Athlete Interview: Lisa Achilles

Marilyn Chychota:  Tell us about your background. Where are you from, professional history, background in sports and in women's development.

Lisa Achilles:  I was born in Cincinnati, OH, the youngest of 3 kids. My older brother and sister were exceptionally creative musically and artistically. I was “just the tomboy” in our family. My family did not have much money but I was fortunate enough to take dance classes for both tap and ballet. I also enjoyed running errands for my mom…literally running to the grocery store, drug store or wherever she needed me to go. I never thought of myself as an athlete, just someone who enjoyed the sheer pleasure of movement and the catharsis from the chaos of life that movement brings.

In fifth grade, I was awarded a scholarship to attend one of the best private schools in Cincinnati which was the antithesis of my neighborhood. The fact that we had to wear uniforms and being a member of the track team were the only factors that leveled the playing field in this new culture. Most of the sprinters on our team were from similar economic backgrounds and felt just as out of place in this school environment. That track was one place were we all felt we belonged. I ran sprints from the 100 (we ran yards back then) to the 880 medley with high jump, and long jump on the side.

I ran indoor and outdoor  track team at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, ME. I ran most of the same distances that I ran in high school but also fell in love with the indoor 50 yard dash…no time to overthink just sheer instinct on that run. It was inspiring to be on the same campus that once saw Joan Benoit Samuelson run. It is there that I met my best friend, a hockey and basketball player who six years later became my husband.  I enjoyed running my freshman and sophomore years before an injury that would sideline me for the rest of my college years.

After graduation, I launched  a professional career as an assistant buyer for a department store in Boston. Lacing up my running shoes once again, I turned to running as a way of blowing off the steam from a hard work day. Knowing only how to train for short distances I limited myself to the sprint training that I’d known in high school and college without much thought of the possibility of longer distances.

After I married and moved to the west coast with my husband, I worked in pharmaceutical sales for a few years before we decided to have our son. When Carter was 2, I felt the need to do something athletic, and trained for a bodybuilding competition. Having grown up in an era in which women were not allowed in the weight room, I enjoyed the freedom of being able to do so at age 30. I found that my sixth month journey to winning that competition encouraged a number of my female friends to wander into the weight room with me as well.

I was determined to invest as much as I could in our son, and was fortunate enough to stay home with him until he was 11, homeschooling him during that time. It didn’t take long to see that movement needed to be a part of his life as well. His reward for finishing up school was being able to take skating lessons with me at a local rink. Skating soon turned into hockey for both of us, with my husband playing on a men’s team as well. Although I was only able to play for a year (I allowed my then 7 year old's hockey schedule to take up much of my time), I enjoyed being part of a team once again.

Focus on family took many years of my attention. I largely gave up purposeful athletic pursuits to teach my son, care for an aging parent and return to graduate school when my son went to high school.  Running did not enter the picture for me again for another 12 years.  I had recently been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and wanted to be pursue my physical best to fight this disease. I set a goal to run a half marathon one year and joined “Foot Traffic University” at my local running store having no clue how it would be possible to run for more than a few miles. I ran with a group of women who also new to distance running and loved the comradery and encouragement that was a part of that Saturday morning group.  I ran the half marathon and continued on with that group for 5 years, becoming a pace mentor after the first year and encouraging over 49 women to cross the finish line of their first race over the next 5 years.

Three years ago my husband, at that time a triathlete with several long course races under his belt, suggested that I complete IMAZ as a means of celebrating our 30th wedding anniversary.  I took on the challenge to learn to swim and train for what I previously thought was a crazy sport falling in love with it as well.

I am currently Health Resilience Team Lead for CareOregon, a nonprofit that administers the Oregon Health Plan for Medicaid and Medicare patients. As a mental health therapist, I  am embedded in a county clinic and work with medically fragile patients who have mental health and substance abuse challenges to overcome.  About 60% of my caseload are women many of whom are struggling for a larger vision of who they are what they can achieve.  I use a strength based approach to counseling to help them address their challenges by leveraging the skills that they have in a more productive manner and all the while developing new skills and avenues to employ them.

MC:  What kind of involvement do you have in women's sports or professional careers? Giving women equal opportunity and solid ground to continue to develop as woman athletically and professionally.

LA:  I have a passion for being with clients in that moment when they are able to see expanded opportunities and take the leap of faith to step past fear and go for it.  For me this has often been with those who are just beginning a new sport, a new living situation, those wo are escaping homelessness and domestic violence.

MC:  Describe how you got involved in woman's equality. What led you to your current position ? What is your goal through your current project?

LA:  The need to advocate for equality has always been a part of my life as a woman of color.  While the color of my skin has always been a reason for some to think that I should not be treated as an equal, being a woman of color at times has made that challenge even larger.  I simply cannot tolerate minimizing the rights, value or potential of any person!  Part of what inspired me to get a degree in counseling was to help people wade through the self limiting baggage that is often thrust upon them while intentionally moving toward purposeful goals in life.  With the State of Oregon’s increased focus on reducing opioid use while looking toward alternate means of managing pain one of my goals is to advocate for funds to cover physical pursuits for Medicaid patients (scholarships for aquatics programs, swim suits, etc).  Many of the women that I work with are eager to take water aerobics but are unable to do so.

As a relatively new triathlete in a part of the country in which there are few women of color involved in the sport, I am actively looking for ways to increase African American participation in the sport. My goal is to establish a contingent of black women in Oregon through the Black Triathlete’s Association.

MC:  Several things have changed about woman in sports and professionally over the last ten years. Describe some of the biggest changes you’ve seen during your time, and what your involvement has been in these changes.

LA:  Women being able to use the weight room, engage in traditionally male events (pole vaulting, football, etc) has been a huge change in my lifetime.  My influence in this has been much the same that it has been in other aspects of my life.  I refuse to be limited for superficial reasons.  In life I have refused to be limited in my choice of education, stores in which I could shop, by whom I can have as a spouse or friend or where I can live if I have the ability to do so.  I honestly believe that my first word was not mom or dad but why! Accepting limitations without question is just not part of my DNA.

MC:  Describe some of the obstacles you face, or maybe some things that frustrate you in women's development. What kinds of changes would you like to see, either nationally, internationally or with the sport in general?

LA:  As an African American child I was often told that I would need to work twice as hard to get half as far and with far less pay.  It is frustrating to me to see that this is often to case for women as well both in and out of sports.  Sport is often a luxury to economically depressed communities further eroding the development of autonomy, sense of accomplishment and goal directed focus.  I would like to see more support of young girls and women in these communities have access to funds to pursue sport, to engage in those that would otherwise be beyond means to pursue.  I would also like to see intentional support of the challenges that are associated with minorities who choose to pursue sports that are outside the cultural norm.  There is the potential for isolation even in team sports without such support.  I toed the start line of Ironman Arizona with 3 other African Americans out of 3000.  I know because we all went out of our way to talk to each other.

MC:  What are your plans and goals for your career ? How do you see your future in the role of helping woman continue to develop professionally and athletically?

LA:  Professionally, I plan on changing the focus of my practice to working with women who are navigating changes in season of life.  I have found this work to be to be the most  rewarding  over the years.   On a personal level, my goal is  to encourage those new to sport to accomplish that first 5k, triathlon, or half marathon through local club involvement.  In addition,  I am partnering with a fellow sister-fighter of MS to work with women diagnosed with chronic illness to live and enjoy life to its fullest.

MC:  Who are some of your major influences, people you look up to, etc.? Who are the people you want to thank for your success?

LA:  I am forever indebted to the community in which I grew up.  Being raised in a culture with more emphasis on community than the individual instilled a responsibility to “give back” in me.  I long to build on the tradition into which I was born. I am inspired by the stories of women of color who were brave enough to step into a sport that was not within the cultural norm (Simone Manuel dispels the myth of my generation that black women do not swim), those who overcame challenges to excel in their sports (Wilma Rudolph inspired me from a young age) and those who repeatedly have to defend their closely held beliefs in pursuing their sport (Khadijah Diggs, Muslim triathlete). I also want to thank Barb Briody for mentoring me across the finish of my first half marathon, Sue Aquila for coaching me to finish my first Ironman, and Nancy Thomas former sprinter and current Dragon Boat racer who with me, refuses to succumb to Multiple Sclerosis. I am also inspired by Marilyn Chychota for her ability to deconstruct success across a range of sports and to be successful in each.  Marilyn, I appreciate your patience and creativity in working with me.

MC:  Thank you for your time and sharing with us your experiences. Together we can all inspire woman to be a stronger community. Lifting each other up to new heights both professionally and personally.