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Meet three age-groupers who, after hitting rock bottom in their individual battles with alcoholism, PTSD and anxiety, used triathlon to bring themselves back to health and happiness.
Southern California native Rochelle Moncourtois woke up one day with a ferocious hangover after another night of heavy, blackout drinking. She was 26 years old, and her battle with alcohol, which had started seven years prior, had left her with multiple DUI’s on her record and a 30-day (unsuccessful) rehab stint.
Since graduating high school, she had lost her purpose—she’d stopped dancing, a passion she’d had since age 3. In between binges, she’d managed to become an aesthetician, run half and full marathons and get her personal training certification. But none of that took her away from alcohol—until that day in 2011.
“I woke up and realized I didn’t remember anything from the night before and that I couldn’t carry on like that anymore,” she recalls. “I really wanted my life to change. I didn’t like the person I had become. … I went into my backyard, threw a bottle of wine and I told myself I was going to make a change that day.”
Moncourtois emphasizes that she didn’t grow up in a broken, dysfunctional home, as many people assume when they hear about her drinking—she had loving and supportive parents who navigated the battle with her. It was the stresses of competitive dancing that drove her to alcohol: “I felt a lot of pressure to look a certain way, for dance specifically,” she says. “Because of all the pressure, I started to fall into a major depression, and I actually became bulimic through all of it. Then I turned to the alcohol—it was my way to escape from all those pressures.”
Her parents and friends started to notice a change in her. She lost interest in dance, started lying and became manipulative. She was ticketed with DUI’s twice and voluntarily underwent her first 30-day rehab program, in Hollywood. “I was just going through the motions to kind of please everyone else around me,” she says, “but I knew that wasn’t really the end of my drinking.” She stayed sober for about five months before falling back into her old habit, at which point she blacked out pretty much every time she drank.
It was after that return to drinking that she decided to make a lasting change and check herself into another rehab program, this time going into it “full force with the goal to get sober and change my life.”
In 2008, in the middle of her battle with alcohol, she had become friends with her spin class instructor, Kim Melvin, who was the person who encouraged her to start running in her early 20s. Moncourtois watched her friend complete an Ironman, and even though she was still drinking heavily, it became a dream of hers to one day finish an Ironman as well. In fact, during her second rehab stint, she named it as one of her post-rehab goals and registered for the race the day she got home. She started her seven months of triathlon training when she was 90 days sober.
With Melvin’s help as a training partner, Moncourtois crossed the finish line of the iron-distance 2012 Full Vineman in Sonoma County, Calif., in 14:25:12. “I never wanted to touch alcohol again after I crossed that finish line,” she says. “I know what a lot of people experience, they say [an Ironman finish] is life-changing. But for me, it saved my life. I wasn’t even a year sober yet, so if I didn’t have Ironman, I don’t even know if I would have made it through that first year.”
Now 30 years old, Moncourtois works as a personal trainer and fitness instructor and is getting married in 2016. She’s in the final stages of publishing a book about her life journey with the goal of helping others who’ve faced similar struggles. She’ll be racing Ironman 70.3 St. George this year, and down the road, after she has kids, she’d like to complete another Ironman. “I want to do another Ironman to show my kids what you’re capable of,” she says. “I want them to know that anything is possible and for them to see what changed my life, and to show other women out there you can still achieve your goals and dreams after having kids.”
Paralyzed By Anxiety
During his senior year of college, Kyle Halloran’s life came to an abrupt halt. He started having panic attacks; due to claustrophobia, he had to sit near the door in class so he could make a quick getaway; he consumed a mostly liquid diet because he feared he would choke; he could run only a half mile from his house before turning around—he was afraid of passing out and hurting himself. His anxiety had become all-consuming.
The lowest point came one night when he was driving the hour from his parents’ home back to college in Fairfield, Conn., and, 20 minutes into the drive, he pulled over. He worried that he’d have a panic attack and pass out while driving with no one there to help him. He worked himself up so much that his limbs went numb, and he had to call his parents to pick him up. “That was when I realized it went from an inconvenience to a serious problem,” Halloran says. He was 21 at the time, a few months from graduating from college, and he couldn’t drive by himself at night. “I just completely broke down and started crying,” he recalls. “I figured if I couldn’t do something that simple, how was I ever going to hold down a job? How was I ever going to live on my own?”
Growing up, Halloran’s dad lovingly nicknamed him “the worrier,” but by the time he started college, he had pretty much phased out his anxiety. Halloran can’t pinpoint one exact moment at which things started to go downhill during his senior year, but it was mainly a sense of pressure that he didn’t have a career plan to use his psychology degree. “All my friends had internships lined up and they knew where they were going to be working,” he says, “and it dawned on me that I wasn’t necessarily sure of what I wanted to do.”
He “dragged” his way through his last semester of college as his anxiety grew worse, graduated and moved home—with no job prospects and little hope of making it on his own.
Then one day, Halloran and his dad found themselves in a traffic jam on the way into town in Litchfield, Conn. Up the road were people in spandex, riding their bikes in the pouring rain. “Are they nuts?” Halloran asked his dad.
“No, they’re triathletes,” his dad replied. They were racing the Sandy Beach Triathlon, and his dad suggested they train for that race the next year.
Halloran, surprisingly, agreed. “I realized that I had scared myself out of doing basic things and I wasn’t really living my life,” he says. “As I went through what [a triathlon] was going to entail, every piece of it was absolutely terrifying to me. … But [I figured] if I don’t do this, I’m not going to live a regular life. Things aren’t going to get better. I would almost rather do this and die trying rather than continue living this life that’s deteriorating day by day.”
And while the training didn’t immediately make things easier, he did find that the structure of triathlon training helped him to control his irrational thoughts for longer and longer. The more workouts he did, the more confident he felt, and the more he knew he was getting his life back on track.
He finished the Sandy Beach Triathlon—and has gone on to win it twice, setting a new course record. He’s also competed in more than 50 other triathlons since. Now 27 years old, he’s married, has a daughter and teaches psychology and writing at Forman School, a boarding school specifically for students with learning difficulties. “Much of my journey post-anxiety has revolved around working with these students and sharing insights on gaining confidence—through exercise—that translates to the classroom,” he says.
Halloran credits his family—his parents, his wife and his daughter—with keeping him motivated in the sport. “I know that [triathlon] makes me the best version of myself for them—in order to be a happy dad and in order to be a supportive husband,” he says, “but also hopefully to send the right message to my daughter. … I just really want her to know that there’s really nothing you can’t work through—there’s nothing in life that should ever put the brakes on your life.”
Wounded And Battling PTSD
A sergeant in the U.S. Army, Puerto Rico native Norberto Roman retired from his military career earlier than expected when a fellow soldier caught him attempting to take his life in May 2005. It was during Roman’s second tour of duty in Iraq, and he was battling PTSD after a rocket launcher exploded 25 meters from where he was. He was sent home to Clarksville, Tenn., to undergo PTSD treatment. He was also dealing with lung issues, which the military assumed was asthma, and retired him with a disability.
Roman underwent four years of intense PTSD treatment. “From the heat bringing back flashbacks to loud sounds—it was four years thinking that I was still there,” he says. They were tough years, especially for his wife and two sons, as Roman dealt with anger issues and his worsening lung condition.
In 2008, Roman decided to see a pulmonologist, who was already doing some testing on soldiers with lung issues after deployments to Iraq. After an assessment and some testing, the doctor told him that he believed Roman had a chronic lung disease but needed to do a biopsy to confirm. It took several months of debating, but Roman decided he had to have answers. “It wasn’t about my health; it was about my mental peace,” he says.
Based on the treatment the doctor had already done with other soldiers, he believed Roman had either constrictive bronchiolitis or pulmonitis, which had been caused by exposure to sulfur fires, burn pits and human waste in Iraq. After the results of the biopsy came back, Roman was informed he was the doctor’s first patient to have both conditions, limiting Roman to 60 percent of his lung capacity.
“He told me it would be difficult for me to run more than 2 miles because the condition in my lungs would require me to either use my inhaler or take a break,” Roman says. The news was hard for him to hear, and he fell into a depression. He gained weight—went up from 172 to 210 pounds—which led to sleep apnea and using a C-Pap machine. His doctor warned him that if he stayed overweight, it would worsen his lung condition and make him a candidate for a lung transplant down the road.
In addition to his doctor’s warning, Roman’s family was also an impetus behind his start in endurance sports. He reached a turning point when his son said, “Daddy, you’re our hero.”
“I hugged him and when he left I actually felt bad and I started crying because I didn’t see myself as a hero,” Roman says. “Here I am feeling miserable and depressed and hopeless and on the bottom, and then here comes my little one hugging me and saying he thinks that I’m his hero, so what’s wrong? … I didn’t want for [my sons] to see me like that.”
Because the doctor had told him 2 miles would be tough, he thought he’d defy the odds by running a 5K, or 3.1 miles, in 2012. He then stepped up to a 10K followed by a half-marathon and marathon in 2013. Along the way, he overhauled his diet and dropped back down to 172 pounds.
In 2014, Roman’s motivation to race had shifted—it was no longer about beating the odds, losing weight and challenging himself. His goal had become wanting to inspire other veterans. “It’s my time now to pay it forward,” he says. He uses social media as a tool to inspire others. “Every time I post something about an accomplishment that I did or a finish line that I crossed, I see so many people inspired by it.”
In 2014, he competed in his first sprint and Olympic triathlons, followed by his first half-Ironman, Ironman 70.3 Augusta in 2015. In 2015, he also started a Facebook campaign called Rescue 22 (Rescue22.org), in reference to the 22-plus U.S. veterans who commit suicide every day. “It is to motivate veterans to go out there and do any kind of activity, any kind of sport,” Roman says. “I use my story to inspire others. … My condition is in my lungs—we call it an invisible scar, together with the PTSD. But there are hundreds if not thousands of soldiers out there who are using their stories to motivate others. And I do it every day.”
Triathlon is what keeps him from falling back into his depression: “Triathlons are my medicine,” he says. Now a part of the X3 Endurance Tri Club, he’s signed up for his first full Ironman in Louisville in 2016, and he knows it won’t be his last finish line. “Yes, I know I lost 40 percent of my performance in my lungs in Iraq, but I don’t see anything in front of me that I cannot reach,” he says. “It’s not about me—it’s for that person watching me … who’s [thinking] he won’t be able to do it, but [believes] ‘If I see him do it, then I can go and do it.’”