The Thrill of Victory the Agony of PTSD
For Amy Cotta, it isn’t the actual competing in extreme athletic events that gives her an adrenaline rush, it’s something so much more, deeper, more refined than just the thrill of the event….. or even the finish.
Keenly aware of what its like to have a child serving in the military, Amy competes in a variety of races each year, as her act of patriotism. She uses these events to visibly remind her fellow participants that freedom really isn’t free and her son, a Marine, is one who is serving on their behalf. Her focus in every competition is to bring attention to the realities of prolonged war for those returning home from combat and suffer from PTSD which hinders their quality of life long-term. Just over a year ago she mapped out a very robust competition schedule for 2013, which included three marathons, a very emotionally charging 26.2 march in White Sands, NM called the Bataan Memorial Death March, a few half marathons and a triathlon. All of which she would participate in her extremely worn combat boots; her signature tribute to her son and many of his friends whose lives have already gone silent. But early in 2013 she had the opportunity for a spot on the Arizona Ironman and she couldn’t wait! It is after all the mother of all endurance races with a 2.4 mile swim in river water, then a 112 mile bike race and topped off with a 26.2 mile run which she prepared to do in her combat boots. With her race schedule trimmed to accommodate this amazing opportunity, she began training in March after the Bataan. The most challenging aspect for Amy would be the swim. Having only learned real swim technique four years ago, it was going to be a challenge from the sound of the first cannon on race day.
With months of training under her belt, which included an untimely reprieve in early July to treat an injury, Amy showed up to the “Arizona” with the will to honor all who serve and to take their “Never Quit” attitude with her. And that was the mantra she repeated over and over the day before the event at the practice swim.
For when she dove into the water, every sense of doubt flooded her mind as the cold water slapped a dose of reality across her face and took her breath away. Try as she might, she could not relax to get in a good swim. She left the water refusing to quit but certainly reflecting on how she would overcome the doubt that just jolted her into too many “what if” scenarios she was now replaying over and over the rest of the day. Realizing now that this was not something she could do alone, she sent out a few SOS texts to friends, family asking for prayers.
That worked. A sense of calm came over her and she was able to get a good night’s sleep. By the time she was up and moving at 3:30am, Amy had a peace about her that was unusual for her on race day. At 5:30am she was at the race start amidst the sea of 2700 other participants preparing for the third cannon shot for the start. Cannon one went off, no problem, cannon two, easy. Cannon three and she jumped in the cold water almost slapping it back for what it had done to her the day before. It took some time, but she got in a groove and started casting doubt aside. Halfway through she labored in what was some troublesome current. Still calm, a referee told her she better kick it up or she would miss finishing in the two hour twenty minutes allotted for the swim to continue in the event. Suddenly her legs and abs began to cramp. Moving became impossible, and for about ten minutes not one stroke was productive as the cramping overcame her ability to move forward.Another deep breath and she got back in the groove. She was finally sailing, beating the cold water, the current and cramping to make her way to the finish. 300 meters from the finish she knew she “had it” when the referee told her to get out of the water. Startled but still swimming she asked why, and he informed her she timed out. She refused to stop, and the Never Quit attitude kicked in just as hard as the cramps. She asked if she could at least finish the swim and the judge told her no as his group reached out to pull her into the boat.
What she didn’t realize was it would take complete strangers and a team of people whom she had only just met to help her overcome her utter disappointment in being pulled from the water. While coming to the crushing reality that she wasn’t going to finish the race, something miraculous happened. An active duty Marine walked up and hugged her. Unable to finish the race himself, and observing she was a Marine mom, he spoke kind words and walked with her outside the swim gate to go collect her bike. One glance and they understood each other. Disappointment for both? Yes. Give Up? No! They quickly agreed they would both finish the race together at a future event. Their last words they spoke before departing was “we will finish this together, very soon.” He was grateful, because he suffers from PTSD and in the sea of 2698 other competitors there with them, he felt understood for a change.
Meanwhile, a small group of volunteers who didn’t know Amy prior to this race spent the previous day printing banners of support including a poster of her son for cheering her on at the end of the race. When they learned she didn’t finish the swim, they decided to still make the 30 mile trek to the Ironman Village and show some love. When Amy saw them holding a poster of her son, she responded with an apology admitting she was sorry the day didn’t turn out as planned. And without hesitation 21 year old Carolyn who is a cancer survivor, replied “honey, I totally get life not going as planned. But we’re both here and that’s all that matters”. The group then proceeded to tell Amy they will be at her next race, no matter where it is located.
Witnessing the interaction and hearing the words of love and encouragement, a woman sitting on a bench nearby, spoke up and said “now I’m undone. My son is in Afghanistan and y’all got to me.” She was thankful to learn about the Boot Campaign and amazed that the group loving on Amy had never met before. She was so encouraged by the hope and joy displayed.
Suddenly it all came together. It wasn’t about finishing the Ironman, it was about something much deeper, something more refined than the competition or the finish. It was knowing that it takes a team to make it, be it combat or a competition. You can’t do it alone. Which reminded her of the tried and true lesson all military learn from the day they take their oath to serve: no matter what, we’re in this together and we have your back. To help put an exclamation on that motto for Amy, when she returned home she learned a fellow triathlete had gone to her fundraising page benefitting the Boot Campaign. He donated the $587 needed to reach her goal of $2200 in memory of the 22 veteran suicides that happen each day in America. And in so doing, Amy completed her mission with the Arizona Ironman 2013!