings a lot of kindness around it, but it also brings moments of doubt where you wonder if people are afraid to talk to you about this or afraid to ask questions.

My own learning in this is that it’s better to just be frank with people. Ask people how things are going. It’s okay. Even if people end up in tears, that’s okay. It’s okay to ask.

There were some work colleagues that learned. It was okay to share that story at work, because I work in cancer. It gave me the courage to do that and have people at work know my story. That’s opened up a whole lot of different perspective for me at my job. 

USAT: How has triathlon continued to help you with everything going on in your life?

Stephanie: It gives time for me. It keeps me very patient. In the same way that illness requires a lot of patience, I also feel very patient with triathlon. The gains can be enormous at times, but there are also some things you work on that will take a long time to get. I’m not a great swimmer, so I’m very patient with how long it’s going to take to improve in the pool. I’m patient with how much I can improve on the bike.

The mental toughness I get from waking up every day and dealing with life, I bring back to triathlon, and vice versa. The mental toughness I get from a three-hour training ride helps me to bring back that toughness into my everyday life. Those two can’t be separated. They’re interwoven and part of who I am. I don’t ever want to give up this sport for that reason alone. 

USAT: What do you love about triathlon?

Stephanie: I love that I’m in my 40s and I feel like I’m getting to go back and learn a brand new skill, since triathlon is a multisport. It’s something that I can continue to be better at. I can be the “best at being better”. I love that idea. I love that I can be a mom and a wife and be a senior director at my job, but I can still be a beginner in triathlon and learn things each time I go out there. I love learning from mistakes and learning from my teammates.

USAT: What finish lines are you chasing these days?

Stephanie: In triathlon, for me it was going to Spain. It was the first time I participated on Team USA. It was very much a victory lap from last season.

This year, I’ve got a couple (IRONMAN) 70.3s on my schedule that I would like to try and PR. I’m going to go back to Miami (for the Multisport National Championships). I’m going to Age Group Nationals (in Cleveland, Aug. 10-11).

I will do a full IRONMAN someday. I want to keep making these goals and putting things on the calendar to aim for. 

In terms of work, I think of how I can incorporate what I’m doing in my work life. I have some ideas of how to encourage other caregivers and other cancer patients on how they can participate in this sport. 

USAT: What would you say to someone who is considering doing their first triathlon?

Stephanie: I would say find a friend who will go to the race with you, even if they don’t race themselves. Feel supported while you’re there. Have fun. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Have the confidence that you can do it. I really believe that anybody can do it. Podiums are great, but that feeling lasts for a brief moment. Find a way to like this sport without that. The people on the podium are doing the same thing as everybody else in the race. It should all be celebrated. 

What’s your Finish Line? Share your story of how triathlon has helped you reach your goal, and you could be the next recipient of USA Triathlon’s free lifetime membership during National Triathlon Week. Tell us your journey and tag us on social media @usatriathlon, using the hashtags #WhatsYourFinishLine and #triweek, now through June 30. You can also email your story to marketing@usatriathlon.org with the subject line, “What’s Your Finish Line?” for a chance to win. 

Stephanie Van Bebber