March 31st started the same as every weekday morning – my alarm goes off, there’s grunting and “ouching” as I slowly start to move my body around mentally taking inventory on which joints hurt the most, and then I hit the snooze button. Like most mornings my right hand is numb from wrist pain, jaw is sore from grinding my teeth through the night (because of pain), hips and knees are incredibly stiff, and my lower back and neck hurt the most. As I’m physically and mentally attempting to wake up, I grab my cell and scroll through my emails, per usual. Most of it’s junk mail, an appointment reminder, a couple newsletters, something from USA Triathlon, Twitter and Facebook notifications, etc…

aggieathlonfinish

Dina Neils, Aggieathlon 2015, Sacramento, CA

I put my phone down and close my eyes – “I just need ten more minutes and then I’ll get up.” Alarm goes off a second time – ten minutes just felt like 30 seconds. I turn the alarm off, and it hits me – did that USA Triathlon email say, “Congratulations!”? I immediately think that I probably dreamed it, but frantically look for the email just in case. Sure enough the email is there and reads “Congratulations Dina Neils! You have qualified for the Olympic Distance race at the 2015 USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships on Aug. 8 in Milwaukee, WI, after finishing in the top 10% in your age group at the Aggieathlon!”

I literally felt my heart skip a beat… or two. Time stood still. Goosebumps. I read it again, in disbelief. I gasped, “Oh my God! I QUALIFIED FOR NATIONALS!!!” I had the biggest smile plastered on my face and felt my eyes fill with tears of overwhelming joy. I said to myself, “You did it Dina!”

That. Just. Happened.

Those that have been following my social media posts this year, know that in 2015 I set out on a major quest – a quest for Nationals. Qualifying for USA Triathlon Nationals was my #1 goal – quite the audacious goal for someone whom is constantly battling the turmoil of rheumatoid arthritis and has two total hip replacements. Not to mention someone going on just their 2nd year competing in triathlon. I honestly didn’t think that I would make it (maybe after a couple of years of attempting this huge feat), but I felt that I needed to go after my dreams – even if they were so big that they scared me, and even if the odds were stacked against me. Not just to prove to myself that I can do the things that I think I cannot, but to also show other warriors that they don’t have to let a medical diagnosis or major set-back keep them from achieving their dreams.

All I’ve focused on in my mind during training this year is qualifying for Nationals – I used it as my affirmation word for particularly difficult times, whether it was during a hard speed workout on the bike or a tough morning combating chemotherapy aftermath. “Don’t give up Dina.”… “You can make it to Nationals.”… “Keep fighting.” I’ve even visualized it. I imagined I’d cry with happiness the moment upon qualifying. As I shared the news with family and close friends the morning I found out, I actually didn’t cry (my eyes did fill with tears, but not full on crying). Partially I think it was because it hadn’t fully sunk in yet.

When I was diagnosed and told that I would never run again – a huge part of me died, at least that’s how it felt. Running, being an athlete with dreams of competing on a national level was ripped from my being. For years I honestly gave up my dreams. I remember feeling like dreams weren’t for people like me anymore – people who have incurable autoimmune disease that destroys the whole body. The dreamer in me was no more – she was too consumed with pain and illness. I had came to a place of accepting something less of myself and of my life. Settling and giving in to the disease, and not fighting for my dreams or who I was as an athlete.

Who would have thought that this person, ME, that I would endure a 13 year battle with RA and qualify to race USA Triathlon National Championships. ME, who was disabled, had two total hip replacements, told she would never run again and be in a wheel chair. When I couldn’t walk on my own, get out of bed, brush my hair, put my shoes on, or chew my food – if you would have told me that one day I would become a triathlete and race at USA Triathlon Nationals, I would have NEVER, EVER believed you. In fact, I probably would have laughed at you.

But here I am. A triathlete competing at the National level. Come hell or high water, I’m here chasing my dreams and making them a reality despite all the pain and turmoil this disease has caused me. Somehow I still can’t believe it. Thank you everyone for your undying support, you’ll never know how much it strengthens me and gives me the courage I need to never give up.

Okay, now the tears are falling… tears of unbelievable victory and triumph. Unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. Thank you God.

As one of my favorite quotes goes, “Autoimmune Disease – because the only thing tough enough to kick my own @## … is me!” You’ve been warned Nationals. Bring. It. On.

Dina Neils, Aggieathlon 2015, Sacramento, CA