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Dealing with Setbacks: "What CAN I Do?"

Updated: Jun 18, 2020

On the surface, it might seem cavalier for a professional athlete to educate someone with multiple sclerosis about setbacks. What possibly could a world-class triathlete teach a disabled person? A lot, it turns out. Kelly Williamson, a staunch MS advocate and regular contributor to ActiveMSers, shares valuable lessons she’s learned about dealing with setbacks over the years—and why the word CAN is so empowering.

triathlete Kelly Williamson running under a bridge
Triathlete Kelly Williamson running under a bridge

Setbacks know no prejudices

When you do anything for 14 years, you’re bound to deal with a few setbacks. The majority of my 38 years on this earth, I’ve placed huge demands on my body on a daily basis. When I was young it was called “play” which entailed daily swim practice, soccer, gymnastics, basketball, riding my bike, cartwheeling through our house (once landing my hand on a cactus), playing with our dog Tinker (I would growl, she'd growl back; until she bit me in the face)… I basically couldn’t sit still. The inability to stop moving led to swimming collegiately. And at age 24 I still hadn’t had enough, jumping into life as a professional triathlete. Suffice it to say, it’s been an awesome journey but any progress I’ve had has much resembled that of a camel’s back. I’ve not tasted success without first (or thereafter) dealing with setback. But through it all, the one resonating theme has always been, What Can I Do? Setbacks know no prejudices; they happen to us all, at some point. The light at the end of the obstacle is all in how you perceive it.

Triathlete Kelly Williamson thinking before a race

Focusing on what you CAN do

As I was out today on my 40 min walk-run (alternating the two, yep, due to a running injury which forced time off) I began to think about the power of the word CAN. I clearly could not (or should not) go out for a straight 40 minute run after a few weeks off. But, I CAN do a walk/run combo. Similarly, when I could not even do this 2 weeks ago, I found that I could ride my bike. I could swim, and I could go to the gym for strength and core work. With the extra time, I could put energy into physical therapy. It sucks when you have a plan and life decides otherwise, but I’ve found that there is immense power in asking oneself that simple question: What Can I Do?

And breaking the concept down further, who doesn’t love a good acronym? My walk-run was so mellow and therapeutic that I started contemplating how the simple word CAN was quite empowering.

C – Capable. You are capable of something. Unless you’re lying in a hospital bed unable to move any of your limbs, you’re capable. Of something. Assess the situation, and figure out what it is.

A – Adaptable. Work with what you’ve got. Plans are great, but life is not one giant plan. Be willing to respond to the circumstances. It’s ok to get frustrated, and angry; but learn to move past your emotions and respond positively to the situation.

N – Now. The moment is what we’ve got. Today is what we work with. We are all guilty of looking back in the past at what was, or dreaming of what may be. Dreams are great, but they only come to fruition by taking one step at a time. Focus on the now and before you’ll know it, the valley you’re in will soon be a distant memory.

Look for the silver lining

So rather than fear setbacks, try to view them as opportunities to improve on yourself. I find I’ve gained patience, perspective and learned to appreciate things more with every major setback I’ve been dealt. And what do you know? Those pesky little roadblocks are still around. But they have forced me to slow down and realize that I’m not always in control… and that’s ok. And through the unknowns and the fears, I’ve often come back stronger and more resilient in countless ways. So realize that in any given situation, you can do something. You just may need to do a little soul searching to figure out what it is.


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