Stephanie Stonich: Having Fun and Embracing the Moment

Stephanie Stonich: Having Fun and Embracing the Moment

by Bethany, January 24, 2017

People get into triathlon for various reasons.  For some it is to get in shape, try something new, bucket list item or after a life altering event, such as myself, that drives you to do something for yourself in a positive way.  When you first start, no matter the distance you are going for it can be scary, stressful, overwhelming at times, but if you can find the fun in it, those are the moments that you will remember most long after race day is over.


Many of us have grown up in a world where we are taught to do the best we can and push ourselves so we can get to that next place in life…college, job, promotion, etc.  I always say triathlon is a lot like life, but the difference, unlike school or work where you need that to survive in society, we have chosen to do this and all too often get so focused on the end result that we forget to just take time to “have fun and embrace the moment”.


After my mother died of cancer when I was 19, I knew I wanted to live a life as healthy as I could and fitness became a way of life for me ever since.  It made me realize that life is short and to never lose that inner child that seems to grow up so fast.  After a very traumatic personal experience that changed my life forever a few years ago I moved to Atlanta and decided to take a huge leap into the world of triathlon.  When I joined ATC I had run for a few years, but hadn’t really swam since I was a kid and didn’t even own a bike, then learning how to ride one again with skinny little tires where you were attached to it was beyond terrifying.  After 1 sprint and 1 Olympic, I decided to sign up for an Ironman.  There was that moment of “what the he#@ did I just do”, but I knew I had been through much tougher stuff in life and I and was going to make the most of this whole experience.


Triathlon is a goal driven sport and we all have them, but it is how you manage those goals that will reflect what you remember 50 years from now.  We are so driven by finish times and PR’s that are filled with multiple data points, fancy gadgets and training schedules where it seems at time like you have a second full-time job that we sometimes lose sight as to why we decided to do this in the first place.  My approach to this sport is very unconventional compared to most in the community and I sometimes joke that “I am the most non-triathlete triathlete you will meet”, but I can also say I have had a blast every time I hit the race course no matter where I placed across that finish line.


I had a goal with that first Ironman…just to finish!  As many triathletes do, I hired a coach, but I did it a bit old school, “1978 Ironman training” as I like to call it.  I didn’t wear a watch, instead I counted in my head how many laps I had swam, with an occasional inquiry from teammates to keep me honest.  I had a road bike, not a tri bike, which I finally learned how to ride and like Forest Gump just kept running.  I put in just as much time and worked just as hard as my teammates who had their Garmins, tri bikes, power meters, Strava or whatever else they used, but for me just being out there doing it was where I felt success.  Fast forward to race day.  I knew this was my day, the day just to take it all in and think about the journey that brought me to this place.


You hear very often that when times get tough you should have a mantra to get you through those moments.  For me, it was and still is to this day, “Have Fun, Embrace the Moment and be Thankful!”  As I jumped in the water and started swimming I wasn’t thinking about “I had to get X time”, I was thinking about all my swim lane buddies that I was trying to keep up with for so many months and sang my favorite songs in my head…yes it included a favorite 90’s boy band song.  When it came to the bike, it was about conquering that fear where just months before I was terrified.  Since I knew this was going to be the longest part of my day and would be looking heads down for some time I wrote on my aero-bottle “SMILE” with a smiley face that reminded me of my dad, one of my best friends to this day,  who signs every note and letter with the same icon.  As I took off I said “ good job” to every person I passed or passed me.  I waved to everyone on their porch and the cows along the way, even asking for “more cow bell”.  After that first loop, I was like “what? that went by way too quick”, so I actually slowed things down a bit…I’m probably the only person that day who purposely did that, but I wanted to take it all in.  It wasn’t a Sunday afternoon stroll by any means, but I wasn’t going to kill myself and miss out on the all the natural surroundings I was so happy to be in.  I thought about my mom who was watching over me, all the friendships I had built during miles and miles of training and the strength I had found within myself throughout this experience to move past things that in my life did not go as planned.


After I got off that bike, it was the last act, the moment where you really know what you are made of.  I knew I wasn’t going to be the going to Kona or even close to the top of any leaderboard, but that this is where the FUN really starts.  The run is where you have the chance to see most of your teammates, even if they are miles ahead of you, and all those who came out to support you.  It’s where you are truly thankful for the opportunity to do this.  We live in the greatest country in the world, where we have the freedom to go out and “just swim, bike and run”  and I know I am blessed enough to have the physical ability to do so.  I wanted to make the most of those last 26.2 miles, so to quote Anna Wintour, Fashion Editor of Vogue magazine, “If you can’t be better than you competition, just dress better.”


I was influenced by my mom’s great sense of style and a fashion major in college, then working in the industry for a few years, so for me the best way to feel good about the day was to dress in a way that would make me happy.  For the run I didn’t have the traditional tri kit as that got more than enough sweat and wear on the swim and bike, so I decided to change it up.  I pulled together something that I could regroup in and feel like this is how I want to finish my race.  So I created my own tri kit and “blinged” it out with the ATC logo.  Yes I literally had bedazzled my run outfit with rhinestones, and smiled along the way, high fiving every person in my path.  I guess it has become a bit of trademark for me and have raced every IM with some sparkle and pizzazz.  So now for my close friends I give them their own bling if it is their first Tri, 70.3, IM or going for the big one in KONA.


When I crossed that finish line it was one of the greatest moments of my life and I didn’t even know what my time was, it didn’t really matter because that is not what it was about.  I had my family who had been through the ups and downs of my life and some of my closet friends who traveled near and far to be there, so many teammates who I had met over months of training and for the first time in my life doing something 100% for myself!  Since then I have finished multiple other races to include 2 additional Ironman and I go in with the same mantra and attitude, whether it is has been facing the 118 degrees of Coeur de Lane or the torrential downpour of 6.5 hours biking in the rain at Mont-Tremblant, I still have had the best time, meeting some amazing people along the way, even dancing along the finish line of my last race… I mean why not “all those bright lights shining on you with the announcer yelling your name, you feel like a total Rock Star!”  I know I could be more competitive, into the analytics of the data or even faster than I am, but honestly for me that is not what I will remember many years from now when I look back on my life.


Triathlon has made me feel like a kid again whenever I get in the pool, to find the courage to face my fears every time I fly downhill on my bike and to greater appreciate my ability just to run.  This sport has also opened an opportunity to see so many amazing parts of this country, and beyond, that I never would have seen otherwise.  I’ve had some of the most incredible people come into my life and built relationships that will last a lifetime!  I’ve learned that the strength we have within us emotionally is greater than anything that comes our way and far greater than our physical abilities.  That what you think you can’t, you can and that life can throw you some challenges, but you just keep moving forward and always with a smile on your faceJ!


I know my approach is not ideal for most, but encourage everyone to take a step back and find what makes the journey fun for you.  So for all you newbies, seasoned triathletes and everyone in between, to quote my favorite quote:  “LIFE is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away!