True Grit : Robyn Benincasa 5

Imagine you’re racing against more than 400 kayakers in the world’s longest nonstop paddling race. You endure 340 miles of water and place 4th overall, while tying for 2nd in the solo category. Impressive? Definitely. Now imagine you did all of this with a crack in your femur bone from a road bike crash two weeks earlier. Such was the experience of Robyn Benincasa this past summer.

World Champion adventure racer, 3x Guinness World Record kayaker, motivational speaker, and Ironman triathlete…A prime example of grit, determination, and inspiration, Benincasa is a longtime endurance athlete and firefighter. As an adventure racer for almost 20 years, she learned that the power of strong leadership and teamwork is the key to winning. She fell into motivational speaking, presenting at conferences for various companies on the essential elements of human synergy.

“We’re not walking side by side; we’re carrying each other, we’re towing each other,” says Benincasa, of her adventure races. Once she started her own adventure racing team, she wouldn’t pick the best athletes, but the best teammates. “I was the captain. It wasn’t about the power; it was about creating and producing the team. Then we’d get out there and everyone would act in their area of strength.”

Moving to San Diego from Long Island, New York in 1988, she landed her first job in corporate sales, after graduating from Arizona State University. However, she soon decided that firefighting would be a better fit; it was physical, there was something new to accomplish every day, and she was able to train for triathlons.

Given her physically demanding background, Benincasa has thrived in largely male-dominated areas and always saw herself as an equal teammate. “From a young age, I never thought to myself, well, maybe I shouldn’t because I’m a girl…it never crossed my mind.”

As an endurance athlete, she’s gained life-changing confidence that she hopes to inspire others to obtain. “Believing in yourself comes from doing; doing crazy, awesome, wonderful things that you almost never imagined you could do, and then you do,” she says. “It makes you a little bit Teflon to those feelings of being less than, because you just know you’re not.”

No stranger to physical setbacks, Benincasa has had five hip replacements, after being diagnosed with Stage Four osteoarthritis. “I was done with being at the top of the sport with adventure racing at that point.” She wanted to find a way to utilize her adventure and endurance skills to help survivors of medical or traumatic setbacks, as well as their families, realize their strength. “I always loved helping people see what they’re capable of.”

In 2008, she founded the nonprofit Project Athena Foundation. Her friend Louise Cooper, a 2x cancer survivor who trained for big adventures as she went through treatment, largely inspired her. Similarly, she traded her running shoes for a paddleboat after her first hip replacement.

The Project Athena team, typically comprising 40 survivors, fundraisers (“Gods” and “Goddesses”), and endurance racing coaches (“Trail Angels”), set out on an organized expedition led by Benincasa. From the San Diego “Harbor to Harbor” marathon to the “Rim-2-Rim” Grand Canyon trek, the adventures are modeled after the greatest team-oriented races. “It didn’t matter who was strongest, it didn’t matter who got the credit. It mattered that we crossed the finish line together,” she says, of her experience with top adventure racing teams.

All members receive a four-month training plan with a certified elite endurance coach to ensure success on the day of the adventure. “These are huge, hairy, ridiculous adventures for a reason. But with training and your teammates, it is totally doable for anybody.” Project Athena doesn’t set out to inspire the survivors, but creates an environment for survivors to inspire and amaze themselves. “Once you’ve had a taste of your own awesomeness, your own capabilities, you wonder what else you can do.”

When she’s not firefighting, on a Project Athena adventure, or speaking at conferences, Benincasa enjoys paddling from Oceanside to Mission Bay, watching the sunset at the Del Mar Plaza.

To join Project Athena as a God or Goddess, recruit a survivor, or learn more about the organization, visit ProjectAthena.org