Robyn Benincasa’s right leg gave out with three days remaining in the 2007 Adventure Racing World Championship in Scotland. Her teammates put her on towlines to make sure they finished the grueling race. It marked the end of the line after 17 years atop the field in one of the planet’s hardest competitions. But Benincasa says the biggest disappointment was not that her career in adventure racing was done—it was coming in sixth place. That’s not acceptable “if you are good enough to come in first,” says the two-time world champion.
Benincasa isn’t one to settle for average. She quit competing in IRONMAN events because she was “OK”—her description—at them. Never mind that she qualified for four national championships in Kona, Hawaii. Benincasa became a champion adventure racer before the action caught up to her body. Not to be outdone, she then set three Guinness World Records in paddleboat competitions, one of which (moving-water racing) still stands.
Six hip replacement surgeries later, Benincasa now pushes others to be their best. She is the founder and minster of dreams of the Project Athena Foundation, a nonprofit that creates one-day athletic challenges for women who have survived medical or other traumatic challenges. Benincasa, who is nearing 20 years as a full-time firefighter in San Diego, is also an in-demand motivational speaker. She translates her stories and experiences in adventure racing into teambuilding lessons for Fortune 500 companies like Starbucks, Walmart, Boeing, Johnson & Johnson, Siemens, Nestle and Hewlett-Packard.
Connect got Benincasa to stand still long enough—no small feat!—to discuss it all.
I was OK. I got to Kona four times and placed in my age group a couple of times. I wasn’t good enough to go pro because I couldn’t swim well. I was not a great runner either, honestly. In a way, I am glad I was never good enough to be pro because then I never would have left and become an adventure racer, and that was what I was meant to do.
On Adventure Racing
It’s not thrilling at all. It’s just gnarly all the stuff you have to get through: fever, bacteria, leeches, mud, wearing the same clothes for six days, not brushing your teeth. But it’s crazy how fun the game is. You have to outthink and outstrategize the competition. It's like 4D chess on a physical level; it’s fun to be the best in the world at it.
On Racing Nonstop
It’s not hard to race for 24 hours. It’s harder to race six or seven or eight days. It gets real on that second or third day. That's where the real teamwork has to come in because you can’t do it alone. It takes months to recover and feel normal again because you were so far down physically and emotionally.
The Toll It Took
I did 40 six- to 10-day nonstop adventure races over 17 years. I was just wrecked—but don't think I’d have it any other way.
The Transition to Paddleboarding
Luckily for me, the injury happened as I was on my way out of adventure racing. I thought, “OK, it’s time to switch sports.” It wasn't that hard because there are plenty of other sports. I thought, “I can’t run, but I can paddle. Let’s see what I can do there.” It became equally fun to win some of those big races. I don't try to bang my head against a wall. I look at what I’m naturally sort of good at and how I can get better. If you put together what you’re naturally good at and what you love and work really hard at it, that's where the magic is.
Running Project Athena
Now I get to show other people what they are capable of. Most human beings are capable of a lot more than they think. We can train people to race for literally 24 hours when two years ago they were smoking cigarettes and 100 pounds overweight—or people who’ve gone through massive setbacks or traumas. We’ve had people with stage 4 cancer complete our adventure. It’s not about what you were; it’s about being the best at who you are.
I’d say half the survivors and 90 percent of fundraisers who take part in Project Athena are from corporate keynote audiences. It’s a corporate teambuilding thing for people who want to turn it into that.
Inspiring Through Speaking
Speaking is up there with Project Athena in terms of importance. I worked with a couple of corporations before I became a firefighter. Now I speak to 100 corporations per year. It’s cool to present teamwork and leadership in a way they have never seen before. I talk about adventure racing and how the teams that won were literally carrying each other. That really hits home for people. Accepting help isn’t a weakness, it’s how you win.