Becoming a Goddess 

Project Athena comes to Boise on a mission of healing

Project Athena founder Robyn Benincasa won't let a hip replacement--or four--slow her down.

Glenn Landberg

Project Athena founder Robyn Benincasa won't let a hip replacement--or four--slow her down.

When Kathleen Gardner was staring down a diagnosis of breast cancer more than four years ago, she knew life was going to change. But beyond fear and medication and treatments, she realized that facing something as big as cancer leaves a scar on someone's life.

It's the same hurdle many survivors face, when life is divided into "before" and "after." Sometimes that new reality is hard to face and moving forward can be the biggest battle.

"Once you survive something, people talk about a new chapter," Gardener, 45, said. "For a survivor, it's a new book. You're starting over again. This is not something you expected to happen."

Now Gardner is preparing to start that new book with the adventure of a lifetime. In September she'll join a rim-to-rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon, traveling 45 miles in two days, climbing in and out of the canyon twice. The trip is being made possible by a relatively new nonprofit working to help women who have survived life-changing events move forward by using outdoor adventures as catalysts.

Gardner is the first Idaho recipient of a grant from Project Athena, which aims to create a support network of survivors, friends and family to help others heal in more than physical ways. Survivors of medical, physical or emotional events can apply for scholarships--or Athenaships--to help them accomplish their dream adventures.

"When I found out, actually, it was such a boost for my self-esteem," Gardner said from her home in Garden Valley. "I'm still in shock."

Project Athena holds several major adventures each year, including the Grand Canyon hike. But this year, the organization--which started in 2007--is expanding through a series of mini-events. Boise will kick off the national tour on Saturday, Aug. 20, followed by Norfork, Va., on Sept. 17 and Seattle on Oct. 1. Each event includes a 10K run and a 5K team adventure hike, which is basically a scavenger hunt across Julia Davis Park. Kids can get in on a 1K run. Events aim to raise both awareness and money for the fledgling group.

It's been quite a ride for Athena founder Robyn Benincasa, who started the organization after experiencing her own setbacks.

Benincasa is nothing if not a fierce competitor. She's a world-class adventure racer, triathlete, ultra-distance racer and recently set the Guinness World Record for the farthest distance traveled by kayak on flat water in 24 hours by a woman--121.37 miles. When she's not racing across an inhospitable landscape, she's part of an all-female firefighting team in San Diego.

But her competitive career nearly came to a screeching halt in 2002 during the adventure racing world championships.

"I just couldn't walk anymore," she said. "It was like a light switch."

Benincasa couldn't move her leg, but she refused to give up, so she tied a rope around it to physically pull her leg forward. Her team still finished sixth.

Doctors diagnosed her with osteoarthritis, saying she had worn away all the cartilage in her hips. A few weeks later, Benincasa underwent a double hip replacement and was told she would never run again. That didn't last long.

She has since replaced one of her artificial hips after it gave out in the middle of another race--her femur cracked--and is scheduled to have the other hip replacement replaced.

"I cried the first time when he said I was never going to run again, but by the fourth time, I just bust out laughing," Benincasa said.

As she was recovering from her first surgeries, Benincasa leaned on her two best friends--one of whom is a breast cancer survivor and one who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.

"I was an elite-level adventure racer who may never run again. I needed a sounding board," she said. "They helped me get my juju back together."

That experience inspired her to start Project Athena.

"What if I could give this circle of good juju, package that and give it to other women?" she said.

The organization is based on that idea of creating a circle of support and giving survivors a light at the end of a sometimes very dark tunnel. Since it started, Project Athena has awarded more than 40 Athenaships.

"It gives you an opportunity to do something different to get started in that book," Gardner said. "The possibility is there that you can actually make something like that. When you're doing this, you're not going to be thinking about all you went through. I'm just thinking about my goal."

Boise resident Heather Hill joined the Grand Canyon hike last year on a whim, and was so moved by the stories of the survivors on the trip that she decided to become more involved with the group. But in an ironic twist, just three weeks after she came home, she had a very nasty horseback accident and broke both her neck and her wrist.

As a triathlete, Hill was frustrated that she couldn't to do her favorite activities, but with the support of friends, she started setting mini goals, and by April--just seven months after her accident--she ran the Race to Robie Creek.

"It's so healing," she said. "It gave me my energy and helped me heal."

Hill is now heading up the ground team in Boise and helping to spread the word about Project Athena. Benincasa said these three mini-events are the first step toward the organization going national.

The goal, she said, isn't to get survivors back to who they were but to help them be the best of who they are now.

"We've been to the edge and come back, and that makes you realize that we're still here, and we're coming back," Benincasa said.

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