My journey through sport, as in life, has been a work in progress. If I could post a sign above my sport/life experience and could only use two words, they would be “under construction.” That is, and will always be, the beauty of sport for me. It is an ever-evolving companion, a medium that allows me to express myself and push the body I’ve been given.
As part of this beautiful project, we were allowed to select a sport (or sports) that represents us. While I was a professional triathlete and have been an endurance athlete for most of my life, I chose ice and rock climbing. Both sports require the athlete to be absolutely present. She must be focused on solving a route to the top, as well as getting her partner up the route safely. These two sports are not my forte. I struggle, I swear and I learn. Often times, I am afraid. But in resolving and unlocking those problems in sport, I am able to unlock many pieces of myself when returning to everyday life.
Today though, I’m going back to my roots and talking triathlon—one story in particular. I was racing the professional triathlon circuit, and I was close to qualifying for the Olympic trials. That year, I travelled to 17 races in 11 countries. I stayed with host families—lovely, beautiful people from every culture who opened their hearts, doors and dinner tables to those of us from faraway lands and showing us that although we are very different, so much of each of us is the same.
In one such experience, I was racing on a small island south of Okinawa. It was my very last race on the circuit. If I placed high enough and garnered enough points, I would be heading directly from there to Hawaii for the Olympic trials. If not, I would be going home and concluding this dream.
It was a privilege to get an invitation to this race, but it would be an uphill battle. This international race also served as the Olympic qualifier for four countries. The world’s best decided to toe the line and I was the least experienced of the ladies on the line that day.
I made a pact with myself as the gun went off and the field of swimmers, thrashing in the blue, crystal clear water, began to pull away from me. I would not get lapped. This race became so much more than points—it was all about finishing. And I would not get lapped, because I would get pulled from the race. My expectations changed, but my focus did not. I was going to do my very best on this day, even if my best was last place.
I exited the water alone. I biked as hard as my lungs and legs would carry me, the tropical humidity engulfing me as sweat streamed onto my handlebars and crust from sweat and saltwater accumulated on my legs. I exited the bike, elated that I had not been lapped by the leaders and would be able to finish.
The rest of the race was absolutely magical and I drank it in. I ran over a bridge, elderly ladies traditionally dressed and methodically beating drums in unison. The crowd was deafening. Ten ladies dropped due to heat exhaustion. I would give it all I had, and I would finish this race, ending the journey in tears and sweat and gratitude for an incredible ride. I was getting high fives and I was smiling and crying. I was the last finisher. I felt like a million bucks.
That night, there was an outdoor post-race party complete with a Japanese rock band covering 80s rock tunes and an ample flow of fresh fish and sake. I was sitting on the grass with my fellow athletes, sunburned legs outstretched, absorbing the atmosphere and savoring the warm, fragrant island breeze on my face.
Suddenly, a group of Japanese youngsters came up to our group with a translator, wanting to meet me and get my autograph. I chuckled; ironically, I sported the same red hair and freckles as the first-place athlete that day, so I tactfully pointed to the winner to send them over to her.
The translator reassured me that I was who they were looking for. The young group stayed and waited on that bridge to see me run by them. They waited to see me come through the finish. They said I demonstrated “Ganbatte,” which is the fighting spirit to persevere. And they were as elated to meet me as if I had won. And in that moment, I felt like I had.
I’ve won a lot of races since then, and I’ve lost a lot more. But it was in that last place experience that I learned the most. The lesson is etched in me forever … it is a part of me and when I have a hard day, I picture their faces as a reminder that it’s okay to put oneself out there and that the lessons learned, even in the “failures,” are often the greatest gifts.
Cami Gage is one of 10 athletes selected for the Women Veteran Athletes Initiative. The participants represent all branches of the armed services, and were selected by VA and its partners — the Veterans Canteen Service, Team Red, White & Blue, the Semper Fi Fund and Comcast. Visit the Center for Women Veterans website to see photos of each athlete by Veterans Portrait Project photographer Stacy Pearsall. Find more on social media at @deptvetaffairs (Twitter, Instagram) and @VAWomenVets (Twitter, Facebook) and by following #WomenVetAthletes.
About the author: Cami Gage works for the Semper Fi Fund, where she serves as an associate director for their sport program, providing opportunities for recovery through sport for wounded, ill, and injured veterans. She served in the Air Force as a personnel officer from 1998-2004. Her favorite sports these days include rock and ice climbing, backcountry skiing, trail running, and stand up paddle boarding the beautiful alpine lakes of Colorado.