As a young child, even into my early adult years, I was plagued by the idea that I must do everything right and play life by The Book: stay within social boundaries, get perfect grades, go to college, graduate in four years, find a man, get married, start a career and family, then retire to Florida to live out your final days. Done. The summer before college, I spent the better part of my days on the Sacramento River, kayaking with my best friend, dreaming of what life would be like if we just did not care what everyone else thought. What if we did not go to college? What if we had gotten C's in English class instead of A's? What if we said "F*&% it!" and spent a year traveling Europe -- you know, living our lives? Even at 18, I was questioning why our society seems to work now so we can live later, always making excuses about why we cannot do something.
Shortly after my mother's initial diagnosis of breast cancer, I made the conscious decision to stop playing life by this imaginary book. After my family was told my mother's cancer was in remission, I dropped everything, moved to a tropical island and tried to do what I wanted. My mom had played by The Book, and from my vantage point, it had not seemed to work out for her. She had gotten her first of two children off to college and finally was going to start living life for herself. Then she got sick.
Over the past several weeks, I have been inundated with inspiration to get out and live. While speaking with Donna Cardillo, RN, I was struck by the repeated theme that emerged, as Cardillo discussed caring for her husband with Multiple Sclerosis (MS): "It's about doing what you can do, not focusing on what you can't," she said. Later, while discussing MS with Montel Williams, Williams poignantly stated that managing the disease is all about "getting busy living." Both statements, though simple, were profound. How many of us resign to the fact we can't do something?
"Can't" is not a word in Jenny LaBaw's vocabulary. At just six months old, LaBaw suffered a bout with meningitis that left scarring on her brain, which eventually led to epilepsy. At age 14, LaBaw had grand mal seizures -- those which affect the entire brain. Doctors advised LaBaw that if she was not able to get the seizures under control, she might never drive, have children or live on her own. LaBaw subsequently began taking epilepsy medication. With the support of her parents and brother, she learned to cope with the side effects and live life as any other young, driven child. "I don't remember my parents ever 'babying' me or treating me as if something was wrong," recalls LaBaw, "I was always encouraged to go out a play, just like any other kid."
After four years of collegiate soccer and track for Cornell College, LaBaw discovered CrossFit. During her first year in the sport, she placed 6th overall in the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games and took a first place finish in the 2012 NorCal Regionals. Sponsored by names like Reebok, RockTape, Primal Blueprint and Pure Pharma, LaBaw then began training for the 2013 Reebok CrossFit Games, with the same determination as she had in years past. The day before the first workout, however, LaBaw broke her foot in a bicycle accident. A bystander ran to ask if she was okay and found LaBaw sitting on the ground, dumfounded. "I just broke my foot!" LaBaw cried out, devastated. "I am a professional athlete. I. Need. My. Foot!" LaBaw admits thinking she was "done."
With only a few days to complete the first of five workouts (at a pace of one workout per week, for five weeks), LaBaw had a decision to make. After consulting her team, including her trainers, orthopedist and boyfriend -- professional water skier Marcus Brown, LaBaw decided to give it a go on one foot.
CrossFit Open Workout 13.1 was grueling. Each competing female was instructed to proceed through the sequence below, completing as many repetitions as possible in 17 minutes:
· 40 Burpees
· 45 pound Snatch, 30 reps
· 30 Burpees
· 75 pound Snatch, 30 reps
· 20 Burpees
· 100 pound Snatch, 30 reps
· 10 burpees
· 120 pound Snatch, as many reps as possible
LaBaw completed most of the sequence, and immediately, word spread throughout the CrossFit community. People with the spectrum of athletic abilities flooded LaBaw's email inbox with letters, thanking her for the inspiration and sharing stories of how she motivated them to work a little harder, get around their limitations,and have a can-do attitude. "I never thought I would be inspiring so many people," muses LaBaw. "It is truly heartwarming."
After five weeks of competing on one foot, LaBaw placed 301 out of 1609 competitors in the Northern California region. She emphasizes that while she always has had "an internal drive to try to be better than [she] was the day before," she only works around a limitation, not through an injury. "It is important to listen to your body, because it will tell you what it needs," she says.
Sometimes it takes the determination of another to show us that maybe, just maybe, we can do a little more than we think. In my own moments of weakness as a caregiver, I wanted to throw in the towel, turn my back and call it a day. But then I watched my mother, whose body was wrecked with cancer, getting up every single morning and enduring a never-ending barrage of poking, prodding and ingesting of nasty medicine, without one word of complaint. Seeing her reminded me that I was just indulging in a self-pity party. If she could power on, I most certainly could as well.
Whether you are the caregiver, patient or medical professional dealing with an illness, get curious about what budge room there is in whatever challenge you are facing. As Emmy award-winning talk show host Montel Williams said to me recently, while discussing his Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis, "The only thing you can control is how you respond to what happens to you on any given day... I'm about living. I am going to live every day. I don't face a day that I say, 'I can't.'"
LaBaw similarly reminds us that we always can work around obstacles, by coming up with creative alternatives. In addition, she notes, if we have a bad day, there is always another one tomorrow.