A Minor Setback for a Major Comeback, by Angie Houtz

I moved to Austin in 1998 after becoming a single mom to a great four year old kid. We held hands in the moving truck as I drove across the emptiness of West Texas to the town I dreamed of living in since I was in high school and talked about being a team and getting on with our new lives. I had hopes and dreams and I just knew these would all happen as soon as I could call Austin home.

We settled in and in a few weeks, he went back for his summer with his dad. I was alone – horribly alone and crying about having my one and only so far away. I really needed something to keep me busy and occupied and that is when I started rowing. To be totally honest, I had been set up with a nice guy and we were dating. He was a Saturday Rower with this crew of wonderful people and it was the leader of this group who decided I needed to be rower. He told me to bring my money and show up the following Tuesday – so I did. I am so glad I did.

That was fifteen years ago and I have grown as a rower and as an Austinite. I have competed on the national and yes, international scale. I have won gold in Canada and I have lost big time in Boston but I have always enjoyed my experience and come away wanting to be better, faster, and stronger. I have also made amazing friends; lifelong, do-anything-for-you friends. The kind that you know you can call at 4:00 in the morning or who will come hold your hand after a bad break-up. Good, solid friends.

It was this community that I leaned on when I heard the words none of us wants to hear: “It’s Cancer.” My first phone call was to my rowing partner, Nancy. She had courageously agreed to travel with me to Italy and to take on rowing at the FISA Masters Regatta. We would be amongst a handful of US Rowers and most likely the only ones from Texas. We had been moving our boat really well, and our form was better each time and now I had to tell her this agonizing news – our plans were no more. I choked on my words but she was the calming force in that too long five minutes. Matter of fact she told me she was coming with me to meet the surgeon and that we would talk later that night. She encouraged me to call my family and told me without hesitation: “It’s going to be okay!”

I called my family, cried with my sister, and sobbed later that week as my mom told me my treatment plan was the best choice. I had met the surgeon and had decided that a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction (expanders) was the best option for me. As a rower, the idea of using muscle from my stomach or lats didn’t appeal to me at all. I had worked too long and hard for these. Hours, weeks and months in one boat after another, not to mention the thousands of meters I had pulled on the erg. No way, no how – I was not going to cut into these muscles. Expanders and reconstruction that way was my choice. Then I started telling my rowing friends.

Ron hugged me as I told him why we couldn’t row in Boston. Erik determined that cancer was going to be sorry it messed with my plans to row in Italy. Lisa held back her tears as long as she could but mine started flowing so all bets were off at that point. Maril – sweet Maril; she has been my rock. The person I called when things finally overwhelmed me and I had my pity moment. She designed and put together my cancer quilt and found my mantra – “Peace In, Turmoil Out” and she reminded me of how lucky I was to have a technician choose to look over my mammogram twice. Yes, my rowing friends have been a blessing and it was with these strong, determined, optimistic people that I had an idea – a way to show how rowing has shaped me and how to take a minor setback to form a major comeback: “Pulling for Pink” – A Breast Cancer Awareness event centered around the sport of rowing. Since I was not allowed to row (doctor’s orders), I wanted to find something that would allow me to stay close to rowing without causing damage to my still healing tissues.

“Pulling for Pink” was born in my living room while idea crunching. I approached the Development Director at the Austin Rowing Club and shared my thoughts with her. Could we combine our upcoming October Regatta (The PumpkinHead) with a Breast Cancer Awareness drive? I promised I would fundraise and all I needed was the okay from the club and the organizers to have sponsored races where these funds would then be donated on behalf of the Club to a local organization. Discussion and a few days later I had the okay. I was off to the races!!

There were 12 races that I sought sponsorship for and each one would be named by the donor in honor of someone they knew or loved that had battled cancer. I moved forward with designing a logo and yes, it was another rowing friend who came up with that. Our Marketing Director at ARC introduced me to The Breast Cancer Resource Center and I shared my vision of this event and my needs with them. They were the perfect group to work with. I realized my friends and family support units had pulled me through some devastating news and had been there with me during some harsh times but sadly, there are too many women who don’t have that type of support group. The Breast Cancer Resource Center provides this FREE to women in our area who need a group, person, or support. We were all in agreement so I started making my calls and writing my emails. Within three weeks I had a sponsor for each race!! I had vendors willing to meet me in the middle with food costs and I had the first ever floating beer garden arranged for regatta day. It was going to be a success and women in Austin would benefit from a group that I had benefitted from just minutes after my diagnosis.

Our event was on October 26, 2013. The Austin Rowing Club allowed me the freedom to run with an idea and the BCRC trusted me to get it done. It was an amazing day – we learned a lot and made notes for next year and in the process, raised $6,500!! The excitement of that day made me feel whole. The first time I had felt that since before my dreaded diagnosis three and a half months earlier. This fundraiser was my first step in my comeback. It took a setback to cause me to reflect on what truly was important and I realized that for me, giving back gave me a new step and energy. We can give of our time, our ideas, our energy, and our money. What I found was that when I did all of these things, I was at a happy place: I honestly didn’t hurt that day; I didn’t think about expanders or worry about my next surgery.  I was so happy to be busy and knowing I was doing this for a cause made it all that much better.

Breast Cancer has been a setback – there is truly nothing minor about it; any of us with a diagnosis knows this but we also know our attitudes are the biggest weapon we can have in our individual battles. My attitude is that with the pause created by that call and my subsequent surgeries, I am settling in and getting ready for a major comeback. With a simple idea, born in a living room, I know that I can do something good and knowing that this idea can grow to something bigger and better, as well as fit the mold of being unique to Austin, gives me that push to keep going and doing more.

Perhaps “Pulling for Pink” is my major comeback and if that is the case, I am perfectly at peace with this.

Screen Shot 2013-12-16 at 12.36.49 PM The Austin Rowing Club presenting the proceeds of Pulling for Pink ($6,525) to BCRC.
Pictured: Kourt DeHaas, President of the Austin Rowing Club, Casey Slater, Development Specialist of BCRC & Angie Houtz, Founder of Pulling For Pink

Angie Houtz is a mother to Jack, an executive assistant at the corporate offices of Hanger, Inc., and an avid rower on Lady Bird Lake. Using her athletic and competitive mindset, she enjoys all things challenging, team-oriented, and fun. Her favorite things are her wonderful old Catahoula, Chase, laughing with her friends, and being involved in cause-oriented giving. Houtz’s also blogs for Austin Fit Magazine

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