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Robyn Benincasa: A "Real Life" Superwoman Or Breaking World Records, Fighting Fires & Bionic Hips

We are talking to a superwoman and when I say superwoman, that's Robyn Benincasa.

If you're just getting to know her, you're going to discover that she truly is superwoman. She is a two-time world champion adventure racer, an award-winning motivational speaker and a CNN Hero. She is a three-time Guinness World record holder, a San Diego active firefighter, a ten-time IRONMAN triathlete and a New York Times bestselling author and the Founder and CEO of the 501(c)(3) Project Athena Foundation, which helps survivors live an adventurous dream as part of their recovery.

She is truly an inspirational figure with what she's done in her life and what she is empowering others to do and it blows me away. This episode is about team building in this idea of human synergy.

She speaks across the globe on how to foster great synergy in the workplace environment and just teams and your community and altogether. It’s like, “How do you get people around you motivated? How do you get them excited about your mission?” Some of us don't have people that want to be there, some people are just put on teams. What do you do in that situation? Also, you're going to discover what if you have a bad leader? What is the strategy to overcome that situation? Also, how do you achieve more? No matter if you're on a team, how do you get through the mental attitude, the limiting beliefs and get more out of yourself, out of your teams and out of your community? This one is truly an inspiration. You're going to benefit big time with this show.

Dustin
I am here with Robyn Benincasa. If you're just getting to know her, you should know that she's from another planet. Robyn, I believe you're from Krypton and you're Superwoman in disguise. How do you feel about that?
Robyn
No, anything but. Thank you for being so nice.
Dustin
If you're just getting to know Robyn, she is the proud owner of two bionic metal hips, a two-time world champion adventure racer, three-time Guinness World record holder and a current and active San Diego firefighter. You're a New York Times bestselling author, a motivational speaker and a ten-time IRONMAN triathlete. People understand now the reference to Superwoman and Krypton here. When you were growing up, do you think you're going to be a renaissance woman? Do you just know that maybe you want to be in all these different areas or did life just unfold in this manner?
Robyn
As a kid, I was a gymnast and I was lucky enough to do that. We found a flyer on my front lawn to come to this gymnastic school. Do you know how the universe brings you these things sometimes? Part of it is being open to that. I started gymnastics and I had the most amazing coaches that solidified this drive to be great. One of the most important factors was a guy named Stormy Eaton who was one of my gymnastics coaches in my teenage years. He was part father, part coach and a part superhero. He just instilled in all of us that drive. I was blessed that he was in my path in life and I continued on that course.
Dustin
Do your parents and siblings bring to this whole competitive nature?
Robyn
No, neither of my parents were very athletic. None of my sisters are. It was that influence of the drive to want to be as good as you possibly could and then it related to school and it related to everything else after that. It's just that idea, “Why not me? Why can't I be at the top of my class? Why can't I be the best diver in college? Why can't I be the world record holder? Someone's got to do it. Why wouldn't it be me if I work hard enough and I get the right team around me and get a great coach?” It's not confidence, it's the understanding that if anyone's going to put their head down and drive hard and never stop, I know I'm just as good at that from my early years as just about anybody else.
Dustin
Would you say you were awakened or he introduced the world of what was possible?
Robyn
It was inspiring to just watch him. He was not only our coach, but he was also an IRONMAN triathlete, hence that direction. At our camps in the summer, he would like do silly things like, “I'm going to run 26 miles up the mountain to the camp from the town down below.” You just watch this guy and all this stuff he put on his own plate to help himself continue to rise to the occasion. We all wanted to be just like him, all of us.
Dustin
I want to go to a pivotal moment. One of the pivotal moments in your life is you discovered that you have stage 4 osteoarthritis in your hips. How did you get to that point to where you got Stage 4? How did you receive the news? Walk us through that part of your life.
Robyn
I had no idea I was even going down that road, but having done sports at a competitive level since eight and then I was 40. I had done a lot of years of IRONMAN and adventure races which lasts eight to ten days and you're moving the entire time and all the training for that. Evidently, I'm one of the people that has a femoroacetabular impingement, which a lot of women have, but you never know. It's like when your hips aren't completely square and so as you're doing miles and miles, you just wear away the cartilage. If your tires were not rotated correctly, you just wear away on one side or the other. That was what was happening. I discovered that at the World Championships in Scotland with my adventure racing team and I literally could not take another step.
Dustin
Are you in a race?
Robyn
I’m in a race, in the world championships vying for the lead. I hit the deck, I completely lost the power to move my leg forward and fell over. Little did I know that was a moment where my last little piece of cartilage just gave up. It took three days of physically moving my leg forward to get through the course. We were still sixth. Carolina win. They had to take all my gear and they put a tow line on me and my job was to move my leg for the next three days. Bless their hearts, but we still want to try to make the top five. After that, I went to have an X-ray. It’s like, “What's going on? Why can't I move my leg forward?” He just popped the X-ray up and said, “You're never going to run again.”
Dustin
What was that like hearing that?
Robyn
It was literally my first time that anything had gone wrong with my structure in my entire life. I broke a finger once but nothing else had ever happened to me. I didn't believe it, honestly. I could see but my mind was like, “I'm going to be able to get through this just like I've been able to get through everything else.” I told him to give me some ibuprofens and I would see him in a few years. As I walked out the door, he said, “I'll see you in a few weeks.” He was right because I just needed that time to wrap my brain around it. I’m six hip surgeries later, the first two failed. Our first two hip replacements failed, then a cup came loose and another cup didn't osseointegrate. It's been crazy. Over eight years, I had six different surgeries.
Dustin
You're an achiever and so I got to imagine you do surgery and you're going to want to get right back up on that horse and do it. Do you feel like it was you pushing it? It didn't set right. How much was it? Maybe it wasn't properly installed versus you charging it?
Robyn
It's 90% me probably. I want to run a marathon four months after my hip replacement and I wanted to do the world championships. I set out to do all these things and I ended up doing the world championships in Brazil on a cracked femur. It was a 40-mile run to start and I knew I was already in a lot of pain but my femur was already cracked and I cracked it worse throughout the whole race. It was just a fracture from the device that hadn't healed completely correctly because I was running on it too soon. Racing on it made it worse. At least the good news is I know the pain of running on a cracked femur for nine days. There’s no other pain I hope that’s going to be that bad.
Dustin
Looking back the six surgeries, how do you know when it's time to let your body heal and make sure everything's good versus pushing your bodies to the limits? I have this hunch that you believe that you can push your body's pain. It may be a temporary thing. It's something that you can work through, but now you've been through that. How do you balance that in your head now?
Robyn
You learn by trial and error. Before I was like, “I can push through.” I've always just pushed through and everything got better and then you get a little older, you have enough bad stuff happened. You look back and go, “I was a dumbass.” Now, I know a lot better about what to push through and what to let it heal and I’m much more well-rounded about that now. That’s how I started paddling. It was because I was like, “I’ve got to be smart about not doing stupid stuff after hip replacements in terms of running and racing, but I didn't have any surgery from here up so maybe I'll just go and get in a boat and start doing that or stand on a standup board and start racing that.”
Dustin
This is interesting. You have the injury and so you're like, “I'm going to get into paddling.” That leads to three Guinness World Records. What makes you specifically think, “I'm going to go for a Guinness World Record?” Walk us through how you decided you're paddling. You're excited and then you're like, “One day, I’ll do a world record.”
Robyn
I ran into a great teammate on that front. There was a guy that I linked up with early on as a friend in the paddling world who was doing all these ultra-distance races. He had set out to break one of the Guinness World Records and I said, “Is there a women's record? Could I do that too?” He took me under his wing and brought me along to do it. When I first heard about it, I was like, “Why wouldn't I take a whack at it? What's the downside? If somebody else is going to be able to do it, why couldn't I? What if I could be good at this?” It was neat because we did a side-by-side tandem world record together. He would get the men's record and I'd get the women's record. We got the 24-hour Flatwater Record and then we went up to the Yukon River, which was cool. He had done a worldwide scout online and did his research.
Part of getting the moving water record is getting to a body of water that is already moving okay but without a ton of danger of flipping and huge rapids because that wastes time. Part of the game on that one is to find the fastest moving flattest river and what time of year. What we discovered was the Yukon River was the perfect place in the summer with 24 hours of light and it's just a fast-moving sheet of glass the whole way. We were both able to get that record too. Then I set the first 24-hour standup paddling record, 90.7 miles, which has definitely been broken at this point. I was just the first to do it. It was fun but the other ones I had to break somebody else's record, the standup record. No one was doing ultra-endurance in the standup world yet or going for the Guinness records anyway. It was fun to put that little dot on the map. I wasn't even a standup paddler. I just had a wild hair.
Dustin
The number one question for me is you did it for 24 hours standing up, right?
Robyn
Yes.
Dustin
How does one stay awake for 24 hours? Is adrenaline just pumping?
Robyn
It's easy for 24 hours. Anyone who has partied all night knows it’s easy.
Dustin
Usually, they're consuming alcohol if you're partying and not paddling a board on open water.
Robyn
It is easy the first 24 hours. You can stay focused, but where it starts sucking is about 48 hours. You start losing it.
Dustin
That's because of the body’s lack of sleep. We need sleep.
Robyn
If you don't even have one REM cycle in 24 hours, you break down pretty quickly in terms of your mental capacity. We learned that in adventure racing too. How much do you sleep? How much do you not sleep? There's a certain point where not sleeping is counterproductive. You waste more time than you save with the not sleeping. It’s like a science to ultra-endurance.
Dustin
What's the minimum?
Robyn
You need to get an hour and a half of sleep every 24 hours. At least make it through like one REM cycle where you can mentally repair all the synapses and put your brain back together because you're going to be looking at a map and it could just look like a bowl of spaghetti. An hour and a half later, you can look at it again and go, “I totally see the way now.” It's that difference. That's why my navigators in adventure racing were so amazing, the capacity to focus on tiny little dots and lines and dashes for that period of time.
Dustin
Let's talk about adventure racing because you were talking about it and we haven't experienced it. I imagine the audience hasn’t experienced it. To the best of your ability, walk us through what is an adventure race. Where are you in the world? What are the obstacles that you're going up against? What's it like to be there?
Robyn
It's funny because a lot of people don't remember the sport anymore. It was invented by a crazy Frenchman and he was trying to mimic the Whitbread round the world sailing race but on land. His idea was, “Let's take these teams and it's going to be four people on a team.” The neat little plot twists that he did was he said, “Teams have to be mixed gender.’” You have to have one man and one woman. Anything else is fair game. You have to have one man and one woman. If you wanted dogs and cats living together and you’re total chaos and it was all map and compass, no GPS. It didn’t exist at the time, honestly. It’s literally in the middle of nowhere. He'd asked you to meet him in the most remote place he could find on Earth. Every year it was Madagascar, Borneo, Fiji, Ecuador, New Zealand, really remote. Tibet was one of the last ones I did. You literally meet him at the bottom of a mountain and you bring your camping stuff and you have this big meeting.
They say, “Here are your road rules and you have to plot the whole course yourself.” The race lasts six to ten days. Back in the day, it was completely nonstop unless there was a class five whitewater or something. Then they'd call it a dark zone where you had to wait until first light, which became part of the strategy. You plot your own course and literally the next morning they say, “Ready, set, go. We'll see you guys in a thousand miles. Whoever gets there first, wins.” There are no trails usually, no roads unless you're mountain biking. There's usually a little trail or something. All the on-foot navigation was map and compass through the forest, over the mountains, through the deserts, whatever it was like dead reckoning to whatever the next checkpoint was.
It was such an interesting game, especially with the other plot twist, which is that if one person on your team quits, your whole team is disqualified. It wasn't like you could start off with four people and end up with three or two and it was all okay. If you lost one person, your team was out of the race. It was not only a physical game and a mental game, but it was also a teamwork game and a synergy game. We were never the best athletes, but we were the people that discovered how to move as a team more efficiently than anybody else in the world. That's where the breakthrough happened for us, where we were able to stay at the top of our game for about ten years in the sport.
You can imagine with so many different factors happening physically around you like bikes break, boats fall apart and get holes. You're fighting as a team, you're lost, someone’s out of their mind because I haven't slept in four days. There are so many factors. To be able to stay consistently at the top of the sport was a lesson in synergy more than in sports or an adventure racing or in mountain biking or paddling. It was all about taking these collective resources that you have as a four-person team and maximizing that. Most importantly, sharing not only your strengths but sharing your weaknesses. A team had to completely embrace that to continue to win, which is hard for a lot of people.
Dustin
I want to talk about team building because in this scenario, you had the opportunity to pick your team members. You mentioned the fittest person or the most athletic or maybe the smartest person is not necessarily an advantage in this situation. How did your team come to pick each other?
Robyn
It evolved over the years. In the beginning, people would just pick, “These three guys are at my gym so we're going to bring the team together.” Then it became, “He with the gold makes the rules.” That was another thing that happened a lot where someone would get a big sponsor because they worked at Kraft or something and then they were the king and they had the gold and then they'd try to put a team together. That only worked if he with the gold was also a good adventure racer. If he or she was not, then it led to all kinds of other issues like, “This is the person making all the decisions, but we're doing all the work.” These things play themselves out in work-life all the time. What ended up happening over the years was people would see each other at different races and teams are racing near or around and you could see who the good teammates were.
When I became my own team captain and became she with the gold and got the sponsors, that's how I picked my team. I wanted guys who were some of the best in the world of the sports, but that is the price of admission. The second equally most important factor to being on our team was, who were you when the times got tough? In and of yourself, would you accept help? Also, would you offer help and did you want to be a member of this collective? Where you a person that all the time was thinking, “I feel good right now,” which means my next thought should be, “Who else can I help? What else can I do for this team, for the person behind me?” If everyone was thinking that way all the time where you had three people caring about you as much as you cared about yourself, that's where the comfort and the confidence and the consistency happened on the team. That's what I was always seeking. You can ride a mountain bike but who are you as a teammate?
Dustin
We talk a lot about money and wealth creation here at WealthFit. I'm curious as to the money part of this conversation. You mentioned sponsors, but I got to imagine this isn't like football or basketball. What was the money like? What's the average salary? Are we even talking salary here? Is this more of a passion play?
Robyn
Every end of that spectrum. There were teams in the beginning that a sponsor would get excited about the sport and say, “Here's $200,000 to go do Eco-Challenge.” Then there were other teams like from New Zealand that didn't have access to the sponsors, who were some of the best racers in the world that didn't have a pot to piss in, sponsorship-wise. They would hopefully hook up with someone who had money and create a team. Speaking of money, because I'm a business-minded person too, it became, “The person with a $200,000, do they just pay all the teams’ expenses, pay the airfare, ensure that everyone eats, sleeps, has hotel and then pocket the rest?” I'm not saying one's right or wrong, it's just a different style. Do they say, “I'm going to give you guys each a salary of $5,000 to come do this race and you guys are paid mercenaries to come over from New Zealand. You guys are each going to make $5,000. I don't tell you how much I necessarily made on the sponsorship.” I don't tell you what that check cut to me was, but they're just happy to have $5,000 to come race that's more than the prize money in most cases so that was a win-win. Then another thing is, “Here's the full open disclosure. I have $200,000 from this sponsor. We're all going to put this season together and we will then split the proceeds of whatever profit we have at the end.”
Dustin
What’s the prize money situation?
Robyn
Squat.
Dustin
I thought so. Sponsors were the way to make this work.
Robyn
When we won the Eco-Challenge, we got $4,000 each. We did win another big race once where it was the biggest prize money, but that was only $60,000 in total. We each got $15,000 but you can never do it professionally. Some people did but they lived in their Jeeps and stuff but definitely, you had to have a passion for the sport to go sleep on a glacier for five days and struggle to get to a finish line and come home with seven different parasites, which we did from Borneo. You come home with massive GRD like we did from Fiji or come home with leptospirosis like we did from Borneo. You’re followed by the CDC for six months. You have to want to do it because it was not about the prize money. It was about, “Can we make it to this finish line?” It’s like a fun, crazy, ridiculous, mental and physical chess match every time.
Dustin
You learned a ton of lessons out there and I'm interested in the application to the business world. In your situation, in some cases, you get to pick the team. Everyone is stepping up to the table. There's a certain level of expectation. What do you advise folks that find themselves on a team where someone's lagging? How do you motivate that individual to step the game up so that everyone wins? What's your advice?
Robyn
This question does come up a lot in my keynotes. You were lucky in that you can pick your team and if you're an entrepreneur, you get to do that. That’s one of the nice things about being an entrepreneur is I get to pick my team and if something's not working out, I get to excise that person and bring in somebody that works better. Even me in the fire department, I don't get to pick my crew but if you're a solid leader, it can't just be this, “I’m the boss,” applesauce thing where I tell you, “I have the badge and therefore you have to do what I say.” That's never going to work on a person who doesn't already have that internal ownership of the outcomes and the drive and all this great stuff that you want.
An astute leader will often study the people around them and realize that they're not necessarily going to mold to me. I had to get something out of them. I have to observe them and see what's important to them. What are they looking for? What are they good at? What can they lend to the team that's going to make them happy and feel important? What is their why? Why are they here? Why are they coming to work? Is it to help their kid get into the best college? Is it to get that new Jeep Cherokee they wanted? Is it to take their husband on that twenty-year anniversary trip? If you know what someone's why is, there are all kinds of inroads to elevate and inspire them by helping them get closer to their why. Another great way to do it is to observe what's important to that person and what they're good at and let them lead with their strength.
Let your own mantle of leader down and say, “This person's going to lead in this area of our business.” Not necessarily a promotion, but for example, if I were a captain in the fire department and I had someone who wasn't stepping up to the plate but they love to train, they love to work out and they were all about their nutrition or whatever, I would try to get that from them to say, “We would love it if you created a training plan for our station where every day at 9:30 we're going to work out and we're going to go by what you're doing. We want you to coach us, to teach us.” That may be a way to light a fire under that person in their area of strength and expertise and happiness to lead other people. It's a tougher job when the person doesn't come with that inspiration chip and that ownership chip. If you have no control over whether they're on your team or not, it's on you as a leader to make the best of that situation and work with their why, work with their strengths and ensure that in every possible way. They're not going to respond to a top-down leadership style. You have to elevate them from the bottom up.
Dustin
You say top down. I've been in some situations where there's a barky leader, “It’s my way or the highway.” Maybe it's just me and I’m surrounding myself in different environments now. I almost feel like years ago that was more accepted. Do you feel that way? Was that more of an accepted practice back then? You think of Steve Jobs yelling and barking at people to get the intended result. That seemed to be more accepted a little bit ago in my world. I'm checking in with you. Is that the case? Are we changing?
Robyn
Maybe. Probably people are a little bit more feely now than they used to be, but it also depends on the situation. This whole thing about situational leadership, it's like, “I have to be the leader that my team needs in this moment.” I keep going back to the fire department adventure racing because those are my frames of reference. On a fire, we pull up to a fire. There's smoke showing from a distance, there are flames shooting out the top of a house. I don't want my captain to turn around and say, “How do you guys want to do this? What do you think? Should we take a vote? How do you feel?” I want them to turn around and say, “Here's what we're doing right now.” That's a moment you need that kind of leader who’s going to set the page. They tell you exactly what to do and has a plan. You want that. In white water rafting, I don't want the guy to ask me how I want to run the next rapid. I want them to tell me, “Paddle harder to the right. Paddle back on the left.”
Back to the fire example. When you're just in the station having lunch, then that democratic leadership style makes total sense. I'm not going to tell you, “You must eat that pizza.” I was like, “What are we going to make? What kind of salad?” You have to be able to change and flow. If you only have the one style and you can't adopt the other styles, you're not going to be nearly as effective. Sometimes you need to be a servant leader. Sometimes you need to be a coach. Sometimes you need to be a parent. Sometimes you need to be a friend. It's on you as a leader to be that shape-shifter depending on what your team needs. Just like an example from adventure racing, you'd think, “Who would be the most badass best adventure racers in the world?” Your brain goes to Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces. These are the most amazing, strongest, smartest athletes, supposedly amazing teams that they build. When they are in an adventure race and taken out of that military top-down leadership, silent mindset that they have, they were put into a completely unknown situation that calls for lots of different kinds of leadership, they were not as successful as you would have imagined.
There were all kinds of teams of Special Forces guys and they never, in the big race, has made the top five. In a lot of cases, there were great guys, strong athletes, amazing people but they kept deferring to that top-down leadership style. In these things, there are so many unknowns. You're navigating and there are synergy and teamwork and people with attitudes and people that are on their hands and knees or screaming or crying. They were so out of their element in terms of that military style. If they were all counting, which was a lot like you hear in the video, it’s like, “This guy was our captain so we had to do what he said.” I'm yelling at the TV going, “No.” The smart captain, there were a lot of times where he didn't know what to do, but instead of deferring to his team and saying, “Let's put our heads together and get a better answer than I would just come up with on my own,” the ego couldn't be left at the start line long enough to not be the strong one, the smart one, the leader, the guy with all the answers. It was seen as a weakness to not be the guy that had all the answers and to not always be that uber leader.
When you're just relying on one guy's brains, ideas and strength in an ultra-endurance race where no one person can possibly be the strong link the whole time, they couldn't get to the finish lines. They couldn't win races and it wasn't for lack of talent. It was for lack of leadership style and lack of the ability to offer your challenges and weaknesses to the rest of the team because that is so unheard of in a lot of cases in a military setting. You never show your weakness. You don't want to ask for help. When you're a leader, you don't want to ask your subordinates what their opinion is like. That's a weakness. I probably agree 100%. I've never been in the military. I bet that completely works for that world, but it couldn't adapt to the other world. A lot of those leaders couldn't adapt to the world they were in to an adventure race.
Dustin
Robyn, what do you do if you're on a team and you want to be a great team member and you've got a bad leader? What's your advice? What do you do? You don't want to trump the leader necessarily or maybe you do?
Robyn
It's a tough situation. There are so many instances in adventure races. I'm only on my team so I see the TV shows later and I see all these teams exploding and falling apart. There are some cases where they should've had a mutiny straight up. Their leader was so incapable of navigating, of leading. There were a couple times where I'm yelling at the TV like, “Get that person in the back of the boat.” The three people get together and say, “We are getting to the finish line. You're coming with us,” instead of just confidently lining up behind it. It's a short period of time where you have to succeed and get to a finish line. It's not like you're in a corporation for twenty years and you'll have to massage each other. That's the case for somewhat of a mutiny.
There have been times I've seen on these bad teams where they have to wait for the leader to fall apart a little bit, to make enough mistakes or not get enough sleep or just finally say, “I need help. I'm going to accept your help. I'm going to ask your opinion.” That's the toughest scenario there is when you've pledged allegiance to a leader and they're not the leader that is pledging allegiance to the team. Those teams never raced with the same people again with the same leader again, but you can't grab that leadership role with authority and deem it upon the rest of the team. Your leadership is something that the team needs to give you, not something you take from them. That's the transition that doesn't happen for some people that don't belong in that role.
Dustin
I want to go to the fire department. We talked about it a lot. You referenced it a bit. Why fight fires?
Robyn
That one happened by accident. A lot of my stories happened by accident. I was in field sales for a big pharmaceutical company and then also for our hospital supply company for about seven, eight years out of college. Then I started letting my adventure life intrude into my other life. I started doing triathlons. I had a creepy leader at one of my pharmaceutical companies. I had this great series of district managers and then they had the one guy who decided he didn't want me to go do my adventures and he doesn't want me to go do my races. We had a Battle Royale. He told me what vacation I could go on of my own vacation time. I told him I was going to IRONMAN and he was like, “No, you're not.” He was that guy. This was when it was okay to do that in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He warned me. He said, “When you get back, I'm going to ensure that you're not able to even be here anymore.”
I was rookie of the year in sales. He was just that big of a jerk. It’s because I didn't do what he was telling me to do in using my own vacation time, he was going to find something on me and he did. I had a couple of late expense reports. He made a federal case out of it. I was like, “I know when I'm not wanted. I'll go sell for somebody else.” Some people can't get past their ego issues. They can't. There I was, I thought I was getting a raise. There was another lady in the room. I don't think I said it out loud, but I thought, “She's here to tell me the great news about my raise. She must be from HR.” She's like, “This is so and so from HR.” I'm like, “How are you doing?” She's like, “Give me your car keys.” I was like, “What?” She was there to ensure that I didn't take anything on the way out. I thought I was getting a raise. Long story longer, she escorts me out. I'm telling you, sometimes being fired, which in essence I was, it's the best thing that ever happened to you. I didn't belong there, I belonged to what I'm doing now and I never would have been here if that moment didn't happen.
I go out of the building, I'm standing in the parking lot and I didn't give her my keys because I had to drive home. I’m like, “I'm not taking a freaking train home, I'm taking my car.” When I got home and I told my boyfriend what had happened, I was like, “What are you doing?” He was like, “I'm taking the fire department test next month.” I was like, “Can I do that?” He's like, “Yes, go ahead.” We both took the fire department test. I knew a little bit about what it was, but it wasn't something I was planning on doing. It wasn't something like you go to college and then you go do this industrial fire-type job. It wasn't necessarily what I had been on the path to do, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I've been doing it for twenty years. There's a three-year hiring freeze and there was like a bunch of obstacles and I was a substitute teacher for a while. I did all kinds of crazy odd jobs for the three years before I got the job.
Dustin
Tell me about some close calls with some fires.
Robyn
Interestingly enough, a lot of people think you're fighting a ton of fires and we did, but not a ton. The more interesting and compelling things and the thing we do the most are the medical aids because a lot of people don't know that every fire engine has a paramedic on it, at least one if not more. 80% of our calls are medical. 20% are car accidents and fires are rescues and things like that. For me, I always figured I should have been a paramedic because I love the medical aids, helping the people. I like going there and that knowledge when we walk in the door that everything's going to be okay. It’s ensuring that people are safe and they get to the hospital. That's what I love the most. There were a few, crazy hairy things that happened but nothing that you haven't seen on any TV show, nothing too crazy. I liked being there when people needed you the most. That was the rescues and things.
Dustin
We were talking before the interview and you've got a professional speaking career that you fell into and you're quite prolific in it. I got to imagine you could walk away from being a firefighter. You still are active and you were sharing with me back in time. Why do you feel that need to be there?
Robyn
First of all, I wanted to get to my twenty years. I still love the people that I'm working with. I still love the job. I love being a firefighter. I'm probably going to have to leave soon because with the other stuff I have going on, which I love also, I probably won't be able to go to work anymore as much as they need to go to keep your job to have. I’ve got a whole next chapter but for me, it was a challenge. How long can I walk on this tight rope between the world, keep my job and develop my company and develop my nonprofit? Something has to go at some point pretty soon.
It's just fun. I don't feel like I even have a job. Maybe that's part of the goal and the dream. When you own your own company, when you're an entrepreneur, you never feel like you work a day in your life because every bit of your energy and passion, that's going towards your goal and your dream. That's why I love that side of my life a lot is because it's just stuff that came out of my head that I created. In the case of Project Athena, it’s to help other people. It's all to help other people, inspiring other people. That is such a passion and such a mission. I'm so charged up when I get off stage or like after a Project Athena adventure, I'm buzzing for hours.
Dustin
You're a CNN Hero for the work that you've done. I picked up a title and in my research, Minister of Dreams. I love that. For the work that you're doing at Project Athena, which is helping women and men, primarily started with women, taking them through adventures that you've been on. Oftentimes these folks that are participating have some major life impairment or illness.
Robyn
A traumatic setback or a medical setback. We didn't want to uber define it so that we could help more people.
Dustin
Why did you start it? Tell us the story of how that all came to be.
Robyn
In ‘98, one of my best friends, Louise Cooper, who was also an adventure racer, we met through the sport. She had her first bout with breast cancer and she did something neat. She was always an athlete. She’s strong and somebody who could focus through anything and she was kicked to the curb with her chemo and cancer. If I'm running ten miles, she'd run four miles. As the chemo got more and more, she said, “At one point, all I could do was walk out to my mailbox and back.” She was like, “If I wasn't going to do it though.” Every day she got up and still did whatever her workout was, which on that day was going to her mailbox and back at the lowest points. She said one thing that changed things for her was when she was getting her chemo and she thought, “What am I going to do next? I don't want to be just a cancer survivor. I want to be something else.”
She was already an adventure racer, but then it occurred to her. She's like, “What if I was someone who climbed the Seven Summits?” She remembered like looking at the chemo and thinking to herself, “This is just for right now, this isn't my reality, this isn't my forever. I'm going to be someone who climbed the Seven Summits after this.” She put this crazy hairy audacious goal on her calendar so that the cancer was just a minor inconvenience because she was a mountaineer and she had work to do. Taking a cue from her after I started having my hips replaced, I said, “I'm going to put a huge hairy paddling goal on my calendar. I'm going to do the Missouri River 340, this 340-mile nonstop paddling race that I was deathly afraid of in doing it solo.” It was a crazy hairy audacious goal for me. It came from the Louise Playbook like, “This is going on. All this stuff, it sucks but it doesn't define you. You're going to do this. As soon as you get through this traumatic part, you're going to do something amazing.”
We said, “Why wouldn't we do that for other people? Let's have a nonprofit where we help survivors live an adventurous dream as part of their recovery.” It’s the idea of it's about showing yourself and your family and your doctors what a badass you are. It's like your big comeback party. That's been the last years now. Our first adventure was in 2009. We took a breast cancer survivor to hike down to the Grand Canyon and back up, camp down there because that was her adventurous dream. We took another survivor to run on the Great Wall of China, do a marathon there. We have a hybrid now where some people have a very particular adventurous dream. “I've always wanted to run the Marine Corps Marathon,” or something like, “It's just been something I've always wanted to do.” We also created a bunch of adventures of our own where we run them as big teams and we take a bunch of survivors and fundraisers. The fundraisers are how we fund the nonprofit so if someone will raise $3,000, they become a VIP fundraiser. Because they raised $3,000, they then get to come with us and our survivors on a big adventure.
All the survivors and the fundraisers are doing the same training plan and then they do the adventure altogether. It's neat because people get to see their fundraising dollars in action. They get to see the survivors challenging themselves in the training, making the journey to the start line. Then all together as one big team, we make the journey to the finish line. People are transformed in that process. Not only the survivors but also the fundraisers. It's neat because a lot of people think they're coming to help the survivors and it ends up being a real struggle and a journey for them. It's like the fundraisers that need the help. Sometimes it's the survivors that are towing the fundraisers. We do all these adventures as one big team. Two of my favorites that we do every year are the Grand Canyon where we hike. We don't just hike in the Grand Canyon. We have to do something badass. You got to do something where these people get to go home and do something that all their friends and family would never dream of doing. That's why it's so much fun. We hiked all the way across the Grand Canyon in one day, rim to rim.
We started the South Rim and hiked 24 miles all the way to the North Rim with 6,000 feet of lost, 6,000 feet of gain. Then we turned around the next day and do it again all the way back. You can choose whether you do one day or two. My other favorite one is the Florida Keys to Recovery where we kayak and ride bikes from Key Largo to Key West over three days. Each day we paddle about ten, twelve miles and ride 25 to 35 and camp on the beaches along the way or stay at some little motels. Everything we do, we do as one big team. It’s neat because it's the perfect intersection of all my loves at once. It’s like the nonprofit and inspiring people, but the teamwork from adventure racing and then the adventure of doing this all together as one big team where we're all inspiring and taking care of each other and getting across the finish line together. On those adventures, I always marvel all the most amazing, wonderful things I love in life come together in those couple of days with all these amazing people.
Dustin
I imagine you’re touched, moved and inspired by the folks that come along. What are some that are popping into your mind right now of the survivors? What challenges are they up against?
Robyn
We read some of these applications. Each quarter we choose our survivors for the upcoming adventures. We are crying in the middle of our board meetings. How could all of this happen to one person? How did they survive this and they're still okay-ish? We have a lot of medical setbacks like cancers, lymphomas, traumatic brain injuries and blindness, all across the board. Then we also have people with PTSD or people who have been assaulted, domestic violence. That's why we don't necessarily limit it because all of these people we can help by helping them be on this path to amazing and inspiring themselves. A couple that pops into my mind that we have, one of our first Athena's was a girl who in high school tore her ACL in her knee. She thought it was just going to be a standard surgery. Four years and 27 surgeries later, her leg was completely locked straight. Literally, her leg locked straight and no one can tell her if anything was ever going to change, if it was ever going to be unlocked.
They couldn't do another surgery and she was on crutches for two years before she said, “I'm not doing this anymore.” At 25 years old, she decided to have an elective amputation. She came on our first Florida Keys adventure not too long after the amputation. She had all these different legs and she was just learning how to put them on and her stump was shrinking because she was recovering from surgery. As she was riding down the street on her bike in the Florida Keys, twice her leg completely came off. It came off in the middle of the road and fell into the street making her go over the handlebars on her bike. There's a girl rolling around in the street with one leg. We're just horrified. We run up to her and we're trying to pick her up. At first, we think she's crying and she is hysterically laughing her ass off. We're like, “This is our kind of people.” We ran down this road and found bungee cords in the back of this truck. We had a guy with a belt on that was on our team strung up the bungee cords on his belt and put her leg back on. It was just cool moments like that. She loved it. She was like, “I have not been doing anything athletic for four years. I finally feel alive. I finally feel like I'm an athlete again.”
Another lady, one of our survivors had two children commit suicide both at fifteen years old, a year apart because one wanted to go be with the other. She had never done an athletic thing in her life ever. It was neat because in her training, she had never even done any outdoor sports of any kind. She said it was amazing doing the walking and the hiking to train for this thing because she said, “That's when I got to be with my babies. Somehow, I can't talk to them when there's a roof over my head. Now I know I they’re with me when I'm outside. That's when we connect.” It opened up this whole new way to connect. She wasn't disconnected anymore and that happened through outdoor sports. There are so many, hundreds and hundreds of Athena's and Zeus’s we've had. A lot of people with traumatic injuries where their ankle was so broken it can never be repaired.
We've had a lot of people come through from a company that makes these ExoSym devices where if they make an exoskeleton for a knee or an ankle or something that can't be repaired because it was too injured, but it's this hard skeleton that they are able to make. It used to be only for the military. We've gotten this interesting stream of people that have come through with these ExoSyms and they want to see what they're capable of. We had two girls with ExoSyms finish our 24-hour Santa Barbara Adventure on legs they could barely walk down the street on before these ExoSyms doing these 24-hour adventures. We had three blind people do our last marathon, our last Cove to Harbor Marathon down the streets of San Diego.
Dustin
How do you make that happen?
Robyn
We just make it up. We put little bungee cords on the back of the trail angels, my people that are there to facilitate everyone’s success. We measure it out, make little bungee cords for them and talk about trust. To walk 26.2 miles down the beaches, the streets, the trails up and over Mount Soledad, up and down every curb and sidewalk and dogs running in front of you and cars trying to hit you. They're just hanging onto to us and trusting us. It's neat because all three of those people are coming back to the Florida Keys. It’s like, “If we can walk a marathon blind, what else can we do?”
Dustin
I'm incredibly moved. How can folks get involved whether as a donor or maybe they know somebody that can be an Athena or a Zeus? What are the ways to get involved with what you’re up to?
Robyn
At ProjectAthena.org, which is our website, you can either apply for a grant, Athenaship or Zeusship. You put in your application, you tell us your story basically. Quarterly we have a board meeting where we look through all of these and see who we can help make their big comeback. We accept a lot of people. We actually accept more people than we than we don't accept. If you want to come with us on an adventure, like as a fundraiser, you look under the area that says join us on an adventure or register for an adventure. Then you can read the profile of all the adventures. We help you set up a fundraising page. You get a coach for four to five months, depending on the adventure before each adventure. You got to turn in GPS tracks. There's accountability. You don't just turn up. You learn how to be an endurance athlete for the four months before. Everything we know we have in a workbook and you have to turn in GPS tracks. You have to interact with our coach and you have a couple of online training things where everyone gets together and she tells you exactly what to eat, what to wear, what the course is like. It answers all your questions.
It's neat because once people come on one adventure and they feel that love and that connection that you don't get in the real world with other people when you have one mind and one heart on a mission to a finish line. Everyone's there not just with each other but for each other, there's this magical thing that happens and people have to have it again. It's like a drug, this love and this connection and this lack of ego and caring about each other as much as you care about yourself. People come back again and again. That's why I have to keep creating more adventures because everyone's done all four of them already. They're like, “What are we going to do now?” That's the neat thing about how we roll art Project Athena. It is one heart and one mind. It's neat because people then take that back to their businesses, their lives, their families, and it's neat that ripple effect that happens.
Dustin
Robyn, you've served so much of society as a firefighter, putting out a New York Times bestselling book, inspiring others, speaking and inspiring others, being an inspiration through your actions and then the foundation work. What do you want to be known for? How do you perceive towards the end of life you saying this was successful? How do you see that?
Robyn
What I love is the light that goes on in people's eyes, whether they're leaving my keynote or leaving a Project Athena adventure about who and how they want to be as a teammate and a leader for everyone around them. To leave people with the idea that I want to inspire others. I want to elevate others. I want to show other people what they're capable of. I have my goals and dreams, but what I want to give to the world is helping people see what they're capable of. If I can make that effect happen either from the stage or from the Project Athena Adventures, then that's where I know my work here is done. At the end of a Project Athena Adventure, one of my proudest moments was the moment where the first day we hiked across the canyon, we, the trail angels, are helping people and carrying extra weight and towing people.
On day two of the canyon, what happens is everyone realizes, “I don't have to count on these trail angels. I can be this leader. I can be this teammate. I can tow somebody, I can feed somebody, I can carry somebody’s weight, I can sing to somebody,” and they take that leadership role on themselves. One of the proudest moments and happiest moments ever had, and I will remember the snapshot the rest of my life is there were a bunch of traverses, single track traverses up the side of the canyon. I was in the back and it was near the end of day two. It was neat because I saw a hiker, tow line, hiker, tow line, a girl with two packs, girl with no pack, tow line, hiker. It was neat because everything we had taught everybody or shared with everybody or inspired everybody the day before was now playing out in them. It lived in them. It wasn't coming from us. This desire to help and to care and to give wasn't coming from us anymore. It was emanating from each of them to each other and I just sat in the back and I was like, “My work here is done. This is perfect.”
Dustin
ProjectAthena.org for folks that are interested in the foundation. If folks want to keep tabs with what you're up to, what's the way that they could do that?”
Robyn
I am on Instagram. I do put pictures sometimes on Facebook and RobynBenincasa.com or WorldClassTeams.com for the latest and greatest. I would love more than anything for people to come experience Project Athena whether it's hiking or a marathon in San Diego, which happens every third weekend in September or coming on our rim to rim. Every adventure has something amazing to it. It's neat because you give to yourself while you're giving to other people. That distills down everything I'm trying to share and teach in those adventures. I'd love to see everybody out there with me and I lead all of them so I will see you there.
Dustin
Thank you big time for your time and being on the show. Thank you for doing what you're doing in the world. It's inspirational, awesome and exciting.
Robyn
Thanks for what you’re doing in the world. It's cool, helping people live their own dreams and their family's dreams and see how amazing they are as entrepreneurs. That's a gift.
Dustin
Thank you for joining us here on the show. We're looking to do more like this. If you love this, let us know on social. If you love Robyn, let her know on her social as well and do it on our social. We'll share the love of course. Thanks for tuning in. I can't wait to see on the next show.

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