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September 25, 2015
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
My Cousin, the Olympic Triathlete
by Sarah Hancock

Bam! With a jolt, the air horn pierces the crisp morning air, launching Olympic Triathletes into the early morning waters of the San Diego Bay.

I stand among the spectators, along the rocky channel wall. Swimmers look like a mass of flailing arms and bobbing heads. I search in vain for my cousin and her friend, mentally sending them both power and positivity while standing on the sidelines, hands clasped to my chest.

I strain, squinting through the sunrise at the swimmers. A mass of arms and legs move forward towards the next buoy. I walk along the wall, keeping pace with the group from afar. Some racers sprint ahead, leaving the mass of swimmers and a few stragglers behind.

Was she a sprinter, a steady-paced-one or a straggler? It was impossible to know. Knowing my cousin, she was probably either a sprinter or a front-runner in the mass. I reach down and pick up my carefully crafted support sign.

Bam! The air horn sounds again, signaling the launch of another age group. This new wave of racers sets out, gradually making it more difficult to distinguish one group from the next. I know my cousin wears the forest green swim cap of her age group, but from this distance, distinguishing hers from the approaching navy blue ones is difficult.

Carefully, I pick my way along the rocky wall, waving my support sign and periodically scanning to see the forest green caps’ progress. I scream her name. It’s caught away in the morning breeze. As a swimmer, I know the only time racers hear the crowd is as they approach the wall for a turn or finish. It is impossible for her to hear me from across the bay’s channel. I walk along the ridge in silence.

Bam! Another wave of swimmers enters the water wearing yellow swim caps. As the group that I identified as possibly hers rounds the buoys, I begin walking back to the starting area, keeping pace with the mass. As the mass grows closer to the swimming finish, I sprint ahead to the landing area and wait for her to climb from the water, half worried I missed her.

My cousin emerges from the water, completing nearly a mile of swimming with a Texas-sized smile on her face. I began screaming in pride, waving my sign. She passes me while ripping off her wetsuit to reveal the biking suit below and then disappears into a field-full of bicycles. I suddenly realize I cannot remember her friend’s name or face, having only initially met her for the two minutes before she entered the bay.

The sign I waved for my cousin.

Resigned to only cheer for my cousin, I eagerly move to the field’s exit, waving my supportive sign. In an instant, my cousin emerges from the field perched on her bike. She calls out my name, waves and takes off down the ten-mile cycling course. She’s off. Her friend? I’m not sure where she is. Did she pass me already or should I wait for her? I decide to focus my attention on my cousin.

I roll up my sign, check the map and walk across Liberty Station Park’s soccer fields to my car. I determine a midway point along the 25-mile cycling course, drive to my destination, and park. Participants who entered in the first, second and third age-based heats streak past me, down the hill.

I wave my sign, winning smiles from the racers. Inertia & gravity pull cyclists past me at 45 and 50 mph. I catch only a glimpse of their faces as they swish past. Anxiously I scan faces, searching for my cousin. Minutes pass. No cousin. Did I miss her?

I lean out over the street and squint up the hill at what appears like an endless stream of ants. I wave my sign back and forth, hoping that the large white thing will stand out in the sea of asphalt and cyclists.

In an instant I hear it, my name. “SARAH!” My eyes focus on her. She flashes me a winning smile as she swishes by, pumping her arm over-head. Whew. She saw me. Her friend? I have no clue where she could be. Did I already miss her flying by on the bike or is she one of those ants coming at me from atop the hill?

I wait, waving my sign. After 10 minutes I decide that I’ve missed the friend and take a moment to gather my things and get back to the car.

On my way back to Liberty Station, I take a bathroom break, buy some chilled Gatorade and drive back to the staging area for the ensuing 6.2 mile run. I’m not sure how long it will take my cousin to complete her bike ride. In fact, with my break, she may have already begun running. I return to Liberty Station, park the car, grab the Garorade and my trusty sign and head out to a midpoint on the course.

I had a sign for every occasion.

Runners completing the 6.2 mile run will have to do two loops around the course. I stand at the end of the loop, waving my sign and cheering on the other runners. By this time, many runners recognize me and wave, commenting on my signs. I talk to the bystanders around me as we cheer on the racers.

Then I see her, my cousin. She is making her way towards me, exhaustion tugging at every inch of her face. I call out her name. She grins, kind of.

“I’m not doing well,” she pants as she passes me, rounds the cone and begins back toward me.

“No, you’re doing great! You’re almost done.”

“But, I am not feeling well.” She shakes her head and slows to a walk. I drop the sign and go over to her.

Instantly all the documentaries I’d seen on elite athletes and Olympians came into full focus.

“You’ve done the training, it’s all mental now” I say confidently, nodding my head. I kick up my walk to a speed walk. She begins to keep pace. It’s what almost every single athlete had ever said in those documentaries. It had to be true, right?

“Um.” She shook her head, and looks at me, puzzled. “I’m sick.” She slows again.

I scramble for something encouraging to say. Anything. “Do you need something to drink? I have chilled Gatorade.” I hand it out to her.

“I can’t take it.” She waves it away. I’ll be disqualified.” She picks up her pace.

“What? That’s absurd! You look like you need it. Maybe you’re dehydrated.”

“I can’t.” She pants, passing me. I drop the Gatorade and begin speed walking with her.

“You’ve got this. You’ve trained for it.” I begin jogging next to her. She picks up her pace. “I mean, you have one lap left. You’re almost done. The hardest part is behind you, right?” She shakes her head and points forward. “Hey!” I begin jogging alongside her. “You’ve got this!” I repeat. “I know you! You’re strong! You’ve got this!”

“I’m just feeling really gross.” She leaves me, pushing on.

Worry fills my heart. She has to finish. She’s already done everything else, just one more loop and she’s finished. This is her dream. She can’t quit. I turn, grab my stuff. Take a swig of the rejected Gatorade and wipe the sweat from my brow. She can’t quit. I won’t let her. I take out across the double soccer field to the other side of the race course, close to where she will make the U-turn for her second lap.

It is pushing 90 degrees with humidity I haven’t felt since I lived in Texas.

Six minutes later, she comes walking towards me, hands clutching her sides. I start waving my cousin sign and she begins jogging towards me. I jog up to her and begin keeping pace with her.

“You’re doing great. You’ve totally got this.”

She grimaces. “Sarah. You can’t run alongside me, I’ll get disqualified because they’ll think you are aiding me.”

“What? That’s stupid! I mean, I’m just a fat girl wearing jeans and a blouse. No one is going to think I’m ‘aiding’ you.” I slow down to a speed walk. She pushes forward, leaving me behind. “You’re doing great!” I call after her.

She waves, making her way down the sidewalk to her halfway marker. Five minutes later she is back. Her energy has increased a bit. She’s jogging stronger now. I wave my sign and jog next to her for several paces, telling her how proud I am of her. She pushes forward, leaving me and my silly sign in the dust.

Behind me I hear someone calling my name. I turn; it’s my cousin’s friend. She found me. I let her know my cousin is just right in front of her. Two women ahead. She smiles and passes me. I pack up and head back across the double soccer field to the cone where we can celebrate the final loop.

Racers pace me. Some look about ready to pass out, others look as though they just began. Each person has their age written on their calf. A fourteen year-old kid passes me with a grin. One woman, much larger than me, stops to vomit. Again. And again. She presses forward. I’m impressed with her.

There is no way I could do a triathlon. I was a champion swimmer in high school. I rode a mountain bike on my mission and have completed a 5k while studying at BYU, but I have never done it all at once. I stand waving my signs at the runners. Some laugh, some tell me I must have an awesome cousin (I do — twenty of them.) A 74 year-old man passes me, laughing at the sign.

Suddenly I see her coming toward me. This time she looks much better. She asks me what time she’s at. I have no clue. I never started a watch. She asks me to go find out what the clock says and let her know on the other side. I learn her goal is to finish in under four hours. She rounds the cone and starts her final lap.

I roll up my sign, pick up my bag of Gatorades and start sprinting across the double soccer field to the finishing area, surprised at my eagerness and energy — knowing it’s fueled by a strong desire to see my cousin meet her goal. By the time I arrive near the clock it reads 3:49. She has 11 minutes.

I set my watch, drop my stuff under a bench and start sprinting against the sidelines of the course to meet her. By the time I do, I can barely talk. “You’re totally going to get it.” I gasp, looking at my watch. “You have six more minutes.” She smiles and steps up her jog. I trot alongside her.

“I knew you could do this. I just knew it.” I’m beaming, as if I had anything to do with her countless hours of training, the sweat and tears or her determination or (in my eyes) her superhuman strength. I trot with her for about 50 yards. She waves me away. “You can’t do that Sarah.”

I stop, calling after her, “Five minutes!” Her pace quickens. By that time, she is coming down the stretch. They announce her name as having completed her first Olympic triathlon. 3:58. I have tears in my eyes. She did it. Later I learn that she actually beat her goal by much more than I’d thought because the clock started with the first wave of swimmers and she’d been in the fourth. She rocked it.

As I think about this experience, it parallels neatly with training and learning how to live with a severe mental illness. I am certain that when my cousin began dreaming of competing in her first triathlon, she searched out someone who’d done one, not someone who studied completing one.

She trained following their schedule, not one she created on her own or one she learned from an expert that had never competed in a triathlon. She could have talked to me about the 5K I completed in 2002, but instead she chose a friend who had competed in an Olympic length triathlon previously.

For 12 years I surrounded myself with key mental health practitioners. I followed their guidelines, took the medication necessary as prescribed, dutifully went to all my counseling appointments and group sessions. I worked with many well-intentioned, competent, well-educated and highly skilled mental health practitioners. They taught me many important skills.

But the entire time I sat listening to the advice of professionals, something in my head kept telling me, “But you don’t know what it’s like to have command hallucinations,” or “You don’t know what it’s like to drag yourself out of bed eight hours after having taken 800 mg of Seroquel. Getting up isn’t as easy as simply hearing the alarm, deciding to get up, sitting up and getting out of bed.”

Essentially, I was doing the same thing to my cousin. There I was, trotting along my cousin telling her what I’d heard on so many documentaries of world class athletes, “You’ve done the training, it’s all mental now,” and only having a rough idea as to when she started, roughly how far she was in the race, and a clear understanding of the map and mile markers.

As a cheerleader, I was well-intentioned, skilled even, but I was clueless. I had never run an Olympic triathlon. I’d watched other races. I’d even run a 5K. But I have never trained for and completed an Olympic-length triathlon.

The missing link between well-intentioned, highly trained professionals and my life was the absence of hope. It wasn’t until I met my first trained Peer Support Specialist (PSS) that I even knew that living successfully with schizoaffective disorder was even possible.

My doctors and counselors told me real recovery wasn’t possible and that my life would continue the in the same course for the rest of my life. I would be lucky to move out of a group home and get a part-time job.

My doctors, the experts, had never met anyone who could do much more than that. I resigned myself to their prognosis. In my mind there wasn’t really any reason to fight it. It was inevitable; I could see it happening around me. It didn’t seem to matter what medication I diligently took, or how hard I worked at following treatment plans. I just did not feel there was hope.

I fell into what clinicians call learned helplessness. Doctors told me schizophrenia is degenerative, like MS, but with the mind. I was already so bad off, I couldn’t imagine it getting worse.

When I met my first PSS, I assumed she’d been newly diagnosed. Imagine my surprise as I heard her story unfold and recognize its similarities with my own. She talked about learning wellness tools that altered the course of her life. I wanted to learn what she’d learned because I could see it worked for her.

She taught me the “tricks of the trade.” She taught me to run the race as a survivor, not a victim. She taught me to pace myself. She taught me to hope. I lost track of her shortly after the 20-hour NAMI Peer-to-Peer class that she taught. But I feel confident that if she could see me now, she’d feel as proud of me, as I do of my cousin, the Olympic Triathlete.

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