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