In 2012, forty-four year old Denise Cunill’s father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Soon after this Denise and her wife, Claire became his primary caregivers. After about six months the two of them realized that he required 24 hour care and made the heart wrenching decision to place him in a residential facility. It was then that Denise became honest with herself that since she could no longer take care of him, she had to take care of herself or she’d be headed down the same road. At this point Denise was her heaviest, weighing in at 324 pounds. She was also suffering from pseudotumor cerebri and at risk of losing her eye sight. Even this hadn’t been enough to motivate her to change, but it was her father’s declining health that did.
She enrolled at Export, a local gym in Chicago, and hired a trainer three days a week. Each training session was an hour followed by an additional hour on the recumbent bike or swimming. Claire fully supported Denise and they stopped buying fast food and carry. She lost 50 pounds in the first six months and found that to be pretty easy, but then began to plateau. Suffering from bad arthritis in her knees, up until that point she’d stayed away from weight bearing exercises. But with the plateau Denise decided to try something new and signed up for a 5K at the local zoo which she found to be very fun.
Part of the goodie bag from that race was a Chicago Triathlete magazine. Featured in there was a Super Sprint triathlon coming up. She had just run a 5K and she could swim, she’d grown up loving bikes and riding all over Chicago as a kid, so a Super Sprint seemed very do-able. For that first tri she used an old townie bike they owned and wasn’t even able to run the full 1.25 miles, but she came home and immediately signed up for a Sprint that was happening a few weeks later. Unlike the first one this tri had a “real live creature from the black lagoon open water swim”. By then she’d bought her own hybrid bike and was excited about the rolling hilly course, but the run also had hills that were rough on her knees. Of all the triathlons that Denise has participated in, this Sprint still means the most to her. It was held in Lake Geneva which is a place that her dad always took her for vacation growing up and it was him that was the catalyst for this major lifestyle change.
When Denise first became a triathlete, she didn’t know there was such a thing as an Athena division. Once she found out that became “all inspiring,” because she remembers completing her first triathlon and thinking “no one else around looks like me”. Having been “larger than normal” her whole life, being part of an athletic group that you can be participant in regardless of what society says you can/cannot do is inspiring. Denise says she’s not at her “ideal weight” because of goals she’s set for herself but really tries not to pay attention to the number on the scale. She knows she can lose weight, but says she never wants to go below 165 because she’ll always want to be part of the Athena group for reasons she can’t even explain. “Being part of a similar group of women who compete in events that only 3% of the population participate in is amazing. The support of other Athenas is unlike anything I’ve found anywhere else.”
Denise says her greatest challenge is finding the balance between caring for others and caring for herself. That requires some sort of regular training schedule while keeping in mind work, family, and friends. She reminds herself that she is important and she needs to take care of herself physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally so she can take care of others. Which is important when your career is all about taking care of children. She often has to be reminded when she wants to skip a training session for other priorities that training is what makes her happy.
Training is typically six days a week. Three hours are dedicated to swimming, three to five hours are dedicated to running, four to six hours are dedicated to cycling, with one to two hours dedicated to strength training. Of all the parts of a triathlon, Denise says the bike leg is her favorite because she feels so free and fast. It brings her back to her childhood days cruising all over Chicago. On the bike is where Denise feels most powerful.