In the perennial card game of life, no one with the hand Mari Ruddy has been dealt should be as upbeat or happy as she is. She was diagnosed with Type I diabetes when she was 16. She’s had breast cancer twice in the last six years, and a unilateral mastectomy.
But Mari, 47, is happy. And she doesn’t exude a Pollyanna-ish kind of optimism. It’s real; a dig-deep, stay-in-the-game-of-life kind of joy.
A motivational speaker, an executive coach for schools and nonprofits and the founder of Team WILD (We Inspire Life with Diabetes), Mari believes answers start with the individual. “In life, you get what you get,” she says. “The only thing you can control is your attitude. All right, this is happening to me—what am I going do about it?”
Mari, who lives in Denver, walks the talk; or rather runs, cycles and swims it. She first started exercising at age 31, at the urging of a doctor who told her she would die otherwise. She had been terrified of low blood sugars and how her body might react to exercise.
When she had radiation treatment for her first cancer, she began training for a triathlon. “I rode my bike to chemo almost every day, and in the winter time, I rode my training bike inside, looking at a picture of Lance Armstrong,” says Mari.
In 2006, she joined a Tour de Cure bicycle ride sponsored by the American Diabetes Association. In that event, she noticed there was no way to tell which participants had diabetes, so she proposed the Red Rider recognition program. Now cyclists with diabetes wear red “I Ride With Diabetes!” jerseys in the more than 80 annual Tour de Cure rides across the country. “Recognition is important,” Mari says. “If you’re taking charge of your health, you deserve to be celebrated.”
Ever the observer, Mari also noticed that most of the Red Riders were men. So in 2008, Mari founded Team WILD (Teamwild.org), an organization that supports and empowers female endurance athletes with diabetes. This year, Team WILD has four teams, including a group of 10 who participated in an Ironman triathlon in September, an event comprised of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Team members across the country have a monthly conference call with a coach and then meet for races.
Kerry Snider, 50, who was diagnosed with Type II diabetes in February 2010, says Mari inspired her to make exercising a habit. The self-described former couch potato has lost 60 pounds and is a member of Team WILD 101, an exercise and diabetes support group. “You are the only one who prevents you from living your life,” says Kerry, who also attended Mari’s Camp WILD, a four-day bootcamp for diabetics who want to learn how to balance medications with food and exercise. “If you don’t like what you have become, no one can change it but you.”
Said like a pro—or like Mari Ruddy. In the next few years, Mari hopes to focus specifically on motivational speaking that highlights Team WILD and the Red Riders. “I use endurance athletics as a metaphor for how we can choose to survive in life or give up,” she says. “But I don’t want to just motivate people—I want them to actually get out there and do it!”