FEATURING: CASSIE ONORI
Happy New Year to all our Mermaid Athletes! January is a month of renewed energy and a fresh start! As we prepare to head to San Diego for the T9 Mermaid 1/2 Marathon San Diego, we too are experiencing renewed energy and a fresh start. To help us bring in the New Year, we reached out to Cassie Onori to be our featured Inspirational Mermaid Athlete for the month of January. As promised, we wanted you to meet our latest editions to the T9 Mermaid Family, our Ambassadors. Cassie, one of our T9 Mermaid Ambassadors, makes her home in Southern California. You will see her on the course in March as she runs alongside other T9 Mermaid Athletes to complete her 7th Mermaid event. We are certain that you will enjoy reading about Cassie and her tenaciousness. You can follow Cassie on Instagram at mama_cascas.
What prompted you to start running?
In January 2012, I was about to turn 25 years old, and I was absolutely miserable with myself. Through my two pregnancies, I had gained nearly 150 lbs. I had gone to the doctor for my yearly physical, and I remember very clearly crying in the office because the scale read 297 lbs. Very much defeated, I listened to my doctor as she told me about the Lap-Band surgery to aid in weight loss. I began the steps to start the procedure, which included seminars, meetings, and counseling. I never could wrap my head around the idea of getting this surgery. On April 8, 2012, (Easter Sunday) I walked by a poster for a Mother's Day 5k, and thought to myself, "I wish I could do something like that”. Throughout the day, I kept thinking about it. I decided to jump in, head first, and reached out to my friend who was a runner. I asked her to help me train for this race, which was only 5 weeks away, and off we went! I went from barely being able to complete a mile in under 20 minutes, (and certainly couldn't "run" for more then a minute), to completing my first 5k in under 50 minutes. From that moment on, I was HOOKED. I never did go through with the surgery. I have, over the years, learned that the scale does not define me. But, I have lost 90 lbs, and went from being a size 24 to a size 14. I am slowly working my way through those last 60 lbs. Now, 5 years later, I just completed my goal of running 50 races before I turn 30 (January 28th!). Currently, I am working on my next goal of completing a duathlon.
How do you feel when you are running? When you aren’t running?
When I am running, I feel strong and powerful; like there is nothing in this world that could feel this good. It is an incredibly freeing feeling to be empowered by the wind and embrace those hills and fly down the other side as a reward for not giving up at the bottom. I have conquered a lot of fears through running and competing in obstacle races, like my insane fear of heights. Running is my happy place. It's where I go to catch the beat of the music with the pound of my feet. It's something that no one can take away from me and something that I can share with my kids. It's wonderful to know that I found a passion for something that encourages me to stay on a healthy path. When I am not running, I find myself more stressed out and less happy. I always think of the movie, Legally Blonde, where Elle Woods says, ”Endorphins make you happy, and happy people don't kill people... they just don't!" It's SO TRUE! I feel incredibly sane when I am running and know that when I'm in a real funk, it is time to get on my shoes and go pound the pavement.
Where is your favorite place to run?
I don't think I have a favorite place to run necessarily, but I do love running along the Coastal Cities by me, because of the breeze and the views! The hills are always a nice endurance challenge and training ground. They are also perfect for taking those post run sunset selfies! haha!
What is the longest distance you have run?
My longest distance I have run so far has been 15 miles. I was trying to get up to marathon distance but I realized that the toll the really long distances take on my body, is at this point, is not worth the effort. The goal has been shelved until, hopefully, a future date!
Have you noticed people treat you differently when you tell them your story?
I do notice that once people hear that I'm a runner and how much weight I have lost, they seem to accept me more. I don't really think that it's a good thing per se, because as a woman of awesome curves, it took me a long time to accept my body as is. I sometimes feel like once people know that I'm still a work in progress, they are happier than me saying that I'm happy with my body as is. I am not a societal "normal" body acceptance weight at the moment. That being said, I do find that when I share my story, people open up to me more and share their own personal struggles. I usually learn more about them than I ever would have known. I like to think that by sharing my story it helps people know that you can be fit at any age, weight, or stage in your life. That there is always room for improvement. That just because you lost your way, even many, many, MANY times (haha!), you can always get back on track, and try, try, TRY again!
What advice or words of wisdom do you offer our Mermaid Athletes?
My advice to other T9 Mermaid Athletes is that being fit should be by YOUR own standards. Just because you don't come in first place, or you can’t run a 9 minute mile, or run a full mile, it doesn't make you any less of an athlete. If you are up on your feet and you are trying, then you are just as strong as the person next to you! Having set backs is normal. I have worked my way through shin splints, fractured ankles, dislocated shoulders, and loads of back pain. I can't stress enough the importance of stretching and therapeutic massage! Just remember why you started and keep working towards that goal. You should ALWAYS have a goal you are working toward! My goal right now is to run 200 miles in 100 days. Also, having TREAT (not cheat (haha)) meals are essential! You shouldn't let your diet run your life. Eat that piece of cake, and enjoy it, because that's what life is about!
How did you hear of T9 Mermaid Series?
I heard of the T9 Mermaid Race Series almost 4 years ago from a friend who had seen the Ad and thought of me and my love for “The Little Mermaid”. I have run it every year since. This year will be my 5th time running the San Diego Mermaid, and my 6th Mermaid Series race because I did the Virtual San Francisco event.
If you could run with anyone, who would it be?
I don't follow many sporting events, so I'm not sure of any famous runners. My favorite people to run with are my friends and my kids. I love running with them, sharing my passion with them, and seeing them achieve their goals along side of me!
What hidden talents do you have?
My "hidden" talent (which if you know me, you experience this daily (haha)), is that I can take practically any song, and change the lyrics around so I am singing a song instead of talking. I do this quite often (haha)! I have an awesome sense of rhythm and rhyming which is always a puzzler for me since physically, I am essentially a klutz, with a strong dosage of ADHD and a smattering of Gilmore Girl, Lorelei's, sarcasm.
Mermaid Series is proud to present Ashley Nelson as our April Inspirational Mermaid Athlete. Ashley is more than a survivor, she is a teacher, a mother, a motivator and a tenacious woman who is defined by her abilities, not her disabilities. We are proud and inspired by Ashley's story. She is a representation of strength and fortitude. We asked Ashley a few questions to introduce her to the mermaid community.
Mermaid: How did you hear about the Mermaid Series?
Ashley: Since I started cycling and racing my bike I've always heard about the Mermaid races, however never put much thought into doing an event till recently. I really, really disliked running for the longest time and for no reason at all, I had never tried, it was the idea of running that turned me off. That sounds so silly to me now, I am currently recovering from a sprained big toe (aka turf toe) and not running is making me go a little insane, it has become my release, my antidepressant and the time I spend running is mine, it's “me” time and it's a place where I go to truly feel comfortable in my skin and with myself. When I run I don't have to think. I don't know that I have a cognitive brain injury. I guess that's what cycling was for me till it was taken away in 2009. Maybe 2016 can be my come back year! The Mermaid Golden Gate [Tour de Mermaid] ride could be a great event after the May Ultra I am doing.
I first heard about it [Mermaid Series] from cycling friends who ran for cross training purposes. I also heard about you guys [Mermaid] at a local shop. I believe I had seen a flyer. I've always wanted to do the East Bay or the two SF events. Recently, my running friends, Kate and Christine, both mother runners and great athletes themselves, have been talking to me about doing a few of the mermaid events. I'm flirting with the May 7th event however, I'm not too sure if it's too close to my 50K taper or not. If not May, I would like to treat myself to a birthday gift of the SF run in November.
Mermaid: What would you say to those out there who are reading this story and your article for the first time?
Ashley: I'd like them to take away the understanding that life has many unforeseen obstacles and sometimes they can be life changing ones like mine. Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a complex injury, but that doesn't mean that your life is over. You have to pick up the pieces and try to move forward. If you fall down in a race you don't stop and head back to the start line, you still move forward and get to the finish. You might have to find new ways of doing the same old things, but you try till you find something that works. My life, myself, the me inside my head is different then the girl who was hit in 2009. I have accepted this as a new challenge, just like a new race distance. I think I've learned not to take myself to seriously. Running helps me, it helps me greatly. I've had neurologists say that they don't understand how I do it with my physical disabilities (left side weakness/paralysis) but they fear if I stop or don't do it, my life wouldn't be what it is today, that I wouldn't have recovered as well as I have.
Mermaid: If you have shared your story in the local community, how has it affected others?
Ashley: My story was featured on the front of Yahoo when it happened, it was on every Bay Area news station and once we caught the man who hit me, it seems like I was in the front of the local section of the [San Jose] Mercury News almost every week for a few years. If you Google search "Bob Schiro hit and run" or "Ashleigh Jackson highway 9 hit and run,” you’ll get countless reports.
I was also featured as a Ragnar Athlete for the Napa 2015 event and KTVU has interviewed me as a survivor of a drunk driver for a story they were doing on DUIs. Here is a link to the Ragnar blog.
The reactions are mixed. I think a lot of people forget that some disabilities are invisible so I get both ends of the spectrum from people telling me what an inspiration I am to them. To the people who are "haters" and just don't understand, just because I look "OK" doesn't mean I am OK. With people like that I find myself educating them aboutTraumatic Brain Injury. TBI is like being on a roller coaster with a blindfold on. You honestly do not know what your day will be like, mood, emotion, intelligence, energy, motivation and even my physical self. When people only see you on your good days it's hard for them to understand my disability and what limitations I face day to day. Some people get this. They tell me things like, "You are my motivation." Or, "I eat better because of you.” Or, ”I pushed myself a little harder because I thought about you." I think most of my community knows who I am but, not everyone who knows me knows I'm Ashley from highway nine. It's funny to me when people realize I'm "that Ashley”. It's a classic response, "Oh my God, you’re that Ashley. I followed your story." Recently, I just had a fellow runner on my team say that to me out on a long trail run. I hope it motivates them to push harder and kill the workout!
We think you will agree that Ashley is an Inspirational Mermaid Athlete. Here is Ashley’s Story
Hi, my name is Ashley Nelson. I was a competitive cyclist but now I'm a runner because in 2009 I was out riding my bike on a training ride and a drunk driver in a 750li BMW came up behind me, about 60mph, in the bike lane and ran me over. He hit me and ran.
I had major head trauma, had a stroke that caused permanent paralysis, including my left eye and broke many bones including my C1. The hit and run was featured in a Mercury News article.
Instead of going to the Wente Road Race I was training for, I went to the ER, the trauma ICU and the neurological transitional care unit at Valley Medical Center. I never went to the rehab unit because I was given no hope, I couldn't follow basic commands. In2009 we were told I may never walk again, I mightnever do anything again.
Well, here I am in 2016, I am a new mom of two and I am doing 5Ks, 10Ks, Half Marathons (1:45:00), Fulls (3:57:00) and now I'm registered for a 50K. I just did my second trail half marathon on March 20th at the Whistle Punk Half Marathon and I made podium, 2ND place.
Thanks for the Inspiration Ashley!
Our October featured athlete has come a long way to join the Mermaid family and we couldn't be more excited to have her as part of our staff! A French native and a stellar rower, Delphine Cavoit is doing a six month internship with the Mermaid. Her passion is rowing and she "finds her happy pace" while gracefully gliding across the water, proof that Mermaids love ALL types of water sports.
Where you are from?
I am from France, more precisely from Normandy.
What you are going to school for?
This year is my last year of studies! Yooohooo!! I will graduate when I return to France in January. I have studied different subjects like communication, marketing, and event management. This year, my focus was on sport management.
What brought you to Mermaid Series?
Finding an internship was very difficult. Most of the companies are not interested in hiring foreigners because of the visa process and the insurance. I sent out a lot of applications and Carlo got back to me! We both compete in rowing, I guess that’s how I caught his attention! I am really happy to be a part of the Mermaid team and organize some of the amazing events. I am learning everyday and I am glad to be helpful.
What do you like the most about being in California?
There is so much to do in California.... I enjoy getting outside and visiting all the parks. I've been to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Big Sur and Muir Woods.
What do you miss the most about France?
Bread and cheese! Of course.
What do you do to stay active?
I like to practice sport. I use to practice rowing at hight level in France, so 7 times a week. To perform well we needed to practice different sports like rowing, running, swimming and weight training. It was a really complete training program. Here in United-States, it's pretty nice to have a break! I stopped practicing sport, but now I do it for pleasure and fun. So I surf, hike and run in amazing landscapes! And I bike everyday to go to work!
What is your favorite sport?
ROWING! I started this sport 10 years ago. I use to be a ballet dancer before. Very different! My dad brought me with him to the rowing club and it started there. I met my teammates and my coach and after one year of hard training, we won our first gold medal. Year after year, we never stopped training and continued to win more medals. I was a teenager when I started, rowing laid the foundation for my life: organization, discipline, respect, motivation and PASSION. One of my teammate is already waiting for my return in France, so we can start to train together in double skull.
Are you a runner, biker or swimmer?
I am, but not in competition for now. I plan to reduce a bit rowing so I can have time to do running races like half-marathon and maybe one day a triathlon.
Where is your favorite place to exercise?
I love to practice rowing in a middle of mountains, it is so peaceful. My favorite place to run is the beach, I really like the atmosphere there.
What or who inspires you?
I don’t think someone inspires me. I am more inspired by a way of life. I will start my first real job next year. I know that working events can be crazy, but I want to keep time for myself, my friends and my family, to practice sport and discover the world. Living in France is really useful for that…
What kind of hobbies do you have?
I like to read, and need to start reading in english!! I always want to have fun somewhere with my friends, going for hikes or festivals.
Our featured Mermaid Athlete for September will be crossing her first finish line with us at the Mermaid Run San Francisco, however she won't be alone as she's bringing out over 15 enthusiastic little mermaids from Roosevelt Middle School in Oakland. Meet Hailee Lanker, teacher, runner, coach and creator of Girls Run Roosevelt. As a teach, she motivates middle school girls inside the classroom and as a coach she inspires them to cross the finish line. Check out her story, learn about Team Girls Run Roosevelt and come cheer them on in San Francisco.
Tell us a little about how you got involved in education and athletics.
Sports have been a huge part of my life since I first stepped on the soccer field at age 6. Through college and grad school I coached within youth soccer and rugby programs and loved every minute. In 2011 I started my career as a teacher at a high school in Brooklyn. Then I moved to Oakland to be closer to family and began working at Roosevelt Middle School.
What's your favorite place to run?
I love any good trail run where my dogs can run off leash beside me.
Dogs are the best running partners! What kind of dogs?
Yes the are! I have two Australian Cattle dogs.
We understand that you are involved with a very special organization. Would you tell our readers about it?
When I started at Roosevelt I met an incredible teacher, Mary Lord, who would become a mentor to me. Mary and I co-created Girls Run Roosevelt in 2014, Team GRR for short. The girls of Girls Run Roosevelt are a unique and beautifully diverse group of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders. Many of the girls are refugees from indigenous communities in Thailand, Burma, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Others are immigrants from Afghanistan, Honduras, China, and Mexico. Our girls are incredibly special and we love to see them thrive within the little community we have created. Team GRR is a band of booty-kicking ladies with a lot of heart.
What was the first finish line you guys crossed?
I crossed my first official finish line with the girls of Team GRR at the See Jane Run race in 2014. It was a very special moment.
That's awesome! Highlights of the race?`
Crossing the finish line together.
What inspired you to start the Girls Run Roosevelt program?
In my first year at Roosevelt I often went for runs after school in the area around campus. Mary had an interest in joining me and her interest trickled down to her students. We announced the initial club practice with humble expectations of 2-3 girls and were happily surprised to see 8 on that first day. The girls chased us around San Antonio park in jeans and ballet flats. We realized then that these girls were hungry for the opportunity to participate in organized sports. Knowing how much sports had contributed to the growth and development of our own grit and self confidence we felt compelled to provide that opportunity to the amazing girls at Roosevelt.
How/Where do the girls train for events?
The team trains twice a week after school in the neighborhoods surrounding Roosevelt. We run over the highway bridge down to the marina, we run through side streets to Lake Merritt and when we want a short run, we head down 20th street where a taco truck marks the turn-around point for our 1.5 miler.
What's the next event for them?
We are still in the process of hammering out our fall schedule but the girls will begin competing against other OUSD middle school students in cross country meets starting October 1st.
How did you hear about the Mermaid Series?
Each year I search for races for the club to participate in, with a keen eye for those that focus on the empowerment of women and girls. The atmosphere of these races is a powerful tool in cultivating that sense of empowerment in our girls. When I read about the Mermaid Series I was immediately excited about the prospect of our girls doing the run.
We're very excited to have Girls Run Roosevelt come to our Mermaid Run San Francisco. How many girls will be crossing the finish line with you?
The name of the race alone has the girls very excited. I anticipate we will have 15 or more girls with us on that day.
Describe the changes you see in the girls after they reach a milestone or complete an event.
Many of our girls have been socialized to fulfill the traditional expectations of what it means to be a girl: they are in many environments quiet, submissive, and approval-seeking. One of the best parts of coaching these ladies is seeing the shyest girls break out of their shell and display shiny, new confidence. When the girls surprise themselves with a faster mile time or with the new-found ease of running a 5k, their joy is absolutely transparent. Through these experiences we have the opportunity to build a bridge between what the girls accomplish with their bodies, through training and commitment, to what the girls can accomplish with their minds and hearts.
How do you motivate them?
GRRś mission has always been to create an inclusive and supportive environment for girls with any level of athletic experience. Some of the girls are intrinsically competitive and pound the pavement with an intensity that surprises and impresses us as coaches. Some of the girls find their way to the club through a desire for belonging and aren´t initially thrilled about the prospect of 3 mile runs. Our most important job as coaches is to set the tone of the club and cultivate the attitude that as runners we compete against ourselves. We encourage the girls to take pride in their best effort, whether that includes frequent walking breaks or not. We want the girls to find joy in the movement of their bodies and confidence in their incremental improvements. The girls also do an amazing job at motivating each other. They celebrate the effort of every runner during training runs and races and not just those who finish first.
Starting a program from scratch has got to be a challenge, what's the most challenging thing you've had to overcome? Hurdles faced?
The club began very organically with not a lot of forethought but I believe what we lacked in experience and planning we made up for with heart. I have been very lucky to always have fantastic co-coaches- first Mary Lord, who we lost to LA, and then Jenny Richardson, who we lost to Brooklyn this summer. Without them the club would not be standing today. I have also been very lucky to have the support of a fantastically generous community of friends and family who have funded GRR since day one. I am grateful as well to the community businesses who have donated to team GRR along the way, with a special thanks to Forward Printing, who produce our team tshirts, and to the ladies of Roots and Shoots photography who have captured some really special moments of the girls in action.
The most challenging part of starting and maintaining our club is, without a doubt, cost. The family´s of our girls struggle with poverty to varying degrees and asking these families to fund the cost of gear and races would be unfairly burdensome. The club is committed to providing girls with shoes, appropriate clothes for running, and snacks for after practice. We also make sure to cover the full cost of participation in any race. It is a near constant struggle to make sure we have the funds required to provide these girls with the necessities and then to celebrate their achievements. I would love for us to one day have team uniforms that the girls can wear with pride.
Where can our readers find out more about your organization?
Readers can find out more about the girls of team GRR by liking our page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/GirlsRunRoosevelt/
or following us on instagram @girlssayGRR.
Fans can also contribute to the cause by donating to our GoFundMe campaign at: http://www.gofundme.com/2myggf8.
I am making a concentrated effort this year to regularly update our social media pages so that supporters of GRR can get a glimpse into all the amazing things the girls are doing.