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ATD Blog

Define Yourself by Your Comeback, Not Your Setback

Friday, March 29, 2019

“You do what you can for as long as you can. And when you finally can't, you do the next best thing. You back up, but never give up." —Chuck Yeager

We all have setbacks in life. Plans go awry, things happen, and we can’t always finish what we started. That’s life; but it’s not the end. People remember us for our comebacks, not our setbacks.

This was never more apparent than when I discovered my pulled hip flexor was actually stage four osteoarthritis. Stage four isn’t good. It’s the end of the line for that particular joint. My orthopedic doctor said, "You'll probably never run again . . . and you need two hip replacements. Talk to my surgery scheduler on your way out.”

This would have been a big lifestyle change for any person, but I was also a competitive athlete. I had been participating in endurance racing for over 20 years, including 10 Ironman triathlons and more than 40 six-to-10-day, nonstop, multisport adventure races like the Eco-Challenge. I was used to running, climbing, biking, and paddling with my teammates in some of the most remote and challenging landscapes on earth.

I left the office in a daze. I had never even sprained an ankle competing in five sports since the age of eight. And I suddenly needed not one, but two hip replacements? This was a major setback. I wouldn’t be able to compete again.

Define Yourself by Your Comeback

When you think of Steve Jobs, you don’t think of him as the guy who was once fired from Apple. You think of him as the guy who got rehired, made Apple one of the richest companies in the world, and brought us the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.


Or when you think of Bethany Hamilton, you don’t think of her as the surfer who had to do physical therapy after losing her left arm in a 2003 shark attack. Instead, you think of her as the surfer who learned to surf again and won competitions, despite having one arm.

Set Audacious Goals

When you suffer a setback, you need to adjust—and set new goals. It won’t happen right away. It took me a couple of weeks to wrap my brain around the prospect of setting off metal detectors at airports for the rest of my life and not being able to compete in adventure racing. But as I crutched my way around the hospital, I thought of my good friend, Louise Cooper.

Louise is an incredible endurance athlete and two-time breast cancer survivor, who treated cancer as a minor inconvenience as she trained for her next epic adventure. Her example inspired me. I wanted to be like her and help others to set audacious goals.


That’s when I got the idea for the Project Athena Foundation. The goal of Project Athena is to help survivors of medical or traumatic setbacks recover by being able to set and accomplish huge, audacious goals as part of a team. We’ve helped people to run a marathon on the Great Wall of China, hike across the Grand Canyon (and back!) in two days, and kayak and cycle 120 miles from Key Largo to Key West.

Find Your Strengths

What I learned when I had my setback was that my ability as a strong endurance athlete wasn’t really my strength. My real strength was and had always been the way I inspire others as a teammate. My bionic hip replacements didn’t change the fact that I could work well with teams or inspire teammates—which was what allowed me to work with Louise to set my new goal to start Project Athena and inspire others.

So when you have a setback, don’t focus on what you think you lost. Instead, ask yourself, What are my strengths? You might be surprised to find the answer is not the skill or thing you once did, but rather it was the way you approached that skill all along.

If you know a survivor who is ready for their big comeback, please go to for more details.

About the Author

Robyn Benincasa is a CNN Hero, motivational speaker, thought leader, world champion adventure racer, founder of Project Athena, and author of the New York Times bestseller How Winning Works.

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I needed this today, what a wonderful article.
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