HUMANA Hero: Candace Kennedy-Hess, 63, Kintnersville, Pennsylvania
Six years ago, Candace Kennedy-Hess thought her cycling days were long over. The challenges of a single mom raising kids, earning a master’s degree at NYU, and pursuing a successful sales and marketing career had relegated her custom bike to be a garage wall hanger for 16 years.
“I grew up on the Jersey Shore and rode bikes a lot,” she recalls. “I loved to surf, and used cycling to help keep me in shape. The cycling took over in my 20s and 30s.” Candace competed semi-pro in several disciplines, including mountain biking, downhill and cross-country, and she earned her share of podium positions. But at 38, life responsibilities prompted her to hang it up, thinking she was done for good.
Then, in 2011, a family crisis literally started the wheels back in motion. Her daughter Caitlin was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her battle also became Candace’s. “In 2012, I was inspired to pull the bike down and entered a Livestrong charity race to help raise money to fight cancer,” she says. “It was 75 miles of rolling hills, and I was out of shape and had to walk the bike up the hills. But I finished.”
Candace was welcomed by several cyclists she had competed with in the past. “A little switch went off, and I started training again and got back into it.” She joined the Sturdy Girls cycling club in Philadelphia, and has since traveled around the country to compete in more than two dozen races each year. “I lost a good bit of weight, and I don’t have any problems getting up the hills anymore,” she adds.
Racing with mostly younger people, Candace yearned to have more women her age to compete against. “I didn’t know about Senior Games until a couple of girls mentioned they had been in them. I thought, maybe I’ll go give it a try.” She found she could still perform at a high level in the National Senior Games, earning two gold medals in road races and two bronze medals in time trials in 2015. In the 2017 National Senior Games presented by Humana, she added a silver in the women’s 60-64 20K race and finished fifth in the 40K.
“It’s exciting to be racing against so many people my own age,” she says. “I’ve made friendships and the camaraderie is terrific.”
Caitlin’s cancer fight, which has unfortunately seen further complications, continues to fuel Candace. “I will never ever quit a race because I think about my daughter,” she says, adding an example from her Birmingham experience. “I dropped my chain when there was about 5K to go. By the time I got it back together, the whole field was two blocks ahead. I was about to quit. Then I thought about Caitlin and all she’s been through. I put my head down and caught up, and I ended up on the podium.”
In her other races, Candace has found herself to be an inspiration to others. “I constantly race with younger girls, and it gives me a little pleasure to dish out some punishment now and then,” she quips. “So many of these elite women who could be my grandchildren come up and tell me I’m an inspiration, and it’s humbling. I’ve never looked at myself as a hero, and that inspires me to do even better.”
“If I can set a good example that they can be doing this for their entire life, that’s what is most important to me.”