When faced with two simultaneous family health crises, former pro triathlete Lee DiPietro leaned on lessons learned from racing.

When faced with two simultaneous family health crises, former pro triathlete Lee DiPietro leaned on lessons learned from racing. 

When she finished sixth at the Ironman World Championship in 1997, then pro triathlete Lee DiPietro knew that her hard work had paid off. She never imagined, however, that all those miles of training would prepare her for life’s biggest challenges 13 years down the road.

In 2010, DiPietro’s husband (also named Lee) was diagnosed with a stage three sarcoma in his leg at the same time that her oldest son, Tim, suffered a potentially life-threatening leg injury in a freak ATV accident.

DiPietro had to find a way to not only support her two loved ones, but also get through the ordeal herself.

“When you train for a long-distance event like Ironman, you learn that training breaks you down,” she says. “But you also learn that you will build back up and become stronger for it.”

It’s these lessons that she applied while guiding her family through the healing process. DiPietro helped husband Lee recover from the effects of chemo, radiation and surgery in Baltimore, at the same time regularly traveling to New York to be with Tim as he rehabbed his leg and worked toward walking again. Through it all, she served as the family’s backbone, simultaneously playing caregiver, mom and wife. “Without even realizing it, I relied on my psyche as a triathlete, knowing we’d get through these challenges,” she says.

DiPietro dubbed herself “Nurse McNicey” as she diligently cared for her two patients. While she remained a source of strength for her husband and sons, she readily admits that her own network of family and friends provided unending support. “There were times I wondered if I had the reserves to pull us through the next ‘race,’” she says.

Having the ability to get out for an early-morning run or swim, or spending time on her bike trainer after a long day at the hospital, also helped. “Sometimes I felt like I couldn’t get out the door,” she admits. “But I recognized how much I needed it and used the time to think through our next steps or just get a break from the stress.”

A year after the traumatic ordeal began, the DiPietros could focus on how far they had come. Husband Lee was in remission and son Tim had recovered almost completely. Since then Tim has married and become a father, and the entire family has drawn closer than ever.

Today she splits her time between homes in Newport, R.I., and Delray Beach, Fla., continues to compete as a high-level masters runner in distances from 5K to the marathon, and is considering a low-key return to triathlon over the coming year.

No doubt she’ll continue to rely on her tenacity to see her through the next athletic challenges. “The body and mind are so much stronger than you think,” she says. “Once you’ve made it through a challenge, you can pat yourself on the back and believe in yourself.”

Lee DiPietro’s book, Against the Wind: An Ironwoman’s Race for Her Family’s Survival, is available now (Amazon.com).

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