The Great Awakening – Cheryl Cherry, 67, Clermont, Florida
To watch Cheryl Cherry cycle in competition, one would not believe she only took up the sport less than four years ago at age 63. But there she was, at the top of her game, winning a gold medal in the 10K and silver in the 5K time trials in the 2015 National Senior Games presented by Humana.
To meet Cheryl, you would not know from the smiling face and upbeat personality that she has endured challenges that include a harrowing battle with one of the deadliest forms of breast cancer. But here she is, loving life and spreading enthusiasm to others about the benefits of being highly active at any age.
The self-described tomboy grew up running, bike riding and playing informal sports around her neighborhood in the Brandon area of Tampa Bay in the ‘60s. Since girls did not have many school sports options at that time, Cheryl became a cheerleader and discovered she had natural dancing talent. Her high school sponsor recognized this and secretly signed Cheryl up for the 1968 Miss Tampa pageant, which she won. At the Miss Florida event, she won the talent competition. She even danced professionally for a brief stint before setting it aside to start a family.
She took up distance running and masters track in her 30s, but a bad knee that eventually needed replacement ended her involvement. From this point she began to have weight management problems.
At age 43, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. A then-experimental procedure for a modified radical mastectomy requiring a team of surgeons was recommended, and the surgery lasted eight hours. Cheryl applied positive thinking to fully recover, and has remained cancer-free.
However, as you will read in the following conversation, the weight problem continued to affect her wellness until she had what she calls “The Great Awakening” in 2011. It was then that she decided she was going to become trim and fit again. With the help of her husband Tom, a former physical education teacher and football coach, and her son, who introduced her to resistance training, Cheryl transitioned from spin bike to road cycling and has gradually melted off 50 pounds. The competition bug bit again when she entered her first time trial in 2013, and the National Senior Games became her “carrot” goal to keep training. Her husband also joined in and the couple rides and trains together.
Cheryl also introduces us to a novel way for anyone to raise money for a favorite charity while walking, running or biking with a “Charity Miles” smartphone app supported by corporate sponsors, including Humana, our National Senior Games Presenting Sponsor. To date, she has logged over 11,000 miles and says helping others while exercising is another great motivator for her to keep going.
Cheryl Cherry offers a great example of positive thinking, preferring to view life challenges as “adventures” and to keep her vision on the road ahead. Read on to pick up a little Personal Best sunshine from this Florida native.
You live in Clermont, Florida, which was the headquarters for USA Triathlon for many years. Have you done a tri?
Oh, my, no triathlons for me! I have way too much metal in my body. I have plates and pins in my arm from a bike crash in My husband Tom and I also have both had knee replacements. But we do feel very fortunate to cycle and train alongside some of the best athletes in the world.
Well, tell us about your sports background. You’re a Florida native, right?
Yes. I was born and raised in Tampa, in the Brandon area. I was a tomboy and loved to get out to run and play, you know, ride bikes and play football and softball with the neighbor kids. But I really wasn’t in any organized sports growing up.
In middle school, I was a cheerleader, and then became a “dancerette” at Brandon High School. I made the varsity team as a sophomore. I just had some natural ability for dance. The sponsor of the team encouraged all of the girls to participate in other events, and she actually signed me up for the Miss Tampa pageant without my knowledge. [Laugh] Well, she helped me get ready, and I was named Miss Tampa in 1968. By winning that, I was awarded a scholarship to a dance school to get me ready for the Miss Florida pageant. I went on to win the state pageant talent competition with my dancing, and was third runner-up overall.
I danced professionally for a brief while. But I stopped to have children and got busy with life. My first job was as a legal secretary in 1970, and I went on to have a 25-year career as a legal assistant. I loved the work but it was stressful. I tried to stay healthy but things kinda added up. I did start running in my 30’s once the kids were in school. I met a woman who did marathons
and she got me interested in running. I trained pretty heavily for distance running and mostly did masters track events, and did work up to a half marathon. But I started having problems with my knee around the time I was 40, and that led to having trouble managing my weight.
So you’ve had a challenging experience with cancer. When did that happen?
I have to set the scene for you to appreciate what it was like. When I was 43, I was in West Palm Beach. My daughter was in serious training for ballet in Boca Raton and picked up a full-ride scholarship to train with the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company in Seattle, Washington. Since she was only 16 years old, and I was a single mom at the time, I decided to rent out my home in Florida and go out there with her. I loved it there. I found a great law firm to work for and enjoyed the city and the mountains. I started skiing but that eventually led to my needing a total knee replacement a few years ago.
Things were going well and I thought I was relatively healthy, so it was a shock one year later to be diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer. It’s a very aggressive type. The five-year survival rates were much lower than other types of breast cancer. And I was 3,200 miles from home.
I decided to have a modified radical mastectomy with a procedure that was new in those days, a tram flap reconstruction with reduction. It was a serious and lengthy procedure that had never been done in that hospital. The University of Washington sent over their resident students to observe. The surgery lasted more than eight hours with several doctors coming in to do all the different things that had to be accomplished. When I woke up, it felt like a Mack truck had gone through my torso. Immediately after that, I started six months of chemotherapy treatment. The challenge was definitely there, but the doctors and support staff were all wonderful and I got through it.
But you know, I don’t even like to refer to it as a challenge. I look at everything that happens in my life as an adventur e. My journey is always forward-thinking. I’ve always been that way. I never get depressed or look back, I always, always, look forward. So I decided I was going to get through this with minimal bad memories. If I was positive, everyone around me would be positive too. The attorneys and their wives all helped get me to therapy and supported me. We actually made it fun. I believe that attitude will always propel you through the worst of times.
When did you return to Florida?
A month after my chemo treatments, I saw my daughter was doing well enough on her own and decided to go back to Florida and get some sunshine. [Laugh] I did have one more brief scare when two cysts were found in my healthy breast that required a lumpectomy. I’m very blessed that they turned out to be benign, and that it’s been 22 years since that first surgery.
I came back to West Palm Beach and I got together with Tom about a year later. I was volunteering at the dance school where my daughter had studied, and his daughter was also a student there. Our daughters had danced together when they were very young, and he was just an acquaintance. His girl told me he was divorced.
I wasn’t so sure this would work out because I knew he had been a football player at Penn State and with the Pittsburgh Steelers and was a high school coach. So I thought he would be too macho for me, but maybe if he would go to a ballet performance with me he might be a keeper. He did, and 18 months later we were married. [Laugh]
So you say you had a long bout with your weight, but you look great today. How did that “adventure” go?
I had what I call my “Great Awakening” in 2011 when I decided I had to get control of my up-and-down weight. I was at my highest weight of 172 pounds, and that’s a lot to put on a small 5’ 3” frame. I had my knee replacement in 2005, but I just hadn’t been able to get myself back on track fit wise. Both Tom and I had medical issues that kept getting in our way of exercising to the degree as when we were younger.
Here’s how it happened. I went to spend some time with my grandson who was an infant. I was struggling every single moment, to get on the floor to play with him, to pick him up out of his crib, to climb the stairs. I realized this was not th e way I wanted to live the rest of my life, as an overweight, unfit person. I could beat this! I looked at Tom and told him, “I need your help. I need you to motivate and push me, and don’t take no for an answer. I will do it this time.” He replied “I could lose some weight too, let’s do it together.”
It didn’t all come off right away. It’s taken four years to get myself down to 122 pounds. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but as I’ve said I am forward thinking and I decided that’s it, I am gonna beat this thing the same way I beat cancer. And I will never, ever go back.
|Cheryl, Tom and Derek celebrate a win.|
Is this where cycling came in?
It started with my son, Derek Snowden, who is a master instructor with TRX resistance training. It’s a way to exercise without having impact on your body. He introduced us to the program and told us it would change our lives. It was the beginning of an entirely new lifestyle for us and we’re glad we took his advice!
As we gained more strength, functionality and flexibility, we moved to other forms of non-weight bearing exercises, like elliptical and indoor spinning, and finally, long bike rides on hybrid mountain bikes. We also incorporated a vegan diet. Everything all came together at once.
One day Derek told us, “You guys are really amazing with what you’re doing. Why don’t you get some real bikes and go out and train for the Senior Games?” I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded like a fun goal. On March 1, 2013 we entered our very first time trial event. We fell in love with it. It was like, “Wow, we can compete again at this age!” We’ve done virtually every mile together.
The next year we both won the Georgia Golden Olympics, and I also won and set the new age group state record for Florida Senior Games. Derek was with us at the National Senior Games in Minnesota when I won gold in the 10K time trials. He was so happy for me. Tom came in 17th and 18th in his races, but there were 60 men in his 65-69 age group. But he said he did well for a guy with two knee replacements and two rods in his back.
I had 10 in my groups. I think I could have won the 5K too, but I made a stupid mistake. I thought my foot was clipped in, but it wasn’t and came out right at the start and I actually went down briefly. I came in 15 seconds behind Kathleen Pratt, who is the 2014 US Masters cycling time trial champ and a great competitor. I was disappointed, but I did take the silver, and it gives me something to work toward next time.
It’s amazing how quickly you have risen to be a gold medalist in your first National Senior Games.
To go from being overweight and feeling uncomfortable on a bike to where I am now, going an average of 23 miles an hour in a time trial, that’s an accomplishment. But if I can do it, anybody can do it. Yes, I was a dancer and had done running, b ut I’m not a star athlete. I would have laughed at you if you had told me three years ago I could get on a bicycle and race.
Tom will tell you it went to my head a little. A little while after we got home from Minnesota, we were out riding and going around a corner with a couple of younger cyclists ahead of us. Tom’s being polite and staying back, but I go up and shout, “I’m passing on your left!” and take off. He pulls up and tells them, “My wife just won a gold medal at the National Senior Games. She thinks she’s hot you-know-what.” [Laugh]
We were told you’ve been raising money for charity with your smartphone. Can anyone do that?
Yes! Charity Miles is an awesome phone app you can download. It’s free and tied into GPS. You can bike, walk or run. You choose from a list of several charities, and then you raise 25 cents a mile for walking or running, and ten cents a mile for biking. When the miles are recorded they tweet back an appreciation. Unfortunately, you don’t get miles when you are on a stationary trainer or spin bike, but it is a big motivation to get in as many miles as possible outside.
I do it for the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of my father who died from dementia, and for another family member and other friends affected by it. Corporations and foundations provide the funding. In fact, Humana is a big corporate sponsor as well as of the National Senior Games, so I feel even better about that. They actually made me one of their Humana Health Stars for the Charity Miles newsletter last August.
Over the past two years we each put in over 7,000 miles training before the Nationals and our goal was to hit 10,000 by the end of 2015. We reached that goal after training for the Florida State Senior Games last December.
It’s really a nice thing to know every mile we rode was raising money for charity while we trained. If we got to 28 miles on a day, we would decide, ‘Let’s ride until we get 30.’ We put in a lot of hours of hard training. I hoped all the extra training would pay off, and it did!” [Laugh]
I can really thank Charity Miles for giving me the extra motivation to train harder. I’ve been promoting it since I started with it because it’s a phenomenal and healthy way to contribute.
Now that you’ve made the big changes and earned some rewards, what new goals have you set?
The next big goal is the National Senior Games in 2017. In fact, we’re thinking about going up to Birmingham, Alabama on a vacation this year to check out the site. We’ve also joined up with the Senior Games here in Lake County to help with some of the sports and try to coach some. And we recently opened up a little TRX fitness gym in Clermont and we train other people now.
On the Charity Miles, we’d like to get more people to do it, and to personally get our miles in quicker. So our goal is to get 10,000 miles done in one year.
Sounds like you are paying it forward with a desire to share the fitness benefits of Senior Games.
Oh yes. The Senior Games is my carrot, my motivation to keep going and work harder. I spoke to a Silver Sneakers class recently about all the things they could do in Senior Games. I told them if you can just gain control of your mind, you will conquer your body. I tell people “Look, it’s not as hard as you think it is. You don’t have to sit on the couch. You don’t have to be depressed. Get out there and find someone to help you get going.”
My husband and I found that cycling was the best thing for us to do because it wasn’t high impact. Tom has said many times, “If you feel you are old, get on a bike. You’ll feel 18 again.” You can just feel the youth coming back. It’s a happy thing. I’m so much healthier for doing this. He has gotten off blood pressure medication and statin drugs. Everything has evolved from this. We’re growing! [Laugh]