You could forgive 45-year-old Robyn Benincasa for wallowing a little when she got the news that she’d need her fourth hip replacement. After all, the firefighter and professional athlete who has completed nearly 40 multi-day adventure races rather relies on her legs.
But moping isn’t Robyn’s style. “I was crushed—for about three hours,” she says. “Then I thought, ‘This is not life-threatening. You’ll be able to walk. If this is the biggest setback you have in life, you’re doing pretty good.’”
Robyn was diagnosed with Stage 4 osteoarthritis in 2007, after suffering incredible pain during the Adventure Racing World Championships in Scotland. Over the course of two years, she had each hip replaced with a technique known as Birmingham Hip Resurfacing, but ultimately both failed for different reasons. Last year, she underwent total hip replacements on both sides.
Luckily, Robyn had already begun to explore sports that might accommodate her condition if it continued to deteriorate. With running and climbing out of the picture, she took up kayaking, and this summer she broke a Guinness World Record for Solo Paddling, completing 231 miles in 24 hours on Canada’s Yukon River.
“At one point, after the last hip failed and I could barely walk, I thought, ‘OK, all I can do is stand, so I just have to find a sport where that’s all you have to do,’” she says. “So I started doing stand-up paddling.” She also bought an elliptical bicycle and has toyed with the idea of a cross-country ride.
But Robyn’s fourth surgery went more smoothly than she’d expected. She was up and around after two days, “and I’ve never really looked back,” she says. “I can do everything now that I’ve ever done.”
Already, she has a handful of adventures planned with Project Athena (ProjectAthena.org), a non-profit foundation she co-founded in 2009 with two race buddies. The aim is to help women coping with medical challenges reach physical goals important to their spirit, whether it’s a breast cancer survivor trekking the Grand Canyon or a woman with a degenerative spinal condition completing the Great Wall Marathon.
“There’s something that a big setback does to you, which is make you want to do things that you never wanted to do before,” Robyn says. “Suddenly when the universe took away the possibility, all of a sudden that’s what you want to do more than anything.”
In 2012, Project Athena’s adventures include two Grand Canyon treks (45 miles and 2 days each), a relay marathon and a 3-day multisport trip in the Florida Keys.
And in May, Robyn’s first book, How Winning Works: 8 Essential Leadership Lessons From the Toughest Teams on Earth, will hit shelves.
While further hip surgery likely won’t be necessary for years, if ever, it’s hard to imagine Robyn wouldn’t take that news in stride, too. “As long as you’re upright,” she says, “there’s always an adventure.”