By Richard Rhinehart
Grand Junction, Colorado, September 6, 2013 – In the high red rock desert of western Colorado not far from the Utah state line, the annual Adventure TEAM Challenge from non-profit World T.E.A.M. Sports proves to participating athletes, volunteers and the public that disabilities do not preclude active participation in outdoor sports.
“How people pull together to work through challenging situations – mentally, physically, and emotionally – is inspiring,” said Gina Utegg, a 44-year-old mother and former senior pharmaceutical executive who participated in her first Challenge in 2012. “There is a great sense of accomplishment and realization that each member has strengths and weaknesses. We collaborate and inspire each other to do activities that are athletic, adventurous and fun.”
After a serious automobile accident left her disabled with traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress syndrome, spinal cord damage, and central nervous system damage, Utegg was told by doctors in 2009 that she also had breast cancer. Surgery, chemo and radiation followed. Though there has been no recurrence to date, she is considered to be “someone living with cancer.” “I was determined to start exercising, cycling and getting physically fit,” the Massachusetts resident recalled.
The accident changed Utegg, who admits she is not the person she used to be. “It took a long time to get out of the fog and darkness and I don’t want to go back there.” Accepting an invitation to participate in World T.E.A.M. Sports’ annual Face of America bicycle ride with disabled veterans, Utegg realized her life was not over. “This ride was the spark and beginning of my new life as a proud disabled endurance athlete.”
Now active in charity and endurance bicycle rides on her recumbent bicycle, Utegg also competes in paratriathlons. In May 2012, she traveled west to Colorado to compete as a member of the first all-female team in the Adventure TEAM Challenge. Though her team finished near the back of the pack (“We came in first place in the all-female competition,” says Utegg with a smile), it provided the members a weekend of inspiration.
“The difficulties of competing in the Challenge are mainly attributed to the scope of athletic activities that are part of the event,” said Utegg, who is currently training for the 2013 Challenge. “Not everyone is ‘good’ at every sport. That is why team work is essential.”
“Communication, ingenuity, honesty, and listening are key,” Utegg explains. “The disabled team members are often very strong athletes, or have been through difficulties and bring a uniting perspective to the team. Every member is tested at one point or another in the Challenge and the team needs to co-exist and become a single working unit. That’s the cool part, and it gets you over the difficult parts.”
Often in pain from her injuries, Utegg enjoys the physical activity of events and the supportive nature of participating athletes and teams. “Many activities are doable with adaptive equipment, and you have to be cognizant to not compromise any previously injured body parts by technique or actions.”
At the Challenge, five person teams compete against the clock and each other through three days of mountain biking, river rafting, rappelling, climbing and hiking. Each team includes two persons with disabilities; one being a wheelchair user. “Last year, I did a 200-foot free-fall rappel,” said Utegg. “It was one of the most amazing things I have even done in my life. I conquered my fear of heights and enjoyed the view!”
For individuals coping with disabilities, and have an interest in outdoor sports, Utegg has a strong message. “Have hope and believe in yourself. Determination, hard work and getting a great network of people of all abilities through World T.E.A.M. Sports and other organizations can be the spark you need.”
The Adventure TEAM Challenge from World T.E.A.M. Sports will be held at the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area west of Grand Junction September 13-15. Sponsored by Fidelity & Guaranty Life, Penske Truck Rental and Timberline Tours, the Challenge is one of many inclusive events for disabled and able-bodied athletes from the non-profit organization, celebrating 20 years in 2013.
Richard Rhinehart serves as Director of Communications for World T.E.A.M. Sports.