Through 100-degree heat, dark of night, and the weariness of her body, she paddled a sea kayak 18 miles, mountain biked over 42 miles while climbing 4,000 feet, hiked 16 miles, and then biked an additional five miles to the finish line—all in under 24 hours! She arrived at the end just in time to be crowned Athena Michele Gibbs Holbrook.
Athena is the Greek goddess of wisdom, war, and diplomacy, and it’s an appropriate title for this Amelia Island woman, who each day battles eight tumors that plague her body as a result of a genetic disease called Neurofibromatosis (NF).
“When I was 25, my left leg started to collapse involuntarily,” says Michele. “I was athletic, played sports, and I knew something was wrong.” A five-year journey led to her diagnosis and the discovery of an additional tumor on her right lung. But perhaps the greatest difficulty of her diagnosis was accepting the reality that this was something she would face every day for the rest of her life.
But if you know Michele—realtor, runner, and racer-for-a-cure for NF—you know that she is a fighter, and she readies herself for battle each day. NF causes tumors to form on nerve tissue, which can result in significant pain, dark spotting on the skin, benign growths under the skin, learning disabilities, or, in Michele’s case, tumors on her brain, lungs, and spine.
Today there is no cure for NF, and as a result, Michele has undergone numerous surgeries to remove tumors that were impacting mobility or creating intolerable pain. She also endures the day-to-day battle with discomfort. “Sometimes when someone pats me on the back—even gently—it’s enough to bring me to my knees,” she describes.
And to her knees in prayer she often heads. “God gives us a time to be born and a time to die, but I am going to continue to fight every day I have left. I am not going to sit down when I can try to make a difference for the children with NF coming behind me,” she says with a confident smile.
It is just this strength that led Michele to an amazing feat in June, when she finished the Project Athena Santa Barbara Adventure and was crowned an Athena. The Project Athena Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit dedicated to helping women survivors of medical or other traumatic setbacks achieve their dreams.
“It’s not about trying to get back to what you were,” explains Robyn Benincasa, Project Athena Founder and World Champion Adventure Racer. “It’s about trying to be the best that you are capable of today, this minute.” The organization offers six non-competitive adventures annually, which are designed to be about teamwork and making sure that no one is left behind.
Michele’s face lights up when she describes her time with her fellow Athenas. “The willingness of Robin and her team to volunteer their time to help us is overwhelming,” she reflects. “They tell you, ‘yes you can’ when you are ready to give up.”
This same spirit of encouragement helps Michele on Amelia Island. “I have my group of running girls, and on the days I just want to stay in bed, they call me and rally me to my feet. And my mom is amazing. When I was training for the challenge, she was the one who pulled me up at 5 a.m. for an eight-hour training walk. She walked the first shift, and then a different friend joined me for each additional hour. The time passed so quickly because of our fun together!”
Life with NF is not easy, but Michele meets each day with the wisdom, martial strength, and the ability to negotiate life’s hurdles that proves every day is what you make it—and which makes a true Athena!