Finding Strength and Recovery Through Rowing
In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we are highlighting one of our Team JL Ambassadors, Michelle Lyons, who discovered rowing after going through treatment for breast cancer.
"I am Michelle Lyons, a longtime resident of central Florida. I am 52 years young, married with three sons, two daughter-in-laws, and three granddaughters. I row with Orlando Area Rowing Society – OARS and Live2Row Studios. I choose to share with you details from the very beginning of my breast cancer journey because it is what led me straight into my now rowing journey."
JL Racing: Tell us a little bit about your story with breast cancer.
Team JL Ambassador, Michelle Lyons: At age 45, the discovery of a lump near my armpit, quickly turned my calendar into hastily made medical appointments to determine the diagnosis. I found it impossible to go through those few weeks of testing and not worry if I had cancer or not. I never imagined how hard it was going to be hearing it for the first time.
I was finally sitting in my doctor’s office waiting for my results; alone. For me, that day was a time to reflect on my own actions and lifestyle choices leading up to that moment. I wanted to find anyone else to blame for this frightmare, but I knew I could not, and I regretted not making health and fitness more of a priority in my busy life. My thoughts were of course it is going to be cancer, I smoked cigarettes for many years in my young adult life – duh! Also, how about the fact that my 40's were supposed to be the decade I finally took my fitness seriously enough to get that super fit physique that I knew was waiting for me at some gym I was not a member of yet. But there I sat, pondering the could of...should of… but had not.
So as my doctor read my biopsy results the horror of it all came crashing into that moment. Invasive Ductal Carcinoma categorized as Triple Negative which really frightened me when I ran those google searches later. I do not recall much of my doctors’ words after that, I just sat there sobbing and numb to my surroundings. If I had taken better care of myself, I would not be sitting there wondering about my husband and children 25, 23 & 9 living their lives once I'm gone. How would I share this news with my family? I was envisioning my future from a casket; it was the truest pity party I had ever had in my life.
Why did I choose to get the results alone, when available family and friends surrounded me? It was intentional, because if I had cancer there would be no more procrastination of what I needed to do next in my life, and no one could do it for me. Fight! And fight I did from that day forward, I was in surgery for my port within a week and had my first chemotherapy session shortly after that, it was a never-ending rush of new medical teams & terms coming at me and I was showing up to face it head on and prayed all of it was going to be enough.
JL: How did you get into the sport of rowing? What really motivated you to try out rowing as opposed to another sport?
Michelle: As soon as I was released from my oncologist’s regular care and deemed cancer free, I began the road to rediscovering my life post-cancer. I desperately wanted to recognize myself again, so I did what I had always intended to do. I hired a personal trainer to help me shed the weight I had gained during the last year from multiple surgeries, months of chemotherapy, and radiation treatments and prescriptions.
I was not seeing the success I wanted fast enough, or more like it, I was not yet doing enough. I could barely bend down and make it back up. My joints and bones were not recovered or cooperating fully yet. An entire year was about to pass since my treatments finished and I barely shed ten pounds, although my hair was growing back so that was good at least.
A new friend at that time named Asra K. was telling me about the sport of rowing she enjoyed. I was intrigued by her description of rowing on our local lakes for exercise. Could I do this too, I mean who does not like a canoe? Would I lose weight while enjoying sunrises and sunsets on the water, how could this be demanding work? Sounds too good to be true is what I was thinking, but I was on a quest to find a form of exercise for myself that I could physically do and benefit from.
Asra referred me to a rowing studio called Live2Row in Ocoee, FL. She suggested I start there and learn from the rowing coaches Justin Knust and Stephen Pryor that own it. The next time her club (OARS) held a learn to row on the water she would let me know. So, I signed up for a lesson at Live2Row Studios and was officially introduced to the devils’ throne, aka the Concept2 Rower.
JL: How did rowing help you, both physically and mentally, when you found the sport?
Michelle: After all the treatment challenges I went through to rid my body of cancer, I still felt defeated in the sense that I did not recognize my own reflection anymore. I truly disliked this part of my recovery, so grateful to be cancer free but unhappy to be more physically unfit than when it all started.
Once I began attending the erg classes at Live2row Studios, I quickly realized I could burn a lot of calories on the rower. Show up, sit down, do not think just follow along and try to keep up when I knew very little. They were not easy classes, and I was not doing any of it very well, but it was a judgment free zone. The coaches were enthusiastic about teaching the sport of rowing and I began to relax, engage, and make new friends with other members. There was always a contest to plug into for rowing more meters or erg events that encouraged competition amongst each other and to challenge your own results.
The entire membership at the studio was competing back then for who had the most meters erged. I decided I would play catch up to a few slackers and sweat fat off my body in the process. I completed the OARS Learn to Row and joined the novice master’s team, rowing at least three times a week on the lake and erging 5 to 6 days a week at Live2Row as well.
I began to feel better again, I was diligent about tracking the work I was doing and watching the scale move in a healthier direction. My clothes were getting loose, and I was so happy to have found something challenging, constructive, and fun in my life again. I erged my first one million meters in four months and in the process lost most of the weight I had gained. But more importantly, I found a sport that I could not get enough of, and I just wanted more of everything it had to offer.
JL: Are there lessons that you learned from your breast cancer journey that translate well to rowing for you now?
Michelle: YES! If you do not manage your health, you will manage your illness. I took my health for granted and assumed nothing would “really” ever happen to me, but you see how that turned out.
I learned that showing up for an erg session, rowing practice, yoga, land workouts etc. are all MUCH more fun than showing up for a chemotherapy session. Rowing is demanding work but so is fighting cancer or illness, I choose rowing every day and I am so thankful to still have the choice!
JL: What is the most rewarding part of being a rower?
Michelle: Rowing now is more than just getting in shape; it is a personal journey to doing better and pursuing challenging things that are next for me. Just when I think I have figured something out, I quickly realize I have only opened the door to the next opportunity I want to pursue. It is truly the continuation of learning and improving which I enjoy and find rewarding.
It also has taught me that it is okay to be open to new things I never previously had interest in, I said yes to trying something new for exercise and it shaped my future with no apologies or regrets.
JL: How has rowing impacted other aspects of your life?
Michelle: The community of friends I have added to my life through rowing is a true blessing along with the benefits rowing has brought to my family. I signed my son up for a learn to row when he was in middle school. Two of them and at different clubs, he found his rowing team vibe at OARS as well and is a junior in high school this year who loves rowing and being on the team.
His experiences with his teammates and coaches have shaped his teenage years and memories for ever. I feel lucky to share our passions for rowing and have this common interest with my teenage son. We talk about line ups, erg pieces; splits, max watts, strategies, land practices and I always review my race plans with him for his fun input and perspective. To which he jokes, “Mom, you’re racing a 1k, you'll be finished before you get tired!" and we share laughs about it.
My husband has many roles at the OARS boathouse volunteering for the youth or masters’ teams in any way he can as well.
My sister who lives in Ohio has now joined a rowing team in Dayton, we just visited to watch her race in her first regatta. I was so proud of her and look forward to rowing together in our futures as well.
JL: What are your rowing goals for the upcoming season/year?
Michelle: Very simply the goal for any future season I have is to get stronger, faster, and to improve my technical skills rowing in the boat. I do not need a gold medal at every race, but I do need to row the best I am capable of at that time and dock my boat being proud of the work I’ve done to get there and of course learning from it.
I am overly excited to be racing in a W8+ event at HOCR this year for the first time, I have been to this regatta twice as a spectator so this year will be extra special for me to be rowing through those bridges myself.
I recently have partnered with another rower and friend Kaci G. to race in the pair category of any regatta we can get to. We are both motivated by this challenging event, and we work equally hard to improve our rowing and fitness with the pair events on our radar’s horizon. We hope to race our first head race together this fall. We are also enrolled in virtual erg training camps & extra on water coaching sessions offered by Live2Row which have been an important part of our fitness training. #mastersnationals2023
JL: How does JL fit into your rowing life? When did you first discover JL, and what is your favorite JL gear to wear?
Michelle: Honestly the first time I saw a Uni, I remember thinking NO WAY, not today, not tomorrow, not ever will I wear one of those. Never say never rowers… I own about eight of them now and I love them all. Well, love may be exaggerating but once I tried one on and realized how easy they are to wear and row in, I silently bought multiple ones from JL Racing and hoped the teammates that heard me proclaim I would never wear one would NOT call me out.
JL racing gear is such fun! Kaci and I own all this year’s festive trou prints and colored tanks. Part of my pre-practice texts with Kaci are coordinating which gear we were wearing that day, it is silly, but rowing is work, and we think you should look good doing it. JL racing must think so, too, because there is so much to choose from for everyone.
My son also wears all the gear, and he is always making a statement with his festive trou, and we're both anxiously waiting for the Halloween gear we purchased to arrive.
JL: Is there anything else you would like to share with the rowing community?
Michelle: I would say that one of the hardest things related to any form of exercise or challenging activity is to keep showing up. It can be detrimental to negotiate with excuses or the do lists in your head…. Stop it. The opportunities to keep trying, keep pursuing, and not give up are waiting for you.
I am now 6 years breast cancer free and 5 years into rowing, I still love it just the same and I will hit 10,000 million meters erged this month. It is a reminder to me that I am not done yet. #milagemakeschampions.
Keep pursuing what is next for you. Chin up and always press HARDER!