This past Sunday, I opened up my 2016 season in Merida, Mexico at the Merida CAMTRI American Cup. This race was certainly a long time coming. My 2015 season was short-lived and promptly ended after a crash during a race in Riga, Latvia in early August. I fractured my toe and deeply sliced open my foot between my second and third toes down the ball of my foot (that’s is a story for another day). Needless today, I was ready to put the rotten year behind me and begin writing a new chapter in my book.

I’ve been fostering my own need for redemption and drew inspiration from that in the long fall and winter training. Some days, that was more than enough, and it was easy to train with visions of the ideal race and breaking the finish line tape playing out before my eyes. But other days are harder; the fire needs stoking, and it’s easier to get discouraged and lose sight of the big picture. But one month before my race, a new source of inspiration came into my life and influenced my whole perspective going into a new year and new season.

I graduated from Princeton in 2014 with Denna Laing. While we never knew each other at school, it seems in some ways, we were on parallel paths. She was captain of the Women’s Ice Hockey Team, I of the Women’s Track and Field Team. She went on to play professional hockey, in the inaugural season of National Women’s Hockey League for the Boston Pride, while I have pursued professional triathlon. On December 31, 2015, Denna had the opportunity to play in the first Outdoor Women’s Classic, which was a huge breakthrough moment for women’s ice hockey. Early in the game, she tragically crashed into the boards and suffered severe spinal cord damage, requiring a massive surgery. Originally after the surgery, she had little movement in her arms and no feeling in her legs.

Since her accident, I have been following Denna’s progress through rehabilitation and have been left in awe. With every update, Denna’s light and fighting spirit shines through. Her love of her sport lives on and burns just as strong, despite the altering effect it has had on her life. She says she wouldn’t have given up the opportunity to play in that special game, despite the tragic consequences. I can only imagine how difficult many days are as she comes to terms with her injury and stares down the seemingly endless road of rehabilitation that stretches out ahead of her. Yet Denna has bravely has accepted this challenge. In one message to everyone, she discussed the importance of teammates in her life and told everyone that she draws inspiration from them, new team of supporters. Denna’s number at Princeton was 14, which was also our class year. Since her accident, hockey teams from around the country have been posting pictures in a 14 formation in honor of Denna.

In my tough January training block, there were moments when I wanted to do anything but walk out the door to workout again. During those moments, I thought of Denna and her fierce passion, love for her sport, positivity, and strength. I thought of how lucky I was to not only be able to train as a professional triathlete, but to just be outside each day to swim, bike, and run in beautiful places around the world. It is all about the journey and taking each day as an opportunity and a gift not to be wasted.

So as I stepped to the starting line on Sunday and nerves and self-doubt started to bubble up, I brought my mind back to Denna and her journey. I was out there to seize my opportunity, and to compete in her honor. I wanted to put my heart and soul into this race, not only for myself, but for my Princeton classmate who was fighting each day to get stronger.

I ultimately finished 8th in the race, which was my best finish yet, in my second ever Olympic distance race and 4th professional race. I had hoped and dreamed for better, but I walk away with more clarity of my weaknesses and one more race experience to my name. More importantly, I have my Tiger inspiration to keep fighting, get stronger, and love the journey.

A special thanks to my coach Jarrod Evans for getting me back on my feet (more than once) in 2015 and being there for the race on Sunday. Thank you to Team Psycho for supporting me and the CRP program heading into 2016. Finally, big shout out to Roll Recovery for hooking me up with their awesome massage tools; they not only prepped me well for the race, but were key post-race for my “first race of the season in-shock” muscles.

If you would like to learn more about Denna Laing’s journey and help out with her recovery, her website is http://www.dennalaing.org/. Here is a message from Denna and a glimpse of her fighting spirit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l8koYDQWtpU.

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