Once upon a time, in the green space of Ireland was born a young girl named Geraldine with legs to run. And run she did, all the way to Oklahoma State University on a full ride to run and run her way through an American college.
Then, you know how this story goes. Little Ms. “Ger” met this cute guy, right?
Well, that isn’t the only thing that happened. She was discovered to have a “thing” in her brain that had to be removed. If it was not removed, she would surely die from an aneurism. Yet, the act of cracking open her cranium to remove something on the inside was and still is a big deal. The medical staff recommending the procedure didn’t give her better than 50/50 chance of surviving, and if she did survive, she would statistically be destined to be in a vegetative state. There was a small chance that surgery would correct her situation, but the chances of being OK without the surgery WERE zero.
She and her boyfriend told the doctors that they had already planned a trip to San Francisco, as opposed to the surgery that they suggested. The doctors told her, “You go right ahead with that trip of yours,” knowing that the chances of her getting the opportunity later, were not so good. regardless of which path she took, they didn’t see much of a future for Ger.
She surprised the doctors by coming out of surgery after a 9 hours alive and in good condition. Quick would be the understatement of her recovery. She made it home from surgery in three days and began the recovery process. The doctors provided her some clear guidance from the beginning. Since part of her brain was missing and her skull had been cracked open, she should absolutely never participate in sport again, nor would it be wise to have children.
Although that window of her life is 30 years removed, she recalled that story from the seat of her bike as she, her now-husband-from-those-days Mike and I pedaled through some of the most beautiful scenery on the Earth. She shared details as if the event happened last month. Yet, her pathway to health was not straight sailing afterwards. Yes, she healed from her near death encounter, but stomach issues challenged her. She used to think that she was an incredible crapper, for she could pass food in and out faster than….well, you know. She could eat a meal, and it would “run the circuit” as she would say, in an hour. She described it with some pride, but she knew this sort of GI tract activity wasn’t right. She went to a doctor for tests, and she learned that she had celiac disease, a disease that constrains what you can and can’t eat. For her, the first thing to be removed from her diet was gluten. And, for an Irishman (or Irishwoman) saying goodbye to wheat and gluten is like saying goodbye to your cellphone while driving. Sure, she ate organic food, but she had to overhaul her eating to keep food from running the proverbial circuit.
On race day, her category competed first, and she was finished before 10 am. Mike and I didn’t start til after lunch, and she supported us all by running from race course to course, cheering on her husband and anyone else wearing the TeamUSA logo, and she even cheered on some of the Irish folks, while she was at it. I remember both seeing and hearing her on the sidelines as I turned to run up a hill, looking at me and encouraging me onward. Her race was done, and she was doing what her parents taught her to do – give back to those around you and keep the attention away from herself.
On Monday am, when the race was all done, she, Mike and I went on a bike ride of a lifetime. We put our bikes in our rental cars and headed south into Portugal. We took our bikes out of the cars on the edge of a National Park in Portugal that was 30 km (or so?) from the Spanish border. We all pedaled and chatted without any concern for the events of yesterday. We casually stopped at a coffee shop on the border to take photos and pet a dog before turning around and heading back.
The scenery was breathtaking, with ice blue water flowing in lakes below us while we pedaled on mountainsides covered in vineyards being pummeled by the hot sun. We passed through small Portuguese villages filled with sounds of chickens, horses and an occasional smell from a fire where someone was cooking a mid day meal. The road was smoothly paved but not well used, and we felt like we had the place all to ourselves. We felt like we had gone back in time and were cycling up and down hills that cyclists dream of riding. During the couple of hours that we cycled together, she told stories and the three of us shuttled between the front and back of our mini-peleton, as we enjoyed the Portuguese sun and the cool clear air provided to us by all the greenery. It was a day we will all remember.
And, she had great reason to look back at that time of suffering with precision and some nostalgia. Sure, the World Championships were over, and the next ones don’t happen for another 16 months. We were capping that experience with all this beautiful scenery after an event of a lifetime. She had more than crossed over into the category of overcomer from her medical ailments. She was an achiever at literally the highest level. Just yesterday, Ger stood on the stage to receive her Gold Medal and the formality being named, “World Champion” over the loudspeaker in Pontevedra, Spain, by representatives of the International Triathlon Union. People from no less than 37 countries applauded her efforts and celebrated her success. She was “the best” at her craft and had the bling to prove it.
Yet, the humble upbringing was not to be undone with a gold medal and a theatrical moment created by the ITU. In fact, within thirty minutes, the three of us were headed out-of-town to get something to eat.
She was supposed to die. She was supposed to avoid sport. She was to avoid having children. Instead, Ger is a mother of two boys and just so happens to be the best age-group female Duathlete in the World.
As the three of us pedaled through the countryside, Mike and I had no interest whatsoever in good cycling form. We didn’t feel a compulsion to get into Aero bars or select the correct gear for the grade of terrain. We were just doing a recovery ride, chatting up a storm, and looking for cool stops to take pictures. We were screwing around with cell phone angles and positions and telling stories.
The path to athletic success always involve a dose of genetic disposition, a strong heart, the ability to organize ones life, and some good, old fashion luck. Ger now works as a personal trainer at a local YMCA where she and Mike have made their family, and she sharpens her skills either on the bike or out on the run 6 days a week. She lives in a colder part of the US, so she has to train indoors for much of the year, whereas I get the luxury of running and biking outdoors nearly every month of the year. She teaches classes and works with others, and can probably identify with their struggles with adversity better than most, if not everyone else.
Her husband is onboard with it all. He, too, trains for and competes in Duathlon, and despite being a couple of years older than me, Mike beat this rookie by a couple of minutes.
Ger, on the other had, rode up the hills that afternoon in her aero bars at a steady state, in the correct position with the correct form, just because. Maybe that is why she is the world champion.