BY GINA UTEGG
Arlington, Virginia, September 28, 2011 – I am very grateful to be alive and to have World T.E.A.M. Sports in my life.
World T.E.A.M. Sports has been an important part of my family’s lives for many years. My husband Mike and I started volunteering for the organization after my disabling automobile accident. At that time, World T.E.A.M. Sports was based in Boston.
We began our World T.E.A.M.relationship to introduce our daughter Rachael to children with disabilities who are empowered to do athletics, and frankly, just be kids. Our goal was for her to understand that I would be okay, even with my disability. We thought the best way for her to relate to people with disabilities would be for her to spend time with children her own age. For these kids, many labeled as disabled, in this inclusive setting, they were just kids playing. We loved this concept and thought it was a healthy approach for our family.
Rachael was very excited to play ice hockey, sled hockey, wheelchair basketball, and climbing a rock wall with the other children. Afterwards, she was exhausted. My husband and I asked her how her day was, and if she had fun. “Yes, I had a lot of fun playing ice hockey,” she said, “but sled hockey and wheelchair basketball are really hard.” It was the exact response we wanted from Rachael.
My husband and I looked at each other, gave a nod, and replied, “Well, some children are in different medical situations and may not be able to play hockey or basketball in the form you are used to. Maybe even some of the children might think that the ice hockey you think is so easy is too difficult to do. As a matter of fact, I think I saw some children in wheelchairs.”
We then shifted gears and asked what she thought about her experiences of the day. Her reply was great – she had a lot of fun with some really cool kids. Rachael asked if we saw the girl who had no legs and one arm, climb up the rock wall. We did, and were impressed at how quickly the girl climbed. This young lady had a great attitude and was the fastest to climb that wall.
When it was Rachael’s turn to climb, she was frightened and only got one foot off of the floor before coming down. We encouraged her to try again and she did, but her fear of heights limited her to a few more feet of climbing before she came down. That was a good start.
What Rachael got out of the day was invaluable. She literally climbed out of her comfort zone, played with children of all abilities, and tried some really cool sports. We knew then we made the right decision in allowing World T.E.A.M. Sports into our family. We already knew how to be family, but we were well on our way to learning how to be a family that is comfortable and accepting when one member has a disability.
Through our Boston experience, we learned about the Face of America ride. That was always something I wanted to do, but I put it off for many years. After my diagnosis of breast cancer in 2009, surgery, chemo and radiation treatments, I was determined to start exercising, cycling and getting physically fit. I wanted to participate in the Face of America ride that I had put off for too long.
For 2010, I decided to ride the Face of America, from Washington to Gettysburg. Patti Haley, who I met at the Boston World T.E.AM. Sports events helped me get onto a team. I think I smiled most of the ride. It was one of the most amazing things I have done in my life. I impressed myself and made it to the finish.
Completing the ride meant a lot to me. First, I showed up. I had also become more comfortable with my disabled self, with my cancer survivor component. For two days, though, I was just a cyclist having fun, meeting people, talking, helping, achieving and finishing under those beautiful howitzers at Seamus Garrahy’s Gettysburg farm. That ride changed my life for the better and that is why we come back each year. I have made so many friends and connections to which I am grateful and lucky.
Competing in the 2011 Nautica Malibu
My goal at the September 17-18 Nautica Malibu Triathlon was just to finish. I could have done “just the cycling leg” on the ParaTRI relay if I wanted. Believe it or not, my swimmer at southern California’s Zuma Beach could have been 1972 Olympic champion Mark Spitz. That would have been really cool. What was much cooler, though, was doing all three legs of the triathlon by myself. Pushing through my challenges, I won first place in the Parathlete women’s division!
I remember seeing Timra Stump from World T.E.A.M. Sports while I was running the course. We high fived as we passed, and she said, “WOW, you are doing great!” The next time I saw her, she cheered me on as I entered the chute at the finish line. Big smiles all around.
I knew the moment I crossed the line I had won the 2011 Paul Mitchell Spirit Award, presented annually to an athlete with disabilities who has overcome obstacles and who has also given back to help others. The award could have been presented to anyone, and I am honored it was me. I also am humbled and even more motivated to represent older, disabled, cancer-surviving moms, and the two communities that I strive to do so much for. I get so much back in friendship, laughter, sanity, fun and very crazy sports. I climbed up onto the stage to receive the award and was surprised to hear the announcement: “And first place winner in the women’s ParaTriathlon division is Gina Utegg.” Holy cow! I nailed it!
Smiling ear-to-ear, I was so proud. I remember looking out into the crowd and seeing Timra cheering me on, taking pictures. I was all decked out in my World T.E.A.M. Sports gear, and wearing my badges of honor on each wrist: LIVESTRONG, Face of America, Wounded Warrior Project, and a lot of mementos from my cancer warriors and angels. I had a lot of people in my heart and mind that day, especially my husband Mike and daughter Rachael, as they inspire me. They have always supported and loved me, as my team, as I approach challenges in my life. I have battled my way out of some very dark places and I have lost too many friends, especially to cancer. I do not take my experience lightly and have become a warrior to compete and advocate for myself, my disability, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and my military and cancer communities.
When I learned that World T.E.A.M. Sports would sponsor my flight for the triathlon, I was shocked and amazed. Starting my training for the triathlon, I received my World T.E.A.M. Sports tri suit in the mail. I thought I looked like a superhero suit and when wearing it, I felt like one, too. I love this organization and I believe very strongly in what it does in empowering athletes of all abilities to succeed.
Not only was I fortunate to be supported by World T.E.A.M. Sports, I received emotional, calming, athletic, friendship, and just great personal help from Timra. She came out for the triathlon and was my handler. I was so happy to see her and am not sure how I can ever thank her. As an experienced triathlete, Timra helped me organize myself, thoughts, strategy and lay out my gear, explaining what to do for a fast and efficient transition. She helped me with my swimming, but we lost each other, as she needed to assist an athlete with one leg. I made it through the 0.5 mile swim doing the back stroke, as I did not want to injure my neck more, and made it to shore to find Timra ready to help me. She found me and cheered me all the way to the transition area. She then ran me in and helped me with the swim to bike transition. Needless to say, things were very good.
Thank you, World T.E.A.M. Sports. You helped me become a better person and a symbol for those who need inspiration, like I needed at one point in my life. Thank you all very much for believing in me.
“You will find, as you look back on your life, that the moments that stand out are the moments when you have done things for others.”- Henry Drummond
BY TIMRA STUMP
Since my first experience with World T.E.A.M. Sports in the summer of 2010, I have had the honor to participate alongside of some truly inspiring and amazing people. World T.E.A.M. Sports board member Erik Weihenmayer, Face of America teammate Jothy Rosenberg and Adventure TEAM Challenge teammate Sherry Schulz are just a few of these athletes. Events with World T.E.A.M. Sports, whether participating, working or volunteering, have given me so much inspiration. My job, however, as Gina Utegg’s Sherpa at the Nautica Malibu Triathlon proved to be beyond exceptional.
Several weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from longtime World T.E.A.M. Sports participant Gina Utegg. It was kind of cryptic – “Got a second, need to pick your brain” was all it said. Sure, I replied, give me a call. Gina had just received news that she was nominated for the 2011 Paul Mitchell Spirit Award at the upcoming Nautica Malibu Triathlon in California, and had made the decision that she was going to participate as well. She was curious if I thought she could compete, and if I could help her with what she needed to know to participate.
I told her that not only was I sure she could do a triathlon, I would also be honored to help her. We spent some time discussing the basics of triathlon, the gear she needed, and what training she could do over the next two weeks to prepare for her first triathlon. Having only two weeks to prepare for a triathlon would probably defer most people from even considering it. Not Gina, two weeks – GAME ON was her attitude! Gina’s excitement was contagious and I quickly found myself looking at flights from D.C. to Malibu to see if there was any way I could go out to support her. I think things have a way of working out when they are supposed to do so, so I was able to book a flight to California.
A few days prior to the event, Gina received a telephone call from the event promoters. She had been selected as the recipient of the 2011 Spirit Award. When she called to let me know, I was so happy I had made arrangements to attend the race and give her some support.
Before arriving in Malibu, I received a call from one of the parathletes who was working with Gina in Los Angeles. Not only was he helping Gina with her logistics, but he was also fielding additional parathlete teams for the event. He inquired if it would be possible for me to swim with Gina since it would be her first triathlon swim and it would be in the Pacific Ocean. I agreed happily – if I could help, I would. He also wanted to know if I would mind lending a hand to another team that did not have anyone to do the run leg of the race. Honored to help with any parathlete team, I accepted.
On the Saturday before the race, Gina and I were able to check out the site, pick up race packets and get the lay of the land for the following day. Gina was the celebrity of the day, doing interviews and being pampered by the event sponsors. It was great to watch her basking in the excitement and yet remaining so calm! Her positive attitude is so contagious; she either has no fear or just covers it well. Gina’s excitement on race morning continued to inspire me as well as everyone she talked to. She was ready to have the time of her life and nothing was going to keep her from giving her all. She conquered the swim with no help from me, she rocked the bike with a smile so big you couldn’t imagine and she ran like she’d been doing triathlons all her life. Gina is a role model for anyone who faces adversity; she never lets it get her down and certainly doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She is positive and giving and not only appreciates the life she is living, but those around her who choose to give as well.
For my part, participating alongside athletes who are physically challenged is always a reminder how lucky I am to be able bodied. Knowing the stories of so many of athletes I have had the honor to support reminds me it can all be temporary. I loved swimming and running on Sunday, not just because I enjoy triathlon, but because I had an opportunity to be part of a T.E.A.M. and help two incredibly strong athletes reach their goals of participating. This is the true essence of what World T.E.A.M. Sports is all about, to inspire people to try, and give them help if and when they need it.
Watch Fox Sports coverage of the Nautica Malibu Triathlon, including a profile of Gina.