STORIED LIVES: Ann Ivan on Getting Her Superpowers Back
“Cancer helped me cut out all the baloney in my life.” Before cancer, Ann Ivan was an endurance athlete. She had completed the Ironman triathlon — a grueling long-distance competition — in 2008 and 2011.
By Denise Woodin
“Cancer helped me cut out all the baloney in my life.”
Before cancer, Ann Ivan was an endurance athlete. She had completed the Ironman triathlon — a grueling long-distance competition — in 2008 and 2011. She routinely swam in open waters. And she had passed the Rye Fire Department’s physical exam.
Turns out, she’s still an endurance athlete.
Born in San Francisco in 1961, Ivan moved to the East Coast just shy of her 30th birthday. After living in New York City for several years and a brief stint in Massachusetts, she settled in Rye in late 2001. “I was a member of the Y briefly,” she remarked during a conversation in early September. “But I wasn’t a Rye person because I worked in the City, and my son (now 16) didn’t attend school here.”
In January 2012, everything changed. Ivan had just been offered the position of Fitness Center Director at the Rye Y when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I went to Laura [Tiedge, the Y’s Senior Director of Healthy Living] and said ‘I’m on this journey,” Ivan recalled. “And she hired me anyway,” knowing that Ivan would miss work for surgery and might not be at the top of her game during treatment.
Tiedge later remarked, “It was clear to me that Ann had a set of gifts to bring to the Y. While the diagnosis was a shock, we were going to be there for her, so that she could share her gifts with our members and staff as she began to heal.”
For an athlete like Ivan, the chemotherapy was “very scary,” Ivan explained. “You can’t even get up the stairs. Your physical prowess is limited. But I knew it was only temporary. Everyone kept telling me ‘you’ll come out of it.’” Ivan paused, remembering that difficult time. “Being fit helped me endure. I was relatively young — 51. I said to myself, ‘Ironman training is more than four months, I guess I can do chemo for four months.’”
Support from her new community at the Y helped Ivan keep her spirits up through the months of tests and hospital visits. “Working through the treatment was hard,” she acknowledged. But her new boss allowed her to maintain flexible hours. And people who couldn’t help noticing her bandana-covered, bald head were kind, not just Y staff and members, but strangers as well. “I never felt isolated.”
“Cancer was more good than bad in my life,” Ivan said thoughtfully. “It made me realize my mortality and my life as a gift. And it made me drop a lot of the baloney in my life. It made me ‘get real.’” Ivan smiled as she noted the California parlance.
By the summer of 2012, soon after she underwent a double mastectomy, Ivan decided that she would compete in the Ironman again. That July, she drove north to Lake Placid to volunteer and to register in person for the 2013 triathlon.
“Why,” she was asked.
“I thought it was a good way to lose weight,” Ivan answered. “I always thought I would do it three times because my sixth-grade clarinet teacher always told us: ‘If you do it three times, you’ve got it down.’ Also, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I had my superpowers back.”
Training, Ivan remarked, was “terribly hard. First of all, I had to get myself out of bed in the morning. With a job and family responsibilities, it was the only time I could do it. I just wasn’t able to train at the level I needed to.”
Nevertheless, Ivan did the best she could, swimming at the Y and in Long Island Sound, running and cycling through Rye, and joining her students in the triathlon prep class she was teaching.
On July 28, Ivan was among the 2,500 athletes, gathered in Lake Placid for the Ironman competition. Over 17 hours (or less), they would swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a marathon (26.2 miles) — in that order and with a break of only 5 minutes between each. Ann picks up the story.
“So, I’m starting out on the run and everything from my ears down hurts. I couldn’t keep going, so I started to walk. I thought ‘okay, I’m going to be alright.’ My friends were waiting at aid stations. I was taking nutrition. There were several people from the Rye Triathlon Club there. The run is two loops. It’s dark. I’m confused. I don’t know what time it is. I just have to keep moving.”
“About five miles from the finish line, Jinsop Carrion, a Rye Y lifeguard and a tri-athlete himself, met me. He said ‘Ann, you have to get moving. I’m with you.’ It took forever to get to the turn-around. More people were joining and encouraging me. And I was realizing ‘I’m not going to make it. After all this, I’m not going to get my finisher’s medal.” Ivan’s coach, Joanne Dondero, appeared at her side, urging her on. As they approached the finish line, Dondero said, “Look, they’re cheering for you.” One of the officials yelled, “Come on, you’re going to get in.”
Ivan continued. “Then I turned the corner into the stadium and it was all lit up. I thought it would be dark and empty because I was so late. They could have turned out the lights and denied me entry. I don’t know why they were still there. It seemed like there were 40,000 people, all chanting ‘one more, one more!’ Everyone wanted to high-five me. I turned the final corner and crossed the finish line.”
Turning off the track, Ivan heard announcer Mike Riley, the “Voice of the Ironman,” say “Wait, don’t leave. They have something to say to you.” He held the microphone out to the crowd and as one they yelled: “Ann Ivan from Rye, New York. You. Are. An. Ironman!”
“I told my son later,” Ivan said, “I did this to show that I’m strong again — for him and for me.”
Ivan didn’t realize that her achievement was being celebrated back in Rye too. During the race, Carrion had been relaying Ivan’s progress back to Tiedge, who posted regular updates to the Y’s Facebook page. Friends and colleagues stayed up past midnight, checking the postings as the competition wore on. “At various points in the evening, I worried when I didn’t hear anything,” Tiedge commented. “But I knew in my heart that this lady was going to get it done!”
“It was a coincidence that it was me crossing that line,” Ivan observed. “I represented something to the crowd. I’m not a speedy athlete, so to be celebrated like that was really something.”
“After about two weeks,” she added, “I texted my coach Joanne and said, ‘the euphoria’s wearing off. Any suggestions?’” Dondero replied with just two words: “Climb Everest.”
The author is Director of Community Impact and Social Responsibility, Rye YMCA.