When faced with a challenge, you can let it dictate your life or set your own course
The term athlete was not a word that came to mind when I think of my journey in sports and fitness. I grew up in a family of six in upstate New York farm country. As a child, my siblings and I spent the majority of our times outdoors. In the nice weather, we played kickball and hide and seek. We ran around the open fields and into the woods. In the winter, I have memories of flying down the snow packed hills on a sleigh, saucer or toboggan. I loved the feeling of outdoors; the breeze in my face, the smell of grass, the sensation of being hugged by the sun. I didn’t realize it then, but the energy spent engaging in all this vigorous activity not only was physically beneficial, but was instrumental in maintaining emotional balance.
My first organized sports were in junior high and high school. Physical education was part of our school curriculum. We dabbled in a variety of sports including swimming, field hockey, gymnastics and dodge ball. I seemed to struggle with sports in my school years because I thought sports didn’t come naturally to me. In retrospect, it was more insecurity and worry that I wouldn’t be as fast or strong as my peers.
When I joined the Navy at the end of 1974, there were not any physical fitness requirements. I was very active, but did not participate in any group sports. During my overseas tour in Okinawa, I took up skydiving. From the time I made my first jump, to the time I made my last free fall, I was hooked. I learned a lot from skydiving. I learned self-survival; you, your will to survive and your confidence in your abilities are the keys to life or death in this sport.
My confidence soared as I progressed from a novice to someone who could expertly react and recover from 13 malfunctioned parachutes. I learned how important it was to get back up into the plane after recovering from an injury. I understood the importance of working with a team of fellow skydivers as we bonded together to complete formations in the sky and successfully break world records. I thrived on the camaraderie, the individual and group accomplishments and the adrenaline rush. When the time came to retire from this sport, I knew I would not live my life on a couch.
I joined a gym. I took up weight lifting, running, elliptical training, cardio kickboxing and anything that kept me active and the endorphins flowing. I saw positive changes in myself and the way I lived my life. Instead of seeing what I couldn’t do, I saw what I was capable of achieving. I gained a more positive outlook on life and began to realize how much better I felt both physically and mentally. I realized you didn’t have to be the best or the fastest, you just had to get up and do it.
Today, I am more active than ever despite some physical challenges. I am a cancer survivor and live with two autoimmune disorders; one which affects my joints and the other my muscles. Each day that I get up and put both feet on the floor is a great day. Each step, walk, jog, run, hike, bike that I complete is more challenging now than before. I struggle sometimes, but embrace the challenge with a positive outlook and a smile on my face. There is never any intention of competing with anyone. I just strive to make myself better one step at a time. I have found a balance between these issues and an active physical lifestyle. I believe there is a choice – live your life or let your disorders live it for you. Through sports, I have achieved balance of mind, body and spirit.
Joining Team RWB has helped me achieve this balance. Just about all of my sports events are now Team RWB events. We hike, bike, ruck, walk, run, rock climb, yoga, go cart and volunteer. RWB’s mission of bringing Veterans and community members together is inspirational. The community, the relationships, the Veterans, the camaraderie, the support; it is an amazing group of individuals inspired to support each other as a group. It is a no judgement zone. No one cares how old, how young, how fast, or how slow you are. We are a family who fosters relationships inside and out of RWB events. We are all in this together. Every person matters. We are all athletes in our own way.
Bernardine Donato is one of 10 athletes selected for the Women Veteran Athletes Initiative. The participants represent all branches of the armed services, and were selected by VA and its partners — the Veterans Canteen Service, Team Red, White & Blue, the Semper Fi Fund and Comcast. Visit the Center for Women Veterans website to see photos of each athlete by Veterans Portrait Project photographer Stacy Pearsall. Find more on social media at @deptvetaffairs (Twitter, Instagram) and @VAWomenVets (Twitter, Facebook) and by following #WomenVetAthletes.
About the author: Bernardine “Bernie” Donato spent 10 years as a Navy nurse and then served in the Air National Guard as a tactical flight nurse. She served in both Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, retiring after 24 years as a lieutenant colonel.