Spend five minutes talking to Gina Utegg and you can’t help but be inspired by her story of courage and perseverance.
Spend a little more time talking to her and you may just find yourself wanting to join her on one of her grueling training bike rides as she prepares to compete in the Pan Mass Challenge this weekend, her second time competing in the annual event which raises money for the Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
The Tewksbury resident and her incredibly positive attitude simply seem to have that effect. This is a woman who through no fault of her own has been faced with more obstacles in her life than the average person could even think of encountering, but has overcome them all with an inspiring amount of hard work and dedication.
In August 2001 Utegg, 32 years old at the time, was on her way home from work at Index Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge when she was struck head on by a drunk driver, leaving her with not only severe neck and spine injuries, but also Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) as well as eventually Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
With the help of her family Utegg battled through her injuries and even began competing in various athletic events, already proving she could overcome any challenge put in front of her.
But in 2009 she faced a new challenge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was the point when many of us would have wondered ‘why me?’ and been hard pressed to keep on fighting.
But not Utegg, who instead faced this challenge just as she had her previous challenges, going through radiation treatments as she won her battle over cancer.
Despite all of the obstacles she has faced, when you talk to Utegg, you do not hear any bitterness, or any ‘why me?.’ Instead it is more a case of Utegg trying to find ways to help others, as she will be doing in the PMC, for which she has already raised close to $7,000 in donations.
So, how does she maintain such a positive outlook, at least to outside observers?
“I really have to give all the credit to my family,” Utegg said. “They are my rock. I know I sound good and positive, but the fact is I have a disability and limitations that come with it that they deal with every day.
“And we deal with it through the love and support of others, but we maintain it through our family. It is Team Utegg, and we all work very hard to make it work.”
Her family, husband Mike and daughter Rachael have also been a huge part of Utegg being able to train for the PMC as well as previous events such as triathlons and other test of endurance.
“It takes a lot of time out of our day, between working out, training and fund raising,” Utegg said. “There are no short bike rides when you are training for this and you can be out of the house for long stretches, so you really need the understanding of your family.”
Probably part of that understanding comes from the way the family banded together to battle through both Utegg’s accident as well as her cancer diagnosis. When Utegg was diagnosed with cancer it was a blow that would obviously be difficult for anybody to hear about. But for the Utegg family, the accident was even more difficult to overcome.
“The cancer was a shock, however I really have to say that the accident was ore devastating to our lives,” Utegg said. “It took longer to bounce back from that.”
But Utegg did bounce back, so much so that in 2011 she competed in her first ever triathlon, the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in California to benefit the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles Pediatric Cancer Research Program. Utegg was only supposed to compete in the cycling portion of the triathlon, but when she finished with that portion of the event she decided to continue.
Not only did she finish all three stages of the race (swim, bike, run), but she was the Paratriathlon Women’s first place finisher. It was just another example of Utegg overcoming odds stacked against her.
“I was only supposed to do the cycling, but I got out there and it was so amazing I said I’m going to do the whole thing,” Utegg said. “People were lie, ‘are you sure’, and I just said, ‘yes I am doing it’.
“It was absolutely fabulous. I am so proud of it. I could not go back last year because of an injury, but I am going back this year and I can’t wait to do it.”
In recognition of her achievement Utegg was awarded the Paul Mitchell Spirit Award for a disabled athlete who comes out of darkness and pays it forward. Utegg has received several awards, including the Huffington Post Greatest Person of the Day in February of 2012, but the Paul Mitchell Award held special significance for her.
“That is just such an honor,” Utegg said. “I have been told so many times that I cannot do things, but I just keep pushing and trying to prove that I can do it. And with the Pan Mass Challenge being able to do it also helps so many other people so it is really a win-win situation.”
Utegg has been a fan of the PMC for years, but did not become involved as a participant until last year. She had several reasons for not getting involved sooner, including the type of bike she rides, but in the end nothing was going to hold her back from participating for such a great cause.
“I was a little bit intimidated at first because I ride a recumbent bike so I wanted to make sure I could compete with that and I also wanted to make sure I could do all the fund raising,” Utegg said. “So it was very mentally and physically challenging, but it is so close you just have to do it.
“And with one hundred percent of the funds raised going to fighting cancer you would be crazy to not to want to do it. This is something I feel very strongly about and I am very proud to be a part of it.”
Utegg will compete in the 110 mile race from Sturbridge to Boston, the longest race of several held over the weekend, a test of endurance in which a rider can use all of the support they can get. Fortunately for Utegg, one of the greatest parts of competing in the PMC is the tremendous support she and other riders get from the spectators along the route.
“The crowd is just amazing,” Utegg said. “They are out there from 5:00 a.m. until we finish and they are holding signs and cheering us on. It s very humbling It is amazing. There are people at every point along the route. They just come out and support all of us.
“It is inspiring. I don’t think they realize how much they are helping us. It is very humbling. It is a supernatural experience for all of us.”
Imagine that. Gina Utegg being inspired by others. It is almost always the other way around.
If you would like to donate to Gina’s ride, you may visit her PMC page at http://www2.pmc.org/profile/GU0004