AN AGE GROUP INSPIRATION
ONE DAY LAST August, as Fern Esau was preparing to travel to Challenge Penticton with some friends, her doctor called. “You need to prepare yourself for death,” he said.
Esau articulates this with a straight face as we sit at her dining room table in early December. A woman who normally weighs 145 pounds is now under 100 and gasps for breath due to a recent blood clot in her lungs. She recognizes the implications of what she is saying, but she breaks into a smile and says, “What kind of thing is that to say to someone?”
Esau was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. “I thought I was suffering indigestion.” she says, “Onions don’t agree with me.” Instead they found what she calls “a big mucky growth on my pancreas.”
“Pancreatic cancer is evil,” she explains, no longer smiling, “You don’t notice until it’s too late.”
That day in August, Esau went to Penticton anyway, cheered for her friends and signed up for the race in 2016.
A personal trainer for 11 years and triathlon coach for four, Esau is an inspiration to many in her community in Victoria. The 62-year-old has finished 66 triathlons, raced for Canada at nine world championship events and won her age group at many events in Western Canada including Shawnigan Lake and the Great White North Triathlon.
Esau’s life has not been without challenge. A survivor of domestic abuse in both her marriages, she raised three of her four children on her own. Of her 15 years spent doing social work she says, “I often felt I was on the wrong side of the desk.”
But she found the strength to leave her past behind and, in 1997, discovered running when she entered a 10K race with her sons. She took up triathlon in her 40s and credits the sport (in particular descending on her bike) with helping her find inner strength. “If I can do that, I can do anything,” she tells me.
In 2010, Esau qualified for the world championship in Budapest. “I had always been a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person: school, university, work, raising kids. I had never travelled.” So she got a map, Googled “Triathlon + Europe” and flew overseas for a month-long adventure on her own. “I ended up racing in Kitzbuhel [Austria],” she tells me, “It was the year Paula Findley won. I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
Endurance sport helped Esau move from a self-described “victim mindset.” She quit her job and started working as a personal trainer. She got her coaching qualification and began helping others with their journeys to emotional and physical health.
“Triathlon has helped me through [the cancer]. My heart is strong. It’s all about your mindset, one more hill,” she says with a blank stare.
When the Victoria triathlon community learned of Fern’s illness, many of us wondered how we could help. Fern said, “I want a party.” And so, on December 11, 2015, a 150 people came together to celebrate Fern.
“I went out and bought myself a sequin dress,” she tells me, “I know I am skinny from the chemo, but I don’t care, I want to wear sequins.”
During the hour I spent with her, it became apparent that Fern oscillates between an acknowledgement that she is terminally ill, and hope for the future, “This is the hard part, right now. After this, I’ll be back swimming in no time.”
Esau intends to do an Ironman the year she turns 65. The plan is to build into it with her first marathon in 2016, “That plan might have to be delayed,” she tells me, but there’s no doubt she intends to continue.
“I love the people. Of course I love the sport and the challenges, but it’s really about the people.” As we went to press, TMC received the sad news that Fern Esau passed away on Feb. 9.
Two-time Ironman champion Sara Gross lives, trains and coaches in Victoria.
About to cross the finish line at Escape from Alcatraz
Esau has no shortage of supporters as seen here at her celebration of life party
On the bike at Escape from Alcatraz