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CNN Heroes: Helping women recover through athletic adventures

By Erika Clarke, CNN
May 15, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At 20, Alli Morgan had her leg amputated above the knee
  • An avid sportswoman, Morgan found hope in Robyn Benincasa's Project Athena
  • Benincasa, an injury survivor, too, helps recovering women achieve adventure goals
  • Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

San Diego (CNN) -- As a teenager, Alli Morgan lived for sports. She was a cyclist and a climber, and she played on her high school's softball and field hockey teams.

That all ended abruptly her sophomore year, the day Morgan tore a ligament in her right knee during a field hockey game. She underwent ACL surgery, expecting a quick recovery. Instead, it led to 45 more operations on her knee, months in the hospital and a diagnosis of a rare genetic disorder.

At 20, Morgan faced a difficult decision: Continue to undergo more surgery or consider amputation.

"I thought of what I wanted out of life. I was on crutches for six years. I had a leg that was basically dead weight," she said.

Morgan opted to have her leg amputated above the knee.

"This was not about a loss of a limb," she said. "It was about regaining my life."

During that process, Morgan found hope in Project Athena. The organization helps women who have survived medical setbacks achieve an athletic goal, whether it is participating in a triathlon or scaling the Great Wall of China.

Robyn Benincasa\'s Project Athena helps women recovering from medical or traumatic setbacks achieve athletic goals.
Robyn Benincasa's Project Athena helps women recovering from medical or traumatic setbacks achieve athletic goals.

"Very often people are saying, 'OK, I survived. But now what?' " said Robyn Benincasa, the nonprofit's founder. "We want to be that now what."

Since 2009, Benincasa and her group have helped 140 women fulfill their adventurous dreams.

From a setback to an 'Athenaship'

A firefighter in San Diego and a 10-time Ironman, Benincasa's own life is all about adventure. But like the women she helps, she, too, is a survivor.

Seven years ago, Benincasa was running in an adventure race when her leg gave out. She collapsed and dragged herself to the finish line. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with stage-four osteoarthritis in both hips, and her doctor told her she would never run again.

"I was in shock, because my body had never betrayed me before," said Benincasa, 47. "I always found a way to get through whatever it was, so I pretended it wasn't happening for a little while. And then I was being rolled into surgery for my first hip replacement."

Benincasa has since had three more hip replacements, but she never let it stop her. After the first one, she was inspired by a friend to start scheduling herself in events for which she could train.

Do you know a hero? Nominations are open for 2014 CNN Heroes

She realized it could also be a way to help inspire other women in their recovery.

"Maybe somebody always wanted to run a 10K but got cancer, and now they need the motivation to not let that dream fade," she said. "It's not about the setback, it's about the comeback."

Project Athena provides grants, called "Athenaships," that pay for coaching, travel expenses, entry fees or equipment -- whatever may be needed for a woman to live her adventure.

"Being an Athena, you're not just a survivor, you're an adventurer," Benincasa said. "We give them a different label to put on themselves, and it's something they become on their way to the finish line."

It's not about the setback, it's about the comeback.
Robyn Benincasa

Women can apply for a grant to do any event they wish, or they can participate in one organized by Project Athena. The group's events include a 45-mile Grand Canyon trek and a 100-mile kayaking, cycling and hiking/running adventure in the Florida Keys.

Adventure becomes them

Benincasa has found that many of the women start small and then want to do more.

"We often hear, 'What else can I do?' It gives them a whole new perspective," Benincasa said. "It's not about trying to get back what you were, it's about trying to be the best of what you're capable of today, this minute."

Morgan, now 23, credits Project Athena with helping her get her life back. In 2012, she was able to participate in the group's Florida Keys adventure with the assistance of a prosthetic leg.

"It was the most incredible feeling to be surrounded by so many like-minded people, the common bond of going through something," Morgan said.

For Benincasa, helping the women gain a sense of rebirth motivates her.

"The most gratifying thing is the moment when you see someone realize they're going to make it, when you see the fear disappear ... and they realize how awesome they are."

Want to get involved? Check out the Project Athena website at www.projectathena.org and see how to help.

CNN's Allie Torgan contributed to this report

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