Making use of your abilities to help those who are incapable can be very rewarding. In another inspiring episode, Robert "Fireman Rob" Verhelst interviews Christian Jensen, the Executive Director of myTEAM TRIUMPH Wisconsin and an Ironman athlete. Sharing how their organization was born, Christian talks about its advocacy and explains the two important parts of Team Triumph which are the Captains and the Angels. What started as a leap of faith has now morphed into a community of people with resilience and strength. Should you wish to take action and become involved, don’t miss this episode. Christian and his team always has something for you that can translate into memorable efforts.
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myTEAM TRIUMPH: Creating Amazing Experiences With Christian Jensen
I’ve got a great guest for you, Christian Jensen. He is the Executive Director of myTEAM TRIUMPH Wisconsin. Not only that, he is an Ironman athlete and has done Ironman Wisconsin and Boulder with Mary. It’s crazy. I had to drop out of Boulder and Christian did it while pulling and pushing somebody else. Christian Jensen, it is good to have you on the show.
Thanks, Rob. I appreciate you having me. It’s awesome to be here.
You have put your passion into action with myTEAM TRIUMPH and you've created something amazing here in Wisconsin. Tell us a little more about the mission of inclusion for myTEAM TRIUMPH.
What you see on the surface is a little different than maybe what the mission is. How the mission comes to be is around how do we get people with disabilities to be able to participate in endurance racing as a team and have this fun and challenging experience. Ultimately from that, which is the mission, it addresses one of the biggest problems that people with disabilities face in terms of their health, which is social isolation. What comes from that is a lack of self-confidence, depression and all of these mental health issues from being isolated because of the disability these people face. We used that environment and we used a teamwork approach. We get together and we have some amazing and some holy cow experiences, something that you'll never forget from short races to big ones like Ironman. We build relationships and help these people experience some fun, the power of those experiences and what it does for them.
You have Captains and Angels. Tell us a little bit more about who are the Captains and Angels.
The Captains are athletes with disabilities. There's a wide range that we serve. From people who are high functioning physically and they're running themselves, maybe super-fast to those that have more of a severe disability. Maybe it's cerebral palsy, and maybe they can't use their arms and their legs, so it's quite a range. They're paired up with usually a team of three Angels, an able-bodied athlete. These are runners, bikers, and triathletes that they train together for and then participate at any distance running, biking, and triathlon event.
I've had the honor of being able to be an Angel numerous times, as well as my kids and my wife. The most impactful thing is being able to go out there, help somebody and be part of something bigger than yourself because you see the smiles and the impact of such a simple thing. There are many runners that do 5Ks and 10Ks but there are also individuals like the Captains that people told them that they couldn't do that or they're not going to be able to do that in their lifetime. That's what myTEAM TRIUMPH is amazing about. Tell us how this all began. How did it all begin for you with myTEAM TRIUMPH?
Personally, I've not always been an endurance athlete and that's a common thing in the typical endurance sports world. Not everyone was a cross country runner or a track runner in high school or middle school. In fact, most people hate it when that gym class comes up and they say, “We're running the mile today.” We all puke and like, “I shouldn't have eaten twelve French toast sticks right before this.” That was me. I was a meathead in high school. I was a shot put and discus guy, football player, and a big guy, the same thing in college. I hated running and I got into it mainly after getting done with being a thrower because you can't do that for fun with your friends on the weekends.
I’m trying to maintain health but also trying to battle with some mental and emotional issues. I was dealing with a lot of depression and I struggled with an eating disorder for a number of years after my father died. We lost our house to a fire, so I went into this deep dark personal place for years. I went to meet my wife and she was a huge turn around for me. I moved to Green Bay and started working at a hospital system called Bellin Health. While I started working there, I was in the fitness and athletic performance department. I started working with a gal. She called me up and she said, “My name is Mary. I want to get stronger and I want to lose weight.” She was my first client.
Straight out of college, I was jacked. I was like, “It’s my first client. I'm so pumped.” I'm thinking I'm going to work with athletes and we're going to start doing med ball stuff, plyo and high-performance things, which is my background. Mary comes into the appointment on her husband's back. She was piggyback and this isn't an adult. It's one of those things that when you think you're going to experience one thing, it's completely different and you're speechless, what do you do? I got to talking with her and she's like, “I have muscular dystrophy. I've had it my whole life, but I was diagnosed when I was a teenager.” It's been progressive ever since. She used to be fully functioning physically and when I met her at that point, she was in her late 50s. She can only move her arms and her legs. She can only move her toes and her fingers in her toes. It has progressed at that point.
I was blown away because when I grew up, I was afraid, like a lot of people, of how to talk to people with disabilities. I was never afraid of the person. I was more afraid that I would do something wrong like I would offend and embarrass them. I didn't want to do anything wrong. Most of the time, when we're afraid of something, we avoid it, so that's what I did. I was thrust into this conversation and this interaction with Mary. I started working with her and we did some things to help try to help her core strength and get her to improve her functioning. I felt like I was hitting a wall. We were running out of options because she longed to move and be out.
She was a person who was moved a fraction of the amount that I did but had ten times the amount of spirit, passion, and drive. I always tell people that Mary is the biggest pain in the butt that I've ever met in my life. I will give all the love in the world but she would tell me stories like, “I could walk and waddle around the kitchen. I would be home alone doing stuff like cleaning. If I were to trip and fall in that state, I would be on the ground in the kitchen and I would be alone. I would be unable to move or contact anyone. I would be stuck there until someone came and got me.” I was picturing myself in that situation being mad at life, “This is terrible.” I'm like, “Would you do it?” She's like, “I decided to clean the floor. I'm going to rearrange the cabinets.”
That was the last thing I expected her to say. It's totally making the best of what you got. Sure she had a moment where she was like, “This is terrible,” but then it wears off and she goes, “I'm down here. What can I do?” That attitude is not common nowadays. A lot of people give something a try and if it doesn't go the way they expect, they stop. Mary doesn't have that option in her life because if she stops, then she's not going to do anything for the rest of her life. She's going to be stuck. She has been battling that her whole life and she has this yearning to do more.
There's a big 10K in Green Bay called the Bellin Run and my wife and I said, “What if we took Mary and we did this with her? What if we had a stroller, wheelchair or something and we got her out? We’ll give her a day to enjoy, be out there and be amongst positive people and encouraging people.” We borrowed my friend's child stroller and Mary's over 100 pounds. It's 30 pounds over the weight limit so we hoped it wouldn't explode. We did the race. We were back in the stroller away with all the other three-year-olds and moms and dads, and here’s Mary. That race took forever to do because we were weaving and I'm a big meathead. One-and-a-half hours later, we got to the end of the 10K and Mary had the biggest smile on her face.
She went from being stuck at her house looking out the window and wondering what's going on in the world to now people are cheering for her. People are like, “Way to go,” and she gets a medal. We underestimate the power of words of encouragement from someone, even if it's a stranger. For someone that doesn't hear that, that's super powerful. You want to know that you're part of something and you want to know that you still have value in your life no matter where you are and what state you're in. You can still contribute something to society and you can still make a difference in someone's life. Mary, because of her disability, lost that. That race was the spark for us when we started doing more and then we said, “There's such a need for this.” Not knowing anything about nonprofits and business, we took a leap of faith and said, “Let's start this thing.” Years later, here we are.
Years on your website, there are 500 Captains, 1,500 Angels have helped those Captains, 50-plus events and there are eight different regions. That's amazing. To start from a 10K with a stroller that doesn't fit a person to having a fleet of vehicles that can help individuals take the strollers. You did an amazing event. Tell me more about the race track that you had cyclist. I got to participate in that. That was an amazing experience at night nonetheless and being able to go on this amazing race. Tell me more about that event.
The 12 Hours of Road America. You are a big part of that launching as our first time and we've wanted to do our race as a fundraiser for the organization for years, but there are so many races out there, many runs, bike rides and stuff like that. We've had ideas over the years and we've been a little bit hesitant to pull the trigger because we want it to be unique. Road America is a car race track and a road track and that means it's not an oval. It's not as simple as ups and downs and it’s not flat. It’s down in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin and it is one of the most historic race tracks in the country. If you're in the car racing world, you know about it and it's cool.
We went there one day and we rode the track. They have days where you can ride your bike and run on it and we're like, “How cool would it be if we had an ultra-endurance bike ride on this track?” As they do with car races, they have the 24-Hour of Le Mans ultra-car races and the same thing can be true for endurance athletes. This is what they do. Let's have a great venue where you don't have to worry about getting hit by cars on the road and we can create a party atmosphere. We’ll get a bunch of people together to see what they can do over 12 hours. The first year we did it was a wild success. We're excited about it. We had over 300 people that participated and we raised $90,000 so we are going to continue. It is a great proof of concept.
If somebody wants to donate because it's important. Everything costs money to do things. It costs money to be able to facilitate these amazing experiences that you provide to these individuals. Where can they go to donate to myTEAM TRIUMPH Wisconsin?
They can go to the website which is MyTeamTriumph-Wi.org. There's a button right there on the homepage that they can make a donation.
When you look at your vision and I love reading about, “A community which embraces, celebrates and empowers those with diverse abilities.” That's such a key component. I tell a story and I've told this story about my kids, “Actions speak louder than words.” Being part of myTEAM TRIUMPH for a few races when my kids wanted to, we want to push too. We want to be part of this and we got to do the Zoo Run Run. It is such an impact to have adults do this and have kids see that this difference. In our society, we see it as a difference. This individual is still part of our community and still has the ability to do things as long as you're willing to step up and be that person that wants to make that difference. It's an amazing accomplishment that you've been able to make with myTEAM TRIUMPH. Tell me about your athletic endeavors with Ironman. You have done how many Ironmans?
I've done two official Ironmans and both with myTEAM Wisconsin in 2013 with my friend Mary and then the Boulder in ‘15 with my friend Ian.
I want to go to Boulder. Those who don't know, Boulder is an elevation. It is a complicated and hard course. Go through with us so that people understand that it’s amazing because it's not just the Angel that has the stress of that day. The Captain is there for up to 16.5 to 17 hours fighting as an athlete as well. Go through the day of the swim. What do you guys do in the swim to be able to collaborate and then on the bike and the run? Because that's such a huge thing that doesn't get out there. They see us on the course and they see everything that you're going through. They’re like, “That's amazing,” but they don't understand the complete challenge that goes through with that day.
It's definitely a team effort. I have discovered something the first time I did a triathlon with Mary as we were preparing for Ironman Wisconsin. When you do a long-distance journey event, the most important thing is to be resilient. You’ve got to have a plan when you go into a race, but you also have to know that stuff's going to come up. It's how you view these things that matter. When you have a headwind on a bike, you can be mad because it's going to slow you down. You can also go, “That's keeping me cool when it rains.” It's all about perspective and much of that is even truer when you do a race with MTT because when we were out there in the water, first it’s this inflatable raft, its bungee cord is tied to my waist. I’m pulling and Ian is in the boat. Ian is verbal but he can't project his voice loudly. You have to get close to him and you have to hear how he's doing.
When you're out in a race, you've got this unique piece of equipment and you're with thousands of other athletes, you have the interaction that takes place with them as well. One of the things that almost always happens in an Ironman in the swim is that the other athletes going by who are tired think, “There's resting and I'm going to hang on it for a minute or so.” They realize when they hang on it that it's falling on them and then they realize there's a person inside of it that has a life jacket on and is looking at them like, “Who are you?” This happens all the time. It happened 4 or 5 times in Wisconsin and in Boulder. I can look back at those as being like, “You're slowing us down.” I know he might get there in 40 minutes so we're going the circuitous route but it was cool.
There was one of the guys that hopped on our boat. I felt it and I slowed down a little bit. I looked back and he was hanging on the boat. I said to him, “We're a PC athlete team and we're an assistant team.” He had this moment where it took him a few seconds to clear goggles and realize what was going on. He apologized and he's like, “Amazing thing you guys are doing.” He gave Ian and me a high five and off he went. We get through the day and fast forward to the run. This guy found us on the run later on in the event. He came up to us and he walked with us for about 3 miles. We got to learn his story and his inspiration. Why he was out there is for his daughter that has cancer and that's one of the best things about these races. You learn that everyone's out there and has a story, and you can make a connection with them. In the 12 Degrees of Kevin Bacon, we all have a way to impact each other. We don't have to have the same story and you can still relate to someone that has a completely different path in life and walk away as a better person.
Being out there with one of the Captains, it almost lends itself to the vulnerability of others to be able to tell their story more because a lot of times in some of these races, a lot of people are fast. Me being out there in my fire gear, it's vulnerable because I'm slow and an easy target. It's one of those things where it's amazing because people want to stop and tell you their story and they want to hear the story of the individuals that are running. It lends itself to having that amazing vulnerability to be able to have those stories told to you and not on the bike course. That is probably one of the most amazing components of the race with myTEAM TRIUMPH and I know you've done it twice. I didn't do it because I knew that he could do it. Tell us a little about the strain of that because the Ironman was constant courses are hilly as well as the Boulder courses. You are biking yourself, but at the same time, you're pulling somebody and the weight behind that, too.
It's a bit counterintuitive because you have to wear multiple hats when you're an Angel out there. The number one priority is the safety of the person that you're guiding, the Captain that's behind you in a racing wheelchair, and the trailer that's connected to your bike. You have to have some eyes in the back of your head and always be like, “How are you doing?” I’m talking to them and trying to assess their safety while also being aware of the other athletes, the road and your speed. For the course here in Wisconsin, there's a ton of downhills, twists, and turns. Safety has to be the number one thing. You also have to marry that with the fact that you have to push yourself and go faster than you probably should both from a safety standpoint as well as from an economy of endurance athletics standpoint.
If you were to take his vital stats during the Ironman bike ride in Wisconsin pulling Jenny even as probably his fastest full Ironman bike split on his own, I guarantee his heart rate monitor was well above the threshold for the entire race. You're pushing yourself and you can't think about, “I got a marathon to run after this,” or “I have to stay below this heart rate in order to get there.” If you do that, there's no way you're going to make the cut-off and Ironman is all about the cut-offs. You have to take yourself to a place where you're thinking all about pushing yourself as hard as you can for the next hill and then you repeat that about 400 times. The goal of that event is to get to the finish line and under time. The two times that I've done it, it's been less than 4 minutes so to cut off and it's a hard thing to do.
It's truly having faith over the fears of the timeline and the cramps of everything else. It's that message of being part of something bigger than yourself. It's amazing that passion and purpose drive you to do something that you never possibly could have done.
I don't ever think I'll do an Ironman on my own or without a Captain because there's so much that you can give back. You give your body and see your Captain can experience this thing but honestly, sometimes I feel like the Angels get more from the captain because the experience you get seeing the joy on their face is priceless. I love the journey that we get to have.
Somebody once said, “These amazing Captains are challenged every day and a lot of the Angels are able-bodied and they haven't had the challenges that have been put upon them. They've had challenges that they've created in their lives.” It speaks volumes to somebody who continually goes through challenges every day as the Captains do. To have a normal life and the resilience and strength that brings out in them, that translates to those Angels that are out there on that course going, “The challenges and obstacles that I'm going through, I should be able to do these.” That speaks volumes to what you're saying.
When you look at that thing, especially when it comes to disability awareness, it’s ultimately what we're trying to do with MTT. We help people understand that we have a lot more in common with people with disabilities than we realize. You could say easily like, “There's no way I understand what that person is going through,” but we all go through challenges. They're just different challenges that people with disabilities face and their family and their caregivers and. Once we identify that and know that that's what we have in common, then like any relationship, it's about what you have in common.
We can start to appreciate these people beyond the differences. We can start to have this shared experience and start to think about them beyond the wheelchair. That's what we're ultimately trying to do. Look at an Ironman. This crazy thing that eventually started with a few people and now there are thousands of people that have done it. “There's more to myself than I think I have,” is the same dream that everyone has, whether you have a physical disability or not. Trying to focus on what brings us together is ultimately what it’s all about.
Christian Jensen, it has been such an honor to have you on the show to give insight as to how people can be part of something bigger and how we're all in this together. We're all going to move forward together. Some people just need some other individual’s legs to be able to do it. Thanks for providing that with myTEAM TRIUMPH and with your vision. That's such a great thing. I always end my shows the same way. There are three questions that I'll ask you and then we'll have a rapid round. There's no right or wrong answer, so you don't have to worry about it. The first question here is what is one thing you haven't done that is outside of your comfort zone?
Doing a race in a tutu. I have a tutu fear. That's just going with gut whatever jumps in your brain.
Tutu Christian Jensen is going to be running the Bellin 10K. Number two, what is your favorite quote and why?
When I was in college, I studied Kinesiology and Exercise Science and one of the teachers who was teaching anatomy and physiology kept using this phrase, “How we think we know is.” He was describing the human body and was describing anatomy like “How we think we know the heart works is. How we think we know the lungs work is.” Eventually, I stopped him in class and I said, “Don't we know how the heart works and how the lungs work? We've been studying this for hundreds of years. Why do you keep saying, ‘What we think we know is?’” He stopped the class and he said, “The essence of learning is not the accumulation of knowledge.
It's the understanding that learning is a journey and understanding is a process. One of the most important things that you can say in life is I don't know. We have this huge validation to say, “I want to be known as being right on a lot of things. I want to be bright. I want to be right in my relationships. I want to be right at work.” Being comfortable with the uncomfortable of saying, “I don't know,” is the beginning of knowledge and the beginning of learning. That has been something that's hard. It's easier said than done, but I try to remind myself of that often because when I get to the point where like, “I know this. I'm that.” I'm closed off to new possibilities.
The third one is going to challenge you here. If you could pick to have coffee with three people, they can be deceased or live, at a firehouse coffee table, that means that nothing is off the table when you're talking about things, who would it be and why?
The first person is my dad and my dad's been deceased since I was fifteen years old. That's more of almost trying to go back and learn about someone that I feel like I don't know a whole lot about. He passed away at a time in my life where we didn't have a lot of in-depth conversations and I've been growing up with my mom. She's done an amazing job, but for that for various reasons, I love to learn about him. You want to know that there are certain people in your life that you want to know are proud of you. Like the little boy in me, that's one person that I would love to have a conversation with. The second person that comes to mind is Neil Armstrong, the famous astronaut that went to the moon. I would love to learn about his experience. I would love to hear the story about going to the moon and I have a huge passion for space and the unknown out there. It's something that's always intrigued me. Arguably, Neil Armstrong is the quintessential astronaut of all time. I’d love to sit down with him, pick his brain and learn about life.
The third person that comes to mind is Amelia Earhart. Similar reasons but both people, Amelia and Neil Armstrong did something that people no one thought they could. When you looked at the time that Amelia lived and when she wanted to be an aviator, women weren't even driving cars back then. They weren't even allowed to get out of the kitchen and here's a woman that says, “I want to be an aviator.” What I love about her story is she initially embraced the fact that a lot of the reasons why she was put front and center in the media was because she was a bit of a showcase of things. Eventually, people learn that this woman is legit and she was determined. She followed her passion for the ultimate and lost her life for it. I would love to hear how she overcame all of the critics, what drove her, and what's inside her that pushed her beyond the thousands of people that threatened her life and said, “You're stupid. Why are you doing this?” from strangers to close friends. I want to hear what drives someone to accomplish something that no one's ever done before. It is amazing to me.
You knocked them out of the park. With the rapid round, I'm nervous. I like the tutu. It’s the best part. I'm going to give you two things. All you got to say is 1 of the 2 things. Paper or plastic?
Soup or salad?
McDonald's or Taco Bell?
Camping or hotel?
Fly or drive?
Sleep in late or wake up early?
Wake up early.
Run or walk?
Partly sunny or cloudy?
Fire or water?
Use a Porta-Potty or run to the next physical bathroom?
Coke or Pepsi?
Go big or go home?
Christian Jensen, thanks for being on the show. If you want to find out more about myTEAM TRIUMPH Wisconsin, you can go to myTEAMTRIUMPH-Wi.org and find out more about what they're doing. It's an amazing thing that you've created years now. It’s amazing. Thank you for being on the show and thank you for what you're doing.
Thank you, Rob, for everything you're doing.
About Christian Jensen
My professional career has been one of true blessing. In 2007 I came to Green Bay and started my career at Bellin Health as a personal trainer. That summer, I met a woman named Mary Cox who I started training to help improve her functioning which had been severely limited due to muscular dystrophy. I started training Mary to slow the progression of disease however the truth is that she was training me with her positive attitude.
As part of Mary’s therapy, my wife and I would take Mary for runs on the Fox River Trail with the use of a specialized racing chair . We also started participating in local endurance events such as the Bellin Run. Participating in endurance events gave Mary the freedom her body could no longer. In 2009, we helped Mary complete her first Marathon. Upon crossing the finish line, Mary gave us the spark to start something that we believed would change our community when she said “I feel free when we run”!
In 2010, we started myTEAM TRIUMPH, a non-profit athletic mentoring program for challenged athletes. Since we launched, we’ve focused on enabling the spirit of challenged athletes through the teamwork environment of endurance athletics. Mary, and the other “Captains” who lead myTEAM TRIUMPH have a gift of an enduring spirit. The result of bringing together selfless able bodied athletes and the character of challenged athletes builds a community of servant leaders. Since the launch of the Wisconsin Chapter of myTEAM TRIUMPH, we have had the honor to serve hundreds of challenged athletes!