Bernie Donato,  Fitness Assists in Achieving Balance

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This blog originally appeared on VAntage Point.

The term athlete was not a word that came to mind when I think of my journey in sports and fitness.  I grew up in a family of six in upstate New York farm country. As a child, my siblings and I spent the majority of our times outdoors.   In the nice weather, we played kickball and hide and seek. We ran around the open fields and into the woods. In the winter I have memories of flying down the snow packed hills on a sleigh, saucer, or toboggan.   I loved the feeling of outdoors; the breeze in my face, the smell of grass, the sensation of being hugged by the sun. I didn’t realize it then, but the energy spent engaging in all this vigorous activity not only was physically beneficial, but was instrumental in maintaining emotional balance.

My first organized sports were in junior and senior high school. Physical education was part of our school curriculum. We dabbled in a variety of sports including swimming, field hockey, gymnastics, and dodgeball.  I seemed to struggle with sports in my school years because I thought sports didn’t come naturally to me. In retrospect it was more insecurity and worry that I wouldn’t be as fast or strong as my peers.

When I joined the Navy in the end of 1974 there were not any physical fitness requirements.  I was very active but did not participate in any group sports. During my overseas tour in Okinawa I took up skydiving. From the time I made my first jump to the time I made my last freefall, I was hooked.  I learned a lot from skydiving. I learned self-survival; you, your will to survive, and your confidence in your abilities are the keys to life or death in this sport. My confidence soared as I progressed from a novice to someone who could expertly react and recover from 13 malfunctioned parachutes. I learned how important it was to get back up into the plane after recovering from an injury. I understood the importance of working with a team of fellow skydivers as we bonded together to complete formations in the sky and successfully break world records.   I thrived on the camaraderie, the individual and group accomplishments, and the adrenaline rush. When the time came to retire from this sport, I knew I would not live my life on a couch.

I joined a gym.  I took up weight lifting, running, elliptical training, cardio kickboxing, anything that kept me active and the endorphins flowing. I saw positive changes in myself and the way I lived my life.  Instead of seeing what I couldn’t do, I saw what I was capable of achieving. I gained a more positive outlook on life and began to realize how much better I felt both physically and mentally. I realized you didn’t have to be the best or the fastest, you just had to get up and do it.  

Today I am more active than ever despite some physical challenges.  I am a cancer survivor and live with two autoimmune disorders; one which affects my joints and the other my muscles.  Each day that I get up and put both feet on the floor is a great day. Each step; walk, jog, run, hike, bike that I complete is more challenging now than before. I struggle sometimes, but embrace the challenge with a positive outlook and a smile on my face. There is never any intention of competing with anyone; I just strive to make myself better one step at a time. I have found a balance between these issues and an active physical lifestyle.  I believe there is a choice; let your disorders live you or live your life. Through sports I have achieved balance of mind, body, and spirit.

Joining Team RWB has helped me achieve this balance.  Just about all of my sports events are now Team RWB events.  We hike, bike, ruck, walk, run, rock climb, yoga, go cart, and volunteer. RWB’s mission of bringing veterans and community members together is inspirational.   The community, the relationships, the veterans, the camaraderie, the support; it is an amazing group of individuals inspired to support each other as a group. It is a no judgement zone.  No one cares how old, how young, how fast, or how slow you are. We are a family who fosters relationships inside and out of RWB events. We are all in this together. Every person matters. We are all athletes in our own way.