Excuses, Excuses: Three women who live without them

  • Magazine: TheBlock
  • Issue: Volume 2 Issue 4

Right around Halloween, I received a forwarded email nearly a dozen times. The subject? Why dogs hate their owners. A quick click revealed the sender thought I might relate to those disillusioned folks who believe dressing their dog like a princess, ghost, or George Bush is a good idea. Looking at my sleeping canine curled in his Roots hoody, I knew the sender was right. But after the fifth time I saw it in my list of new mail, I grew weary: Who am I, that so many friends feel I need to see this?

Not long after, a similar flurry of activity made its way to my account. Only this time, instead of being concerned I was on the receiving end of an e-intervention for crazy dog-ladies, its message was somewhat more profound.

The email contained a video clip of father-son duo, Dick and Ricky Hoyt. Together, the Hoyts compete in family-bonding feats like the Ironman. Short of a Shitzu dressed as Darth Vader, there’s nothing as touching as watching a dad and son cross the finishline after a grueling day on a punishing course. Unless – as is the case for Ricky – the son has cerebral palsy and, confined to a wheelchair, is physically transported by dad for the entire race: Tugged in a dingy for the 4km swim, buckled into a seat on Dick’s bike for the 180km ride, and pushed in his chair for the 42km marathon. Each time I read the subject Incredible dad and son, I chose to accept the message as an opportunity to relive my initial astonishment.

Hoyts or no Hoyts in our in-box, at this time of year we are faced with reevaluating our own priorities. While it’s refreshing to list resolutions that don’t pertain to looking great in a bikini, noble ambitions don’t guarantee the goal-setter won’t eventually derail. Be it running a marathon, starting an RRSP, or learning Urdū, statistics show most people eventually throw in the proverbial towel. When the clock strikes midnight, we would be wise to identify the culprit that has prevented us from succeeding before. The painful part of the act of pinpointing culpability, however, is that frequently the guilty one is little old us. Well, little old us and a long list of excuses: Kids to get to soccer, knees that creak, Law & Order re-runs to watch.

The downside of learning about the Hoyts is we begin to hear how lame those excuses sound. The upside is we become aware of people around us who are already embracing their version of Hoytism. Coquitlam’s Lilo Ljubisic, for example, has been on the podium an astounding 19 times for international wins in discuss, shot put, and goalball, setting world records along the way. While familiar with the feeling of medals around her neck, she’s also a recognized trailblazer and self-professed “squeaky wheel” when it comes to equalizing the playing field for athletes with disabilities. Named one of Canada’s Top 20 Most Influential Women In Sport and one of the country’s Top 100 Most Successful Women, Lilo currently serves as the first woman Chair of any International Paralympic Committee as Chairperson of the Athletes Commission. While hers is an oft-heard voice on a global scale, the irony is that for all her ability to see ways to turn wrong into right, Lilo actually can’t see at all.

Born sighted, a misdiagnosed childhood illness resulted in the eventual loss of her vision. But that sizeable setback hasn’t stopped her. “Years ago, I would show up at local all-comers tournaments. The event organizers would tell me I wasn’t welcome,” she recalls. “That kind of rejection marked me; it served as the impetus for me to make change.” When playwright George Bernard Shaw observed that successful people don’t find the circumstances they want, so much as create them, he was describing the world’s Lilos. “I have bruises all over my body from hitting barriers. But once I broke through those, I could look back and see there was a hole. Now, 20 years later, there’s no trace there was ever a wall there.”

It could be argued that this willingness to turn hurdles into opportunities is the predominant commonality among those who embrace an excuse-free lifestyle. As author Gina Mollicone-Long writes in her book The Secret of Successful Failing: “We have been conditioned to focus on avoiding failure rather than learn from it. We spend countless hours analyzing why we failed instead of analyzing how our failure can help us. We focus on the obstacle instead of the solution.”

Named by BC Business Magazine as one of the province’s “life shifters”, Barb Stegemann would put the reinvention matriarch Madonna to shame. Local businesswoman, motivational speaker, columnist, and author of The 7 Virtues of a Philosopher Queen: A woman’s guide to living and leading in an illogical world, Barb is a multi-achiever whose positive outlook, inspired by stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, is simple: Everyone and everything is brought to you for a reason. Either to teach you or to bear. “It’s about being accountable,” she says. “Don’t blame parents, teachers, government. You have to see the lesson in your challenges.”

Born with a severe hearing impairment and raised by a single mom on welfare, Barb knows hardship. (While it sounds like a grandparent’s cliché, she really does remember walking to school sockless in the winter.) “When you’re raised below the poverty level and the wolves are at the door, the gift you learn is the importance of a strong work ethic. And my hearing impairment taught me to study body language, to see what people are really saying. Both challenges taught me empathy.” And it’s an empathy she exudes daily. When a close friend was wounded in Afghanistan, Barb realized a renewed sense of obligation to leading an active life, “If he has to work that hard just to move his hand, I have no right not join him on that journey.” It all comes back to Aurelius, she elaborates: “All we have is today. So why wouldn’t we stretch ourselves to greatness?”

Lined end-to-end, there are enough bookmarks, bumper stickers, and fridge magnets spouting serif-scripted inspirations to make it to the moon and back. Yet most of us discount the messages as touchy-feely fluff. Sure, we’ve all played some variation of the twisted game: If you had a year to live, how would you spend it?, providing answers that include: Lie on the couch and eat chocolate while watching Law & Order re-runs. But how many of us really live like today is all there is?

Port Coquitlam’s Karen Frank does. Diagnosed at 36 with cancer of the peritoneum, Karen faced immediate extensive surgery or a prognosis that she might not be alive one year later. Not a twisted game, but a twisted reality, Karen made the decision to do incredible things. And only months later, Karen signed up to compete in the Ironman, no small feat for a newbie triathlete recovering from life-saving surgery. “My niece and nephews play video games,” she laughs. “And when things aren’t going well for them, they just hit ‘re-start’. I want to show them that in life, there is no ‘restart’ button. You have to keep going forward.”

Four years later, Karen isn’t only cancer-free, she’s a regular on the Ironman circuit, having gained something of a following; those who know she represents the Everywoman. “When I am on the course, I hear strangers yell: ‘Look! It’s Karen Frank!’ I think because it’s been a struggle, yet I keep coming back.” With a strict cut-off time of midnight, completing is a race against the clock. And while Karen has yet to finish in the allotted time – this year she was a mere 18 minutes shy – she will be trying again this year. If she doesn’t finish on time, will she be back in 2008? “There’s no question. Of course.”

When Karen was appropriately presented with the IronSpirit Award for most exemplifying the sprit of Ironman, event organizers blasted her theme song over the speakers like a rock ‘n roll mantra – a tribute to both her outlook and her penchant for BonJovi: It’s my life / It’s now or never / I ain’t gonna live forever / I just want to live while I’m alive…

This eye-on-the-prize determination, they’ve all got it: Lilo, Barb, Karen. “I have a tenacious personality,” Lilo warns. “Maybe it’s because I have a tenacious condition. But the truth is, most people won’t scratch 1% of their potential. If you tell me you don’t have time, I have to ask you: What are your priorities? We say what is important to us. And then we watch TV every night.”

As Mollicone-Long writes, “If we can (master) the art of learning from our failures, then we will find we can literally direct our life exactly as we want it… We need to unlearn our old habits and replace them with new, more empowering habits.” Sick, poor, or just a crazy dog-lady, only we can decide what labels we will or will not accept. It doesn’t matter whether we find inspiration in BonJovi’s lyrics, a philosopher’s insight, or an email about a very special father and son. As for me, I quite like being a crazy dog-lady. But I should probably cut back on the Law & Order.