Guinness World Record Kayaker Robyn Benincasa is taking her survivor experiences from the mountains of Tibet and from the leach-infested jungles of Borneo to the masses in her first book on How Winning Works: 8 Essential Leadership Lessons from the Toughest Teams on Earth. Benincasa understands life’s idiosyncrasies and soared above her own limits after she was instructed by doctors she’d never run again. This didn’t stop this firefighter (Yes, she does that as well) and she switched to kayak paddling. After undergoing hip replacements, she went on to set Guinness World Records and launched Project Athena in 2009. Athena is a non-profit that offers grants and encouragement to cancer survivors to embark on multi-adventures from Key Largo to Key West, the Moab Trail Marathon in Utah, hiking the rims of the Grand Canyon, run the New York Marathon or any race in life.
“Athena was the Goddess of Wisdom and War. My wise friends had proven to me that through war comes wisdom. I was inspired by them, just as I hoped that together, we would inspire others,” said Benincasa, who hails from the Cardiff, California.
Benincasa continues to do her thing—inspire others.
Why did you write this book?
It happened to me. I was just going along and having a good time and one of my good [friends and author] said ‘“You have to write a book.’” I’m like “Yeah, yeah…blah, blah, blah… She said ‘“If I write the proposal, will you write the book?”’ So she did, and there I was with a contract on my desk.
You talk about leadership in your book. What makes a good leader?
The best teams are built and the best leaders are built by bringing forward other leaders. Great leaders create great leaders. They don’t necessarily get out in front and say “Follow me.” They put others out in front.
How did the setbacks of your injuries help you?
I don’t even consider four hip replacements a major setback. With Project Athena, I have met so many people that have had actual freighting stuff or losing family members [to cancer] or having sick family members--just real traumatic things happening to them. I felt really lucky and blessed to have made it through with so few massive setbacks in the road that I will take the hip replacements. And I will take them over again verses some real heartbreaking tragedy.
Tell us about your charity.
Project Athena kind of evolved because of the hip replacement. So I guess in a way if you have the right attitude about things sometimes the universe closes a door and you get up and there’s a cool window. So I figured with my adventure racing background and adventure knowledge, I [can] facilitate and teach people and hope to inspire themselves. I had friends that had inspired me and had real setbacks with breast cancer and they keep soldiering on. I thought women who have had a major medical or traumatic setback that maybe we can help them set an adventurous goal, and help them put a new label over the survivor label that is adventurer or athlete.
You’re looking to win another Guinness World Record?
I have one more to do, the 24 hour ocean record to do. We got moving water and flat water. My teammate and I were looking to do it in September; we do it in tandem, the men’s and women’s races at the same time. His shoulder went bad, so we might have to push it off for a little while until we get the right conditions again. What we want to do is in the Gulf Stream in Florida and the best conditions [are in the spring]. I just got done with a 340 mile race down the Missouri River.
How important was it for you to compete against the men you raced with and against over the years?
God bless, Gerard Fusil, the man who created adventure racing because he had the vision to say we needed one man and one woman on each team because that’s just real life. At first it was sort of understood that the woman was mandatory gear. That was kind of the prevailing thought in the beginning. Then we discovered that women were stronger than men in a lot of different areas and together we really made a great team.
Becoming a firefighter….
I didn’t join because I wanted to be in a male oriented field. I always got along with men. I just wanted to do something that I loved and that I was good at. I genuinely wanted to help people and be on teams and do a lot of hands on stuff and I knew I was physically capable of it. I am a big fan of discovering your strengths and finding the light where they will be the most useful as your career or as your hobby.
Check out Project Athena http://www.projectathena.org/index.php and http://www.robynbenincasa.com/