Until this year, 50-year-old Louisa Wickard, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, had no interest in triathlons. After several months of training, however, participating in a triathlon is all she seems to think about lately.
On Sunday, July 20, Wickard, for the first time, will compete in the seventh Tri for a Cure women’s triathlon, and she plans on diving right in – literally.
“I think I can do it,” she says, “I know I can.”
Wickard, an art teacher at Chebeague Island School, says she looks forward to the course, which includes a one-third-mile swim, 15-mile bike ride and 3-mile run.
She hasn’t always considered herself a swimmer, but she promised herself that when she turned 50 – which she did this year – she would learn how to swim. As it turns out, she loves it and she says she’s feeling stronger every week.
Wickard trains three or more times a week in swimming, biking and running.
“Making slow but steady progress in the pool, combined with being diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago, has me suddenly very eager to participate in the Tri for a Cure,” Wickard said.
She jokes that three years ago she completed her first triathlon when she had to undergo surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to treat her breast cancer. Wickard, like her mother, Raquel Boehmer, a 34-year breast cancer survivor, is now cancer free.
“Now I’m feeling better and I am so grateful that my body is strong enough to do what it could do before, and to even be doing new things, like cycling and swimming,” Wickard said.
Last fall, she heard about a swim class for women with various abilities through SheJAMs, which also offers training programs for women in biking and running. After learning more about the class through a couple of her friends who have trained with SheJAMs, she decided to sign up.
At the time, she admits that she could only swim the “doggy paddle,” so she was determined to learn more skills.
Wickard has made so much progress with her training that she’s gained the confidence she needs to complete the Tri for a Cure’s one-third-mile swim this July. SheJAMs has helped Wickard to understand how to compete in all three parts of a triathlon “individually and then all together as one event,” she said. An “added bonus” to being a member of the training group, she said, is making new friends and having fun.
Wickard’s mother, who is 76, underwent her breast cancer treatments 34 years ago, and according to Wickard, “the radiation she received was so intense it damaged her heart, which then led her to experience lung problems.”
By competing in the triathlon this year, Wickard said, she is determined to show her mother that she can cross the finish line, despite her own cancer treatments three years ago.
“While her diagnosis was similar to mine, the treatment back then was so intense that it permanently reduced her lung capacity. I’m so happy to show her that even after radiation, my lungs are fine,” Wickard said.
Wickard credits SheJAMs – a sponsor of Tri for a Cure – for getting her a spot in this year’s race, after sharing her personal story about why she wants to participate.
“Soon after receiving my cancer diagnosis I had an echocardiogram to make sure my heart was strong enough for the chemo that was being recommended,” Wickard wrote in her letter to SheJAMs.
“Within minutes of starting the procedure the technician looked up and said, ‘You must be a runner. Your doctor will have to decide but I am pretty certain you’re all set!’ What a tremendously happy bit of news to get during a string of not-so-good news,” she continued. “I was grateful to be in decent shape before treatment and promised myself to continue to be as active as possible in the future. If I can complete the Tri, well that will be a very good return on this promise!”
For the past three years, Wickard ran in the annual Twilight 5K in South Portland in honor of the mother, and each year, she said, she’s been “moved to tears.” According to the Maine Cancer Foundation’s website, last year’s race in June attracted more than 800 women to the Southern Maine Community College campus to raise money to fight against cancer in Maine.
The Twilight 5K, now in its fifth year, serves as a warm-up race for July’s Tri for a Cure, according to the Maine Cancer Foundation. Last year, Wickard took first place in what is known as the Twilight 5K “Survivor Wave” with a time of 22:33.
Wickard, who lives in Cumberland with her husband Brett, and two children, Lydia, 16, and Stewart, 14, is excited to be a part of the survivor wave at the Tri for a Cure, where all cancer survivors at the event are the first wave of swimmers to leave the beach at Spring Point.
“It’s the coolest thing. I am so grateful to stand among other survivors – grateful for our health and grateful for the amazing love that surrounds us,” Wickard said. “I’ve heard those super warm feelings glow even brighter at the Tri,” she said. “It’s a fun chance to celebrate being a survivor.”
Training for a triathlon, she says, takes commitment, at least for a couple of months. Though she realizes that many people are so “busy with life” that they may not have time to commit to training, she encourages others to “Tri.” Wickard has been grateful for the support she has received from her family and friends during the time she has trained and for donating “generously” to her fundraising efforts.
“I feel their love and I feel my body getting stronger,” Wickard said.
If there is one thing Wickard has learned throughout her diagnosis, and now her training, it’s that you “can’t change the past but you can embrace the moment.”
“If I have the chance to cross the Tri finish line,” she said, “believe me, I will be looking for my family and hugging and crying and celebrating the moment with them.”