Twenty years ago, between my freshman and sophomore years at St. Bonaventure University, I was medically disqualified from the Army ROTC program for Ankylosing Spondylitis. I did, still do, and always will, have daily, chronic pain in my lower back and hips. Admittedly, ego keeps me from talking about it. I hate having something "wrong" with my body, making me a more cautious athlete. And from how some people respond when I do mention it, I am pretty sure they think I'm making up my diagnosis (insert eye roll).
On a hot afternoon in July of 2000, the day of my official diagnosis, I left the spinal doctor's appointment with tears rolling down my cheeks. The diagnosis was not good news for this active 19-year-old. I was the kid who rode 10 miles on her mountain bike, dragging along my German Shepherd (Kiko), to go climb mountains in the woods during summer breaks. Bug bites, poison ivy, and bruises were just part of my being. I was a thrill-seeker who loved any adventure anyone was willing to go on: canoeing, climbing, biking, hiking, jet-skiing, you name it, I was there with you.
The tears fell hard that day because the diagnosis meant losing my hard-earned scholarship and opportunity to serve in the U.S. military — a tradition my family has passed down for four generations — and something I was proud to be doing. Making matters more difficult to digest, the diagnosis came within weeks of being told by one of the commanding officers in our battalion I was on the list for Airborne school.
I left the appointment with an embarrassing, clunky metal brace I was instructed to clip into when standing for long periods of time and a six-month calendar of therapy appointments. My dad, by my side, shuffled across the hot pavement with me and tried to make light of the situation by telling "Bionic Woman" jokes. Deep down inside of him though, he was searching for solutions for his daughter. So instead of driving home, he took a detour and sympathetically drove straight to Dick's Sporting Goods. That day, he bought me my first really good bike, telling his sad, angry daughter, who had just recently achieved her running goal of a 7:15 mile, "I'm so sorry, but don't ever give up on being active. When you cannot run anymore, ride."
Fast forward 20 years: neither of us knew it, but the unexpected stop at the sports store on that long day was the first step toward my multi-sport adventures. Multisport allows me to mix up how I exercise and go long distances — in water or on land — without the painful haul of constant, long runs on stiff concrete (like I had been doing in the military). The best part — the core work I do to sustain my multisport adventures has empowered my mind and strengthened my body to live brace-free for 18 years.
I write about this now, 20 years later, because I never want to take for granted the lesson I learned: When a door — or a dream — closes on us, we just can't afford to stand and stare at it too long. Any of us will end up miserable and missing out on the good stuff right in front of us if we linger too long at the closed door.
We can be sad, of course, and continue to mourn over a loss or an unmet expectation, but eventually, we have to rely on the world’s open spirit and the support of good friends and loving family and let it go. And it is not always big dreams we are letting go of, by the way. I believe all of us, every day, wind our hearts and minds in and out of unmet expectations in our relationships and careers and amidst savored dreams that have floated on by.
But do not give up, because when you cannot run anymore, stop. And instead, ride.
I had to stop. And I had to then release my dream of serving as an officer to set out on a new path. This world and all its relentless opportunities did not let me down. The world was big enough to allow a new adventure to seep in – triathlons - something I never would have tried if not for the other door closing.
May an unexpected adventure find you today.