As we prepare for the 30th Olympics, we are hearing remarkable stories of triumph and tribulation, but Liliana Retelny is not going to London.
I met Lili two years ago when she was having breakfast with my daughter’s rowing coach and he invited me to join them and I was amazed by her story. In her words, she was enjoying her “rowing years” rather than her “golden years.”
Lili began rowing at age 43 to spend more time with her teen daughter who was an avid rower. As any parent of a teen knows, teens can be very elusive at exactly the age when they need the most supervision. Lili had never rowed before but thought it was worth a try to see if she and her daughter could enjoy this activity together. The coach Francisco Viacava, a former Olympic athlete, took Lili under his wing and trained her and encouraged her to row competitively. Despite having a husband, two children, and a full time practice as a psychotherapist, Lili started traveling for races, competing at the master’s level against women half her age and placing in the top five. Lili usually rows a single but she never feels alone.
In 2009, Lili represented Costa Rica, and competed at the Maccabiah Games in Israel and came in fourth overall. She also competed in a quad (boat with four rowers) that was called the “UN quad” as it had a rower from Argentina, two from England and Lili. They came in second and first place went to the American boat which included Lili’s daughter, making the games a extraordinary experience for the whole family.
Lili’s father escaped to Costa Rica following the death of many family members during the Holocaust. His life has been filled with additional challenges including a battle with cancer and raising a child with autism. He is currently suffering from a rare form of dementia. He raised Lili to be strong, independent and to live every moment to the fullest. Clearly, Lili had learned her lessons well and named her boat “Pura Vida,” a Costa Rican expression meaning “everything is great." Her other boat is named "It is what it is". Is Lili’s father angry, bitter or resentful for the cards he has been dealt? NEVER! Is Lili? NEVER! She gets up every morning without an alarm at 3 a.m. and spends until 8 a.m. doing intense rowing work outs followed by cross training, yoga and stretching. She then races to the office and spends several hours counseling patients in her exercise attire then returns for her afternoon workout. As the rowers like to say “eat, sleep, row and repeat." She says she does all this for herself and her father.
In 2010, she competed in the Central American Games in El Salvador where she won two silver
medals but the final year before the Olympics was filled with challenges. At the 2011 Pan Am Games in Mexico, due to a mishap with equipment, Lili injured her shoulder and ended up finishing last. Her injury prevented her from rowing at the Head of the Charles, the most famous and biggest race in the world and one that she was eagerly awaiting.
The next stop was Italy where she was scheduled to compete in the Silverkiff Race, an endurance regatta that is twice as long as the customary U.S. races. She had placed second the previous year and now, at age 48, had worked hard to compete in this grueling event. This time she was fortunate to bring her husband with her on the journey. Although he is not an athlete and in fact rarely even exercises, he encourages her every stroke of the way and takes tremendous pride in all she has accomplished. Once they arrived, the games were cancelled due to flooding. If that weren’t enough, the airlines forbade her to board her return flight home with her oars so she had to engage a local taxi to remove them from the airport!
In April of this year, Lili and I sat at the side of the racecourse in Sarasota and she related all these stories to me as I listened in awe. She smiled throughout and described how she felt blessed every minute despite that the outcomes may have seemed less than ideal to others without her mental attitude, “Pura Vida." Over the next several weeks, as I felt the urge to complain about events that didn’t go the way I desired, I reflected on Lili’s grace and exuberance about her adventures and strived to maintain a more optimistic outlook. This woman is clearly taking “the glass half full” approach to Olympic levels.
Lili’s next challenge was the Olympic trials in Argentina. She has now been training for five years. Yes five years of 40-hours-a-week training. Cutting her psychotherapy practice in half, going to bed by 9, forgoing alcohol and maintaining a fat free almost vegan diet. Only seven countries on this continent (including the U.S. and Canada) send single rowers to the Olympics and Lili needed to finish in the top five to secure a spot in London. Instead, she came in eleventh place. Seconds made the difference between going and not going.
When I asked Lili how she felt about not going, she said “I am so happy and excited for the young girls that are going to London and that I got to do this much at this age is amazing. I am the oldest rower." She is looking forward to next summer when she will compete in the Maccabiah Games and celebrate her 50th birthday. This time, she will not be competing against her daughter because she has retired from rowing, but I know she plans to be there to cheer her mother on.
Lili’s story reveals her passion, dedication, tremendous family connections and brilliant optimism. I have learned much from this serendipitous meeting and I treasure this friendship that so powerfully reminds us that life is about the journey, not the destination.