Finding power from within | VailDaily.com

Finding power from within

Chris Anthony
Special to the Daily
Vail, CO Colorado

Chris Anthony | Special to the DailyA camper climbs a rock face during the rock climbing-themed First Descents camp, which offers outdoor experiences to young adults with cancer.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts. Check out the second part in Saturday’s Vail Daily.

You know, it’s funny. We were put on this planet to live. Not just exist, but also actually live. Only a handful of people get this past the age of 26. Prior to that age, I think living just comes innately. Of course, I have no scientific proof to offer on this theory, but I feel like past the post-college years, people stop living and start existing. Moving from one obstacle to the next. Then, all of a sudden, something tragic takes place and your daily existence comes under threat and existing moves to surviving. It’s then when you might start asking yourself, “What have I been doing with my life?”

Injury brings out something in athletes. Some of the greatest on the planet as well as in the history books have risen above a setback. The process builds character and brings out an internal strength. In sport, setback is part of forward progress. Coaches don’t teach it, but the good ones are prepared to work with it. The amazing sports doctors do not look at what’s going to be lost but how the athlete can continue, because world-class athletes don’t quit or listen very well. Seasoned athletes realize they are just between falls.

Not the same with cancer survivors. It’s not part of any playbook they have been given or result of doing something one way or the other. From what I have observed, it does not discriminate and goes after whoever it wants to at any time.

Over the last 11 years, I have been part of a program that has left a deep impact on me. It is appropriately named First Descents (www.firstdecents.org), and the name comes from the kayaking world but can overlap to a number of arenas. First Descents has opened my eyes and heart to what people are capable of achieving if given the right stage and support. First Descents provides outdoor adventure for those young adults up against the battle of their life – the fight against cancer.

At first I did not get it.

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“I’m taking cancer survivors kayaking? Why?”

Then I witnessed the effect of the days on river and nights in camp, and it changed something in both them and myself.

From the overwhelming large numbers of young adults inflicted with the disease, only a handful are touched by First Descents. I never realized how many young adults are facing a disease caused by an uncontrolled division of abnormal cells in part of their body or a malignant growth or tumor resulting from such a division of cells – until I started to become more involved with First Descents. I was blown away during my first camp when the participants arrived in camp with scars, missing limbs, or hair gone or attempting to grow back.

The disease literally has ripped them from their everyday lives and sent them into spiral of survival, where in many cases they find superhuman strength to fight back. But not without, for at least a moment, a break in self-esteem and loss of who they are. Character is tested when fighting for one’s life. True colors in family, friends, as well as relationships shine through or don’t. Information about the disease is actually hard to come by. And what’s out there can be overwhelming and completely confusing. Making the right decision of which direction to go with treatment is hard to have a 100 percent confidence in. But one thing is clear: Their lives from the point of onslaught will change.

What I have learned from being a supporter and staff at the First Descents programs is that when cancer grips these individuals, a power from inside rises. More amazing is how contagious that attitude can be. The campers feed from one another and bond like they are part of some special club. Their eyes and personality all of a sudden have a “wisdom” outsiders are not able to understand.

“Thank you and you’re welcome”! This is an exchange of words often heard at a First Descents camp between the participants and the volunteers. But as Kanye West pointed out in a book titled with the same phrase, someone saying “you’re welcome” in return to a “thank you” must be doing something of value. “You’re welcome” is as powerful and as important as a “thank you.” A give and take relationship. Such is the partnership between volunteer and a First Descents participant.

As a volunteer and supporter of First Descents, I have been amazed with amount of tenacity each and every participant eventually brings to a First Descents program. And it’s not because only this type of personality is chosen. The program breeds it into the participants. I have witnessed the most timid, perhaps even negative personalities become the most outgoing and aggressive.

Longtime Vail resident Chris Anthony is a former Alaskan extreme-skiing champion and veteran of nine World Extreme Skiing Championships and 23 Warren Miller films. He appears in a segment about the 10th Mountain Division in the new Warren Miller film, “Flow State,” which comes to Beaver Creek Nov. 30-Dec. 2. Learn more about Anthony and his adventures at chrisanthony.com or @chrisanthonyski.