No Dress Rehearsal

March 4, 2010

No dress rehearsal – live your life, says cancer survivor and athlete

by Lise Diebel

photo: Ted Brellisford

Her story: A breast cancer diagnosis 12 years ago transformed Alexis O’Connor’s fitness level from ordinary to extraordinary.

O’Connor, 65, had always made time for fitness, but the diagnosis led her into the world of sports and over the past five years, the Hamilton grandmother has raced in marathons, duathlons and triathlons.

At age 63, she finished a gruelling Ironman race consisting of a four-kilometre swim, 180-kilometre bike ride and 42-kilometre run. And twice she has raced a canoe more than 300 kilometres along the Yukon River.

Life before cancer: Raising five children kept her busy. When her kids were older,she enjoyed long bike rides with her husband, Michael, a retired teacher who now sells real estate.

“I walked everywhere,” adds O’Connor, who thought nothing of walking from her Westdale home to Burlington, Stoney Creek or Ancaster.

She also did aerobics classes three days a week. She joined the YWCA 25 years ago after quitting smoking. ”I thought I’d put my cigarette money into something, so I joined the gym.”

The diagnosis: In 1997, O’Connor was diagnosed with breast cancer and got a lumpectomy. She also joined the Knot A Breast dragon boat team made up of breast cancer survivors and based at the Macassa Bay Yacht Club in Hamilton.

The decision to join the dragon boat team started her transformation to elite athlete.

Life after cancer: O’Connor began running to build stamina for dragon boating. She entered five-kilometre running races and then duathlons — races that combine running and cycling.

She finished two 42-kilometre marathons and raced three times in the 30-kilometre Around the Bay Road Race.

“I’m doing things I never, ever dreamt I would do. None of this was on my to-do list.”

O’Connor wanted to try triathlons — races consisting of running, cycling and swimming. But there was one huge obstacle. She couldn’t swim.

Her fear of water was cemented when, as a girl, she tried the free lessons offered by Olympian Jimmy Thompson at the east-end municipal pool that now bears his name.

“He would throw you in the water and tell you to swim,” recalls O’Connor. “I never recovered. It was terrifying.”

At age 60, she signed up for swimming lessons at the Y and slowly built up her confidence until she succeeded. She continues to swim there three times a week, doing 60 to 70 lengths per swim.

O’Connor also trains with free weights three times a week to build core, arm and back strength.

She has finished many triathlons including the toughest of all — an Ironman. It took her 17 hours, 12 minutes and four seconds to cross the finish line — but she finished.

She planned to tackle her second Ironman in September but training proved too strenuous for her arthritic hip. “It got so inflamed I couldn’t even walk.”

The future: Her goals for 2010 include entering another triathlon. She hopes to compete in the International Dragon Boat Festival in Peterborough in June where breast cancer teams from all over the world will come together.

In 2011, O’Connor wants to return to the Yukon Territory to compete in the world’s longest canoe race. O’Connor and her team tried twice before — most recently in June — finishing half of the 746-kilometre marathon race before hypothermia forced them to quit.

Words of wisdom: “This is your life, so live it,” says O’Connor. “You realize this isn’t a dress rehearsal.”

About the Author: Lise Diebel is a freelance writer based near Hamilton, Ontario.

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