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TEDWomen 2017

Minda Dentler: What I learned when I conquered the world's toughest triathlon

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A 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and then a full-length marathon on hot, dry ground -- with no breaks in between: the legendary Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, is a bucket list goal for champion athletes. But when Minda Dentler decided to take it on, she had bigger aspirations than just another medal around her neck. She tells the story of how she conquered this epic race, and what it inspired her to do next.

- Athlete, activist
A record-setting triathlete, Minda Dentler is a polio survivor committed to inspiring people to move beyond their fear of failure and achieve their goals. Full bio

It was October 13, 2012,
00:12
a day that I will never forget.
00:16
I was on my bike, pushing up what seemed
like a never-ending barren hill.
00:18
And it wasn't just any hill:
00:24
it was a 15-mile climb
up to a town called Hawi
00:26
on the Big Island of Hawaii.
00:30
And it wasn't just any ride:
00:32
it was at the Ironman World Championship.
00:34
I can still feel my muscles burning.
00:37
I was struggling, tired and dehydrated,
00:40
as I could feel the heat
00:43
emanating from the asphalt,
measuring almost 98 degrees.
00:45
I was near the halfway point
of the bike portion
00:49
of one of the most prestigious, longest,
00:52
single-day endurance race
events in the world.
00:55
Every year, during my childhood,
00:59
I watched this very race on TV
in our family living room.
01:01
I sat next to my dad on our 1970s-style
orange and brown sofa,
01:04
and I remember being in utter awe
01:09
at how these athletes
pushed themselves to their limit
01:11
in this grueling race.
01:14
And just so you don't get the wrong idea,
01:15
my family members weren't just spectators.
01:17
They were incredibly athletic,
01:20
and I always participated
from the sidelines,
01:22
cheering on my three siblings
or handing out water at local races.
01:25
I remember wanting so badly
to be able to compete, but I couldn't.
01:29
Even though I couldn't play sports,
01:35
I decided to be active in my community.
01:37
I volunteered at the local
hospital in high school.
01:39
In college, I interned at the White House,
01:42
studied abroad in Spain
01:45
and backpacked through Europe
all by myself
01:46
with my leg braces and crutches.
01:49
Upon graduating, I moved to New York City
for a job in management consulting,
01:51
earned an MBA, got married
01:56
and now have a daughter.
01:58
(Applause)
02:00
At age 28, I was introduced
to the sport of hand-cycling,
02:03
and then triathlon,
02:08
and by luck, I met Jason Fowler,
an Ironman World Champion,
02:10
at a camp for athletes with disabilities.
02:14
And like me, he competed in a wheelchair.
02:17
And with his encouragement, at age 34,
02:19
I decided to go after Kona.
02:23
The Kona, or Hawaii Ironman
02:26
is the oldest Iron-distance
race in the sport,
02:28
and if you're not familiar,
it's like the Super Bowl of triathlon.
02:31
And the Ironman,
for a wheelchair athlete like me,
02:35
consists of a 2.4-mile open-water swim
in the Pacific Ocean,
02:38
a 112-mile hand cycle ride
in lava fields --
02:42
now, that sounds exotic,
02:45
but it's not as scenic as it sounds,
and it's pretty desolate --
02:47
and then you top it off with a marathon,
02:50
or a 26.2-mile run in 90-degree heat
02:53
using a racing wheelchair.
02:57
That's right, it's a total distance
of 140.6 miles using just your arms
02:59
in less than 17 hours.
03:06
No female wheelchair athlete
had ever completed the race
03:08
because of the strict,
seemingly impossible cutoff times.
03:12
And so there I was,
03:17
putting it all out on the line.
03:19
And when I finally reached the top
of that 15-mile climb,
03:21
I was discouraged.
03:25
There was no way I was going
to make that swim in my time limit
03:27
of 10 and a half hours,
03:31
because I was almost two hours off pace.
03:32
I had to make the agonizing decision
03:36
to quit.
03:39
I removed my timing chip,
and I handed it over to a race official.
03:41
My day was done.
03:45
My best friend Shannon
and my husband Shawn
03:48
were waiting at the top of Hawi
to drive me back to town.
03:51
And on my way back to town,
I began to cry.
03:54
I had failed.
03:58
My dream of completing
the Ironman World Championship
04:00
was crushed.
04:03
I was embarrassed.
04:05
I felt like I'd messed up.
04:07
I worried about what my friends,
my family and people at work
04:09
would think of me.
04:12
What was I going to put on Facebook?
04:14
(Laughter)
04:16
How was I going to explain to everyone
04:18
that things didn't go the way
I had assumed or planned?
04:20
A few weeks later I was talking
to Shannon about the Kona "disaster,"
04:23
and she said this to me:
04:28
"Minda, big dreams and goals can only
be realized when you're ready to fail."
04:30
I knew I had to put that failure behind me
in order to move forward,
04:36
and it wouldn't be the first time
that I had faced insurmountable odds.
04:39
I was born in Bombay, India,
04:44
and just before my first birthday,
I contracted polio,
04:46
which left me paralyzed
from the hips down.
04:50
Unable to care for me, my birth mother
left me at an orphanage.
04:53
Fortunately, I was adopted
by an American family,
04:58
and I moved to Spokane, Washington
05:01
just shortly after my third birthday.
05:03
Over the next few years,
I underwent a series of surgeries
05:05
on my hips, my legs and my back
05:08
that allowed me to walk
with leg braces and crutches.
05:11
As a child, I struggled
with my disability.
05:15
I felt like I didn't fit in.
05:19
People stared at me all the time,
05:21
and I was embarrassed
about wearing a back brace and leg braces,
05:24
and I always hid my chicken legs
under my pants.
05:27
As a young girl, I thought thick,
heavy braces on my legs
05:30
did not look pretty or feminine.
05:34
Among my generation, I am one
of the very few individuals in the US
05:37
who are living with paralysis
by polio today.
05:42
Many people who contract polio
in developing countries
05:45
do not have access to the same
medical care, education,
05:48
or opportunities
like I have had in America.
05:52
Many do not even live to reach adulthood.
05:55
I have the humbling knowledge
that, had I not been adopted,
05:59
I most certainly
wouldn't be in front of you today.
06:02
I may not even be alive.
06:05
All of us, in our own lives,
06:09
may face seemingly insurmountable goals.
06:11
I want to share with you what I learned
06:14
when I tried again.
06:16
One year after my first attempt,
06:19
on a sunny Saturday morning,
06:22
my husband Shawn
06:25
dumped me into the ocean at the Kona Pier
06:26
and, with 2,500 of my closest
friends and competitors,
06:28
we started swimming as that cannon
went off promptly at 7am.
06:32
I focused on one stroke at a time,
staying in between bodies,
06:35
counting my strokes --
06:39
one, two, three, four --
06:40
and lifting my head to sight
every so often
06:43
just so I wouldn't get too off track.
06:45
And when I finally reached the shoreline,
06:47
Shawn picked me up,
and he carried me out of the water.
06:49
I was so stunned and thrilled
when Shawn had told me I had managed
06:52
a one-hour-and-43-minute swim time.
06:56
On to the bike segment.
07:00
I had eight hours and 45 minutes
to complete the 112-mile bike course.
07:03
I broke up the course
in seven- to 10-mile segments in my mind
07:09
just to reduce the enormity of the race.
07:13
The first 40 miles, they clipped by
as we benefited from a little tail wind.
07:15
By 4pm, I had made it to mile 94,
07:20
and I did the math and I realized
I was in serious time jeopardy
07:24
because I had 18 miles to go
and less than 90 minutes,
07:28
and that included
a few sizable hill climbs.
07:32
I was stressed out, and I was scared
07:35
that I wasn't going to make
that time cutoff again.
07:37
At this point, I pushed
my internal voice aside that said,
07:39
"This hurts. Quit."
07:43
And I told myself,
"Minda, you better focus.
07:45
Focus on what you can control,
07:48
and that is your attitude
and your effort."
07:50
I resolved to be OK being uncomfortable,
07:52
and I told myself, "Push harder,
07:56
forget about the pain,
07:57
and keep that laser focus."
07:59
For the next 90 minutes, I cranked
as though my life depended on it.
08:01
And when I rolled into town,
08:08
I heard on the loudspeaker,
08:10
"Minda Dentler is one of the last
competitors to make the bike cutoff."
08:12
I did it!
08:17
(Applause)
08:19
By only three minutes.
08:24
(Laughter)
08:25
It was 5:27pm,
08:27
and I had been racing
for 10-and-a-half hours.
08:30
The first 10 miles of the run
went pretty quickly,
08:34
as I was so excited to finally pass people
08:37
with my three wheels to their two feet.
08:40
The sun quickly went down,
08:43
and I found myself pulling up
to the bottom of Palani hill,
08:45
looking straight into a half-mile hill
that looked like Mt. Everest
08:48
at mile 124 of the race.
08:52
My friends and family
were ready at their stations
08:54
to talk me up that hill.
08:57
I was struggling, tired,
08:59
desperately gripping those rims
just so I wouldn't tip backwards.
09:00
When I finally reached
the top of that hill,
09:04
I turned left onto a very lonely
15-mile stretch onto the Queen K Highway,
09:07
totally exhausted.
09:13
I pressed on, focusing
on one push at a time.
09:14
By 9:30pm,
09:20
I made that final right-hand turn
onto Ali'i Drive.
09:22
I heard the crowd's roar,
and I was overcome with emotion.
09:26
I crossed that finish line.
09:30
(Applause)
09:33
(Applause ends)
09:43
And my final time
was 14 hours and 39 minutes.
09:44
For the first time in the 35-year history,
09:49
a female wheelchair athlete
09:53
completed the Ironman World Championship.
09:55
(Applause)
09:57
(Applause ends)
10:05
And it wasn't just any female athlete.
10:07
It was me.
10:09
(Laughter)
10:10
A paralyzed orphan from India.
10:12
Against all odds, I achieved my dream,
10:17
and through this very personal
commitment to myself,
10:21
I slowly realized
that completing the Ironman
10:24
was about more than conquering Kona.
10:27
It was about conquering polio
10:30
and other disabling
but preventable diseases,
10:32
not only for myself,
10:36
but for the millions of children
10:38
who have been and still will be
afflicted by vaccine-preventable diseases.
10:39
Today, we are closer than ever
to eliminating one of those diseases
10:45
everywhere in the world.
10:50
In the mid-1980s, polio once paralyzed
more than 350,000 children a year
10:52
in more than 125 countries.
10:59
That amounted to a staggering
40 cases an hour.
11:01
By contrast, so far this year,
11:05
the last endemic countries
have reported a total of only 12 cases.
11:07
Since 1988, more than 2.5 billion children
have been immunized against polio,
11:12
and an estimated 16 million children,
11:19
who otherwise would have been
paralyzed like me,
11:21
are walking.
11:24
Despite this incredible progress,
11:25
we know that until it's eradicated,
11:28
polio remains a very real threat,
11:30
especially to children
in the poorest communities of the world.
11:33
It can reemerge in some of the most remote
and dangerous places,
11:36
and from there, it can spread.
11:40
And so this is my new Ironman:
11:43
to end polio.
11:47
And I am reminded every day,
11:50
when I look at my
two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Maya.
11:52
She is able to climb a ladder in the park,
11:56
push her scooter
or kick a ball across the grass.
11:58
Almost everything
that I see her do at her age
12:01
reminds me of what I could not
do at that age.
12:05
And when she was two months old,
12:08
I took her to get her first polio vaccine.
12:10
And when the doctor came
in the room to prepare the shot,
12:15
I asked him if I could take a picture
to document the moment.
12:19
When we left the room,
12:24
I could feel my eyes
welling up with tears.
12:26
I cried the entire way home.
12:29
It was in that moment that I realized
12:33
that my daughter's life
would be very different from mine.
12:36
She will never be faced
with the crippling disability of polio,
12:39
because a vaccine was available,
and I chose to get her immunized.
12:42
She can do anything she wants,
12:47
as can each of you.
12:51
(Laughter)
12:53
Now I'd like to leave you all
with one question:
12:54
what is your Ironman?
12:57
Thank you.
13:01
(Applause)
13:03

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About the speaker:

Minda Dentler - Athlete, activist
A record-setting triathlete, Minda Dentler is a polio survivor committed to inspiring people to move beyond their fear of failure and achieve their goals.

Why you should listen

Minda Dentler's life is one of inspiration, courage and determination. As an infant in India, she contracted polio, resulting in the paralysis of her legs, and was left at an orphanage. When she was three, she was adopted by an American family which enabled her to receive the medical care necessary to be able to walk with leg braces and crutches.

Undeterred by her disability, Dentler became an independent woman with the intention and drive to face and overcome the many obstacles she has encountered throughout her life. As an adult, she discovered athletics and threw herself into the sport of triathlon. In 2013, she became the first female wheelchair athlete to complete the Ironman World Championship, in Kona, Hawaii.

Dentler is an athlete, speaker, advocate and mother. She has been featured on CNN, Forbes and NBC. She has written for Huffington Post and TIME, advocating for the eradication of polio. She was a 2017 Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow. She works for a large global insurer and, with her husband, is raising a young daughter. She's committed to inspiring people to move beyond their fear of failure and achieve their goals.

More profile about the speaker
Minda Dentler | Speaker | TED.com