Creating Comebacks through Adversity with Adventure Racer , Firefighter, and World Record Holder Robyn Benincasa
Setting a world record for endurance kayaking is a big accomplishment. For most people it would be enough. But Robyn Benincasa is not most people, and she set that world record after a medical diagnosis signaled the end to 17 years of adventure racing. She’s also finished 10 Ironmans, was part of America’s first full time all female firefighting team, was named CNN Hero of the Year, and now applies her extensive athletic and team building experience to help corporations and individuals achieve their own massive goals – and those are just the highlights of her extraordinary story.
Robyn Benincasa was at the height of her game- literally- when her life changed.
It was Day 3 in Scotland, and Robyn was competing with her team in the world championships of adventure racing. They were climbing Ben Nevis. At 4413 ft above sea level, Ben Nevis is the highest peak in the British Isles.
Suddenly, Robyn’s left leg went dead. From one stride to the next, her leg completely stopped working. More frustrated than fearful, Robyn focused on doing whatever she had to do to finish that race.
Her team was counting on her.
Robyn’s team means everything to her. Whether she is fighting a fire, climbing a mountain, or leading others through their challenges, the team beside her is her priority.
Her adventure racing team had been to the ends of the earth with Robyn – literally. From high points in Tibet to Borneo jungles to that mountain peak in Scotland, they’d developed a bond and cohesiveness that made them hard to beat.
While other teams designed their strategies around supporting a teammate who is slower in one area than another, Robyn’s team rejected that strategy. Instead they decided, “Let’s not wait for our slowest person. Let’s just not have a slowest person!”
This meant when one team member struggled – be it swimming, climbing, running, whatever – the rest of the 4-5 member team would do whatever necessary to lighten that struggle and help that team member maintain the pace.
Whoever was feeling the strongest at the moment another was feeling the weakest would carry an extra pack. A tow line made from retractable dog leashes was used to literally pull a struggling team mate along.
No matter what, their team moved as one. If one team member quit the entire team would be disqualified. Neither Robyn nor any of her teammates would ever let themself be the reason their team failed. No matter what, they finished every race.
The key was treating all their strengths collectively, says Robyn. It’s one of the strategies she teaches teams around the country when she speaks at events or is brought in to coach. She also teaches hard-learned lessons on resilience, including how to move beyond devastating events to find a new future.
Robyn Benincasa didn’t know it at the time, but as her teammates practically carried her to the finish line of the race in Scotland, her adventure racing days were ending.
The diagnosis crushed her.
“End stage osteoarthritis,” the doctor told her. “You’ll never race again. You’ll never run again.”
Adventure racing was Robyn’s everything. It was what she trained for every day. Her teammates were like family. They’d been through things no one else she knew could relate to: “I don’t even know how many parasites I’ve had,” she laughs, as she remembers leeches raining down on them and discovering the white water they swam through had contained enough animal urine to give them all leptospirosis – a rare and excruciating bacterial disease that causes high fever, headache, bleeding, muscle pain, chills, red eyes, and vomiting. It can kill a person if it’s not treated.
Outside of military service few people would accept such things as routine. That’s why it makes sense that it was a former Navy SEAL who “discovered” Robyn in a gym and brought her to Mark Burnett’s house.
Mark Burnett is best known as a reality show producer of shows like “Survivor.” But he’s also an avid adventure racing athlete and at the time Robyn met him, Mark was recruiting for female team members.
For three days, Robyn and 13 other women experienced a crash course in training at the hands of those former SEALS. It was Hell Week packed into 3 days. Only seven women were left standing at the end of those three days.
Robyn could have been angry or felt defeated when she was not chosen as one of the two teammates for Mark’s team. Instead, she and the other four women formed their own team and moved forward to compete against the SEALS and Mark.
That’s how Robyn rolls – when things don’t go the way she plans or hopes, she quickly recalculates her options and adjusts accordingly.
Robyn Benincasa turns obstacles into opportunities
Robyn has always had a love of adrenaline-filled challenges. From gymnastics to judo, she’s been pushing herself ever since she was little. When she moved to San Diego and started a career, one of the first things Robyn did was explore options for her to indulge her wild side. By day she crushed her challenges in the corporate world, but when she took her skirt and heels off, she hopped right onto a bike or into her running shoes and pounded the pavement with her new friend and coach. She ran the famed Kona four times.
Ironmans are “fun” she says, but eventually Robyn realized they’re not her real jam. “I’m more of a sinker than a swimmer,” she laughs, and in spite of the challenge, they were monotonous. “I need something longer and harder and stupid,” she decided. She wanted to find something that fit her adventurous spirit ; Something more suitably matched to her endurance and athletic style that allowed her to outlast others in longer, tougher conditions.
She found her solution in a news story about a new kind of racing. As she read about adventure racing for the first time, Robyn thought; “This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. This must be my sport!”
Robyn was so entrenched in adventure racing, she barely blinked when she was fired from her corporate job. She walked into a meeting thinking she was about to be given a raise, thanks to her recent recognition as Rookie of the Year. Instead she was given a security escort out of the building.
Rather than stew in resentment, Robyn adjusted course.
She knew two things: She’d been unjustly terminated and she needed to find a new job. Her solution?
She filed a wrongful termination suit that resulted in a handsome severance package, and took the test to become a firefighter.
The firefighter test came across her radar because her boyfriend had been preparing to take it. Six months after she was fired, Robyn was accepted into the world of firefighting and her now ex-boyfriend was not.
Things were still not easy. Robyn waited out a three year hiring freeze by working different jobs while still competing.
Seventeen years into her adventure racing career, Robyn fell on that mountain in Scotland, and her whole vision of her life fell with it.
It could have been her cue to settle down into a sedentary life – to take comfort in past adventures and accept that her adventurous spirit would have to be tamed.
Instead, Robyn has gone on to overcome 5 hip replacements. She’s now walking around with two bionic hips, and she’s a world champion holder in endurance kayaking. She’s a sought after speaker and coach on team-building. She is fully immersed in her passion for teaching athletes and companies how to maximize the power of teamwork and leverage collective strengths. She loves connecting with an audience and feeling them connect with her message.
Robyn Benincasa is also bringing a different kind of adventure into different lives.
Project Athena is the 501(c)3 Robyn founded. It’s mission is to help survivors of medical and/or traumatic challenges reach new athletic goals and achieve their adventurous dreams.
Several times a year, Robyn Benincasa and her new team embark on adventures designed to help survivors tap into a whole new outlook on themselves and their lives. Whether they criss-cross the Grand Canyon, traverse the Florida Keys, or whatever other adventure Robyn plans, participants begin as individuals in search of new insight and leave as a family packed with renewed love of their lives.
The decision to apply her background and adventure sports experience to teach others how to rise above medical or traumatic setbacks is just one more example of Robyn’s indomitable spirit and positive mindset.
“Into every life a little rain must fall,” she knows. But every time it rains, Robyn creates an umbrella.