Back in 2011, when I was training for my first triathlon, I was a terrified, unathletic 50 year old who could barely swim across a pool, and who fell down every time I tried to ride a bike. I was a mess. I was by far the slowest, most struggling person on our team. Every single time we had a workout, I wanted to give up. I always came in dead last, whether it was a run, a swim or a bike ride.
But this was Team in Training, and we weren’t just training for ourselves. We were also raising funds for those who were dealing with blood cancers. Each team has team captains and honorees, or “honored patients” who remind us why we’re doing what we’re doing. Our team captain was AJ Jabanero, and his daughter Izzy was our honoree. I’ll never forget meeting them both at our season Kickoff.
During one of our grueling training days, I reached my breaking point. I had had a panic attack in the open water, feeling like I couldn’t breathe. My legs felt like lead during the run. I was spent and discouraged and feeling like the whole thing was an enormous mistake. I pulled away from the team, sat down on the curb and just cried.
AJ came and sat down next to me. He listened to me bawl and snuffle. I told him about how I’d been trying so hard to be healthy, to do something strong and great with my body. I’d made a turnaround after being overweight and couch-potatoish and being diagnosed with diabetes. But maybe a triathlon was just too much.
He listened to me. He was very serious. He didn’t try to cheer me up right away, or give me a big pep talk. He just nodded and said, “I used to be like that too. Overweight. Out of shape. Not able to do much.” I couldn’t believe it. He said, yeah. He had not always been the fastest guy on our team of athletes. He hadn’t always been in this peak physical condition. Every time we had a team run, AJ was one of the front runners, finishing easily and quickly, and then waiting sometimes hours for the rest of us to straggle in. He was an incredible athlete. “Yeah,” he said. He told me that he’d also come a long way. I saw that he understood where I was. He’d been there. He had so much compassion.
AJ helped me get up that day. He continued to encourage me through the rest of the season, until I finally crossed that triathlon finish line, one of the very last that day.
I was so shocked at the unfairness of life when I learned that AJ had developed cancer himself, after his daughter Izzy went into remission. I was even more shocked and saddened when he passed away earlier this month. It didn’t seem possible.
What didn’t shock me, however, was the incredible turnout at a San Francisco run in his honor. I was so moved to see many of our triathlon teammates there.
We walked and ran to the Golden Gate Bridge, and there was AJ waiting to give us a fist bump. It made me cry but it also made me smile. Thank you AJ, for believing in me and in so many of us. We won’t forget. #AJSTRONG
March 24, 2015 at 1:31 am
So sad, Susan! . . . On so many levels.
March 24, 2015 at 7:11 am
Thank you for sharing your amazing story and goal and AJ with us. Life is so not predictable, his legacy shows his beautiful spirit. I read your story and I was the same person, couch potato, diabetic, obese. I struggled my whole life with food and being unfit. Over the last 15 months, I lost 100 lbs, yet I am still NOT motivated to exercise! What makes you get up and do it everyday? I am praying I get there! Each day is a gift and we are so blessed to be here! Thank you for blogging your journey today, you r Awesome!
March 24, 2015 at 7:59 pm
Lisa – wow, what a huge accomplishment – 100 lbs in 15 months? That’s amazing. You know, exercise is all about developing routines, consistency. It helps a LOT to have a buddy or a team to be accountable to. I don’t have that currently – it’s more off and on, and I feel the lack of it. I don’t get up and do it everyday! Although I do try to get a walk in as often as possible. It’s something. Start small. Start with something manageable and go from there. I wish you the best – you are awesome too!
March 24, 2015 at 2:39 pm
So sad and yet so inspirational. AJ’s life surely was a life well lived that touched so many people.
March 25, 2015 at 6:22 am
I love you wrote this as YOUR WORDS are the greatest tribute you could give someone.
March 25, 2015 at 9:18 pm
So powerful! Thanks for sharing this moving tribute. I did not know him, but I see what a great person he was and how much he meant to you and so many others. Just goes to show the difference one person makes.