Inspire, To Breathe In: On and Off the Bike Post-Cancer

Inspire in town
Liv/giant Avail Inspire in town

A double espresso post-ride.  I parked my bike and the three of us sat down. This is life.  Simple and great.  We rode 35 miles, windy day, people heading home.  There are smiles all around.  I watch my bike.  I watch the faces around me. I know that life is just this good.  I would still like to believe that having cancer didn’t change me, but it did change me.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, every day always mattered to me, but now every day matters even more.  It really is exquisite.  Moment by moment, one brilliant day, one ride, espresso and faces all there to be enjoyed.  You can see that even as I’m parking my bike, I’m smiling.  Emily Gresh

Q and A: Cancer Recovery and My Bicycle Design

Q&A with Emily Gresh


Emily Gresh wears many hats—Trinity alumna, Yale graduate school alumna, dancer, writer, mother, fund-raising professional, and most recently, cancer survivor and the creator of the winning design for Giant Bicycles limited edition bicycle, the Liv/giant ‘Avail Inspire.’  Following an eight year career as a professional ballet dancer at Boston Ballet where she rose to the rank of soloist, Gresh came to Trinity as an IDP student where she earned an undergraduate degree in English and a minor in sociology.  From there, she completed a master’s degree in Theater Management at Yale University before entering the workforce in a new field, when she returned to Trinity to serve as the College’s Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations in the Advancement Division.  Most recently, Gresh found the brighter side of a diagnosis of breast cancer, at age 39.  We sat down with Gresh, to hear more about how she designed the bicycle, its inspirational theme, and her experience as a young survivor of cancer.
TC: When you were diagnosed, how did you handle the news, emotionally and physically?
EG: There is truly no way to prepare for the news that you have cancer, especially when you feel you are young and healthy and still outside of the reach of that kind of devastating illness.  When I was sitting in the doctor’s office at Yale-New Haven Hospital where I was diagnosed and treated, my ears literally closed and I stopped hearing.  I did not want to take in that news.  It took time to fully absorb it, many days and weeks, and was unbelievably difficult.  I had just turned 39.  Most women haven’t even had their first mammogram at age 39 and there I was already being diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.  Fortunately, I went home and went online and within a few days found the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) website which helped me enormously.
TC: What was the most important way that this group helped you?
EG: When I found the Young Survival Coalition online, I saw photos of young women participating in the Tour de Pink —a three day, two hundred mile bicycle ride that benefits YSC—and it was like looking into the eyes of people like me who had been where I was going.  Breast cancer is not common in women under 40 although obviously it can and does happen, as it did with me.  I had to do some searching in order to find my similar aged peers facing this disease.  The Young Survival Coalition brings women who are diagnosed on the young side, and their friends and family members together, and that was crucial in keeping me from feeling isolated and alone as I came to terms with my diagnosis and treatment. I could see and figure out from the photos of the bicycling going on in the Tour de Pink that both the training beforehand and the rides themselves were avenues to renewed strength on many, many levels.
TC: How often did you train for the Tour de Pink, and what was your bicycling experience before then?  What were some of the struggles and triumphs you faced along the way?
EG: My bicycling experience was limited to that of commuting around Boston by bicycle during my twenties.  I started training for the Tour de Pink by doing loops around a pond near my house on a very heavy bicycle.  My rides gradually lengthened from a few miles to rides of 60 miles, and I began riding a real road bike, too. While I was training, there were rides in the rain and also rides in intense summer heat, but it was never a struggle.  I enjoyed every second of training and a passion for cycling definitely took hold in me.
TC: At the Tour de Pink, you learned about a contest to design a new bicycle for Giant, which would be designed specifically for this event, and for young cancer survivors like yourself.  What inspired you to enter, and what did the contest entail?
EG: When I learned about the contest, I knew it was something I wanted to do.  The creative and inspiring nature of the project seemed like the perfect combination for me.
TC: When Giant notified you that you had won the contest and that your design would be produced, what was your reaction?
EG: Ironically, I had a doctor’s appointment down in New Haven when I received the call from Giant about winning the contest.  As you know, Yale has a beautiful campus like Trinity’s and I just stood there on York Street with all of those beautiful buildings around me thanking Giant over the phone, smiling, and feeling really lucky.  Then I started calling and texting my friends and family with the good news—not only had my design been selected, but it had already been made into a prototype, it was a reality.  I think everyone should have at least one moment in life where they get to pick-up the phone or text someone with the words, “I won!” or, maybe even better, “We won!”
TC: What inspired the name “Inspire” for the bike?
EG: The late Trinity Professor Hugh Ogden is the person who first pointed out the origin of the word inspire to me.  Technically, inspire comes from “to breathe upon” as opposed to “to breathe in.”  The notion of breathing in, getting one’s breath back, and the wonderful breathtaking qualities that are found in everyday living became important as I thought about creating a bike that could embody survivorship as well as the possibilities of life.  This concept is captured by having the word “inspire” on the bicycle and the word is the main design feature.  I will never forget Hugh walking into a poetry class one day and uttering: “People always say they can’t find inspiration.  All you need to do is breathe in.  The word inspire comes from ‘to breathe in.’ Inspiration is all around us.”  For me, it was in that moment that “inspire” took on a more luminous meaning.  It has guided me often.
Watch a video by Giant Bicycle about Gresh and her bicycle design.

TC: You have been chosen as the speaker at this year’s Relay for Life at Trinity.  As a young cancer survivor, what is the best piece of advice you would give someone facing the same diagnosis? 
EG: Inspire, breathe in.  Be patient with yourself and others and know your experience as only you can.

TC: Earlier in your life, you were a professional dancer with Boston Ballet, one of the top ballet companies in the world.  Did this play a role in your battle with cancer, emotionally or physically? 
EG: My former life as a dancer constantly plays a role in my life today.  As far as cancer goes, I knew—and my friends reminded me—that I could not be at war with my dancer’s body.  I didn’t think of cancer as a battle.  It was a nightmare but not a battle.  There was nothing to fight, only things to be endured.
TC: You graduated from Trinity’s Individualized Degree Program (IDP), and now work here at Trinity.  How has your experience at Trinity helped or affected your life?
EG: Trinity gave me the ability to look at language and expression from multiple perspectives.  When I had to think about how to make a bicycle express something, I drew upon many of the things I thought about while studying creative writing with the late Fred Pfeil and literature with Chloe Wheatley at Trinity—a text can be read in many ways, so can a dancer’s body, or a patient’s.  Why not a bicycle?
TC: What is the main difference between Emily Gresh pre-diagnosis and Emily Gresh today?
EG: I like to think that cancer did not change me but the truth is that it changed me immeasurably.  Every day always mattered to me.  But now, every day matters even more.  There is only a one percent chance of a recurrence of my breast cancer, but I have known so many people who have had their cancer return.  I live every day to its fullest and let myself trust each great moment as it arrives more than I ever did before.  It’s exquisite.  I am enjoying life very much, I have to say.
Emily Gresh will be sharing her story live at the 2012 Trinity Relay for Life, on Friday, April 27 at the Koeppel Community Sports Center at Trinity College.  For more on RFL, visit: http://bit.ly/JpLMyn.   Proceeds from the purchase of Avail Inspire bicycles, available through Giant Bicycles, will benefit the Young Survival Coalition.  A list of retailers can be found here: http://bit.ly/J6YruB.

From Mind to Hand

From mind to hand–the essence of handmade–is such a short distance.  It is this: a little breaking sound of dawn, not just light slipping across floorboards and through the edges of window blinds and curtains, but a true arrival.  It is a fiercer light breaking across the morning as if arriving by wagon over stones, the sound of cyclists preparing for an early morning ride, cleats over rocks. This is the noise that would have you looking up from whatever it was you were doing, knowing that something was happening in addition to just the day’s beginning.

From there, you might swing your legs to the edge of your bed and then the floor, or maybe you would be getting up from the kitchen table to open those same blinds or push your front door ajar to see what is that sound; in your bedroom, after your feet hit the coolness of the floor’s surface, your hands probably reach to open the window’s shades or push the curtains aside, the impulse drawing you from sleep towards sound and whatever it is that seems to be out there.  The day is handmade now, pulling back that curtain, rising from your bed.  You begin to shape it right there.

The day is as handmade as the steel bicycle, and the hands are nothing, as Dario Pegoretti, bicycle maker of the handmade type, has said, without the mind.

There is the same sound to dancers’ running, too, especially twenty-four of us all at once in the bigger ballets, the Swan Lakes and Sleeping Beauties, Paquitas and Don Quixotes, there are always those rushes on stage or off.  And all of that running is preceded by hammering and pounding and shaping the hard box of the pointe shoe.  No matter how soft the bottom of the shoe, there is still that noise.  Twenty-four corps de ballet women, twenty-four pairs of carefully prepared shoes, feet upon the floor pounding but as muffled as humanly possible, as technically achievable with those papery, satiny, boxy shoes.

Inside the shoe, whether cyclist or dancer, is the wonder of the human foot, beneath the asphalt where the cyclist is standing is the earth, off the dancer’s stage, the grass.  Earlier, somewhere, the day was beginning for each, the walk across the floor, to the window or down the hall to the kitchen, the coolness beneath their feet.  Earlier, their days began with thinking, each inclined to take that possibility of moving from bed to window to out the door a layer further, and each inclined to make the day, the bicycle, the dancer, the body, as alive as possible as they work the hours of their lives through their hands.

Did the bicycle maker say that steel has its own smell?  Perhaps a quality of sweat to it?  What of dancers as they are held by each other?  The handmade comes to life, the impulse of rising for something gets built out and up to an extreme, one dancer with another, arms, legs, hands, a great deal of sweat, passionate yet pliable.  We are inevitably and uninhibitedly shaped by each other.  We are that close to each other and we are the things created–the lines, the strength, the structures, literally breathing with life.  This is steel sweating, this is bicycle-maker friendly.  Emily Gresh

Giant (Bicycles) Love

Image

Feeling the love for my Avail Inspire bicycle.  If you wake up to a bike like this everyday, rain or shine, you will want to ride it.  Here is my bike on the back of my car before a ride with some nice detail visible.  I will add that thanks to a generous partnership between the Young Survival Coalition and Giant Bicycles, the survivors participating in the Tour de Pink who are in need of a bicycle will receive one of my bikes…compliments of Giant.  Giant love of that.  I hope to see many Inspires out there on the Tour.  Emily Gresh

Here Now: The Young Survival Coalition and Designing the Liv/giant Avail Inspire

Young Breast Cancer Survivor and Avail Inspire Bike Designer
Young Breast Cancer Survivor and Avail Inspire Bike Designer (Photo by Miceli Productions) 
I didn’t expect to get breast cancer at a young age but I also never thought I’d design a bicycle that then got made especially for me, survivors, and their families and friends.  At 40, I am a young survivor of breast cancer, as well as the designer of the Liv/giant Avail Inspire, a special edition bicycle being produced by Giant and the result of a design contest for survivors.  Sales of the bicycle will benefit the Young Survival Coalition (YSC), a premier organization dedicated to helping young women with breast cancer. YSC certainly had an impact on my recovery.  Among many people who supported me during my cancer experience, the faces of survivors on YSC’s website helped me take up cycling and ultimately connected me with the Tour de Pink.  In doing so, those faces and the Tour, and the friends I met during the Tour, all helped reconnect me with my health.  I first heard about the design contest back in September of 2011, when I was riding 200 miles over three days. At the time, I wondered how one would design a bicycle that could be a powerful symbol of survivorship and hope.  I had to think carefully about how to make a bicycle speak for young survivors of breast cancer and their families.  This video, beautifully put together by Miceli Productions, captures the story of my final design and details of my cancer experience: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLWsEq2XdrQ or www.LivgiantUSA.com/Inspire.  Also, to support the Young Survival Coalition through the Tour de Pink East Coast Ride 2012–I will riding in the Tour again this year and will be joined by two friends that I met on my first Tour last year–please visit my personal page by on the Tour de Pink site by following the link: http://www.ysctourdepink.org/site/TR/TourdePink/TourdePink-EastCoast?px=1060433&pg=personal&fr_id=1290.

Bicycle and me, a minimalist partnership (Photo: Miceli Productions)
Bicycle and me, a minimalist partnership (Photo: Miceli Productions)
For most of my life , I have been thinking about expression, physicality, rhythms, and partnerships. In my earlier life as a professional ballet dancer, there was always the foundation of music to pair up with, to be pushed by, to provide for soft landings and energy as needed.  The bicycle has its own orchestral qualities, many parts put together to create something that carries the rider along.  With an orchestra accompanying a dancer, this carrying ebbs and flows from ferocious and epic to the other extreme: subtle movement combined with a pause between musical phrases that is striking to the core, as dramatic as any coda-required spin or leap.  Add to this machinery, a peloton of more dancers and the full combination of people and mechanics is there in my past, and truthfully, will always remain present within me.  In many ways, my partnership with the bicycle and my place within a small peloton of cycling friends has become a minimalist post-modern version of all of that past, though each phase is unique in its own right. This combination of my bicycle and new friends, along with the words of existing friends and family from all periods in my life (dancers and people from my dancing life importantly among them), and the motivation provided by images of other survivors in the Tour de Pink, all carried me through my year after cancer diagnosis and surgery.
Peloton, a symphony of friends and bicycles getting me through (Miceli Productions)
Peloton, a symphony of friends and bicycles getting me through (Miceli Productions)
In 2010, my body, and all of its expressive qualities, went under the surgeon’s knife.   As it is for anyone undergoing such surgery, it was a terrible time in my life.  A favorite poem of mine, albeit dark, is a poem titled In the Surgical Theatre.  There are parts of the poem I can’t understand, it verges into a complexity that I am not quite sure of.  What I did understand and take from the poem though, was the quality of flight out of the body during such trauma, of watching from a distance as the body is cut, of wondering how to go down and back in, of hands and faces gathering around to heal but also those same hands and faces wondering with me, “What now?”.  A mix of the collective and my own private steps were needed to heal me, to bring me back into my body and to understand its whole power again.  It required both strength and mercy on myself, rest and struggles, metaphoric wracked symphonies and heartbreaking elegies.  It required many moments of breathing in my own personal difficulties and those of my family and friends who were with and around me, as is the reminder within the word inspire placed on my bicycle.  The word inspire originates from ‘to breathe in.’  While we often think of it in a more distant sense, as in someone or something else inspiring us, the word is grounded in our own powerful ability.  Sometimes I had to wait and be patient about breathing in but I did indeed return to my body in the year following my surgery.  I came to understand its fine mechanics again and its remarkable abilities.
Survivor
Survivor
As positive as my recovery may sound, I will add that there is never a “good part” about having cancer. I am not a believer in “what my cancer experience taught me”  since I could have come to cycling through some other means.  I will say that I am glad that I found cycling.  I’m glad I found the Tour de Pink and the Young Survival Coalition. I will also say that while I like to believe cancer did not change me, its impact on me was actually profound.  While I lived my life to the fullest prior to having cancer, today I value every day even more, and I trust in each beautiful moment in my life unlike ever before.  The chances of my cancer coming back are less than one percent but I know many people who have had their cancer return and the mad dashes in unwanted directions that life takes.  Today I am taking in every great second for its full measure of satisfaction and joy, including every moment on my bike.  Emily Gresh
  The return and keeping me here now
The return and keeping me here now
Here is a link to the Young Survival Coalition’s Tour de PInk website:http://www.ysctourdepink.org/site/TR/TourdePink/TourdePink-EastCoast?fr_id=1290&pg=entry.

Me and the Inspire bike (Photo by Miceli Productions)
Me and the Inspire bike (Photo by Miceli Productions)

I am riding with…Team Inspire.

To follow more stories about my life in cycling and the Liv/giant Inspire, follow my blog by clicking on the “Follow” button on the right of this post.

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A few casual photos: My friends took some photos as the bike was delivered and as we did the shoot for the Giant Bicycles video.  The photos also include the people that I go cycling with the most.  I can’t say enough about them and especially their willingness to let me ride with them when I was first starting to get out on a road bike.  They helped me recover from cancer and the devastation that it brings in more ways than they can imagine.

Giant Bicycles sent a production team to my house to capture my story in photos and the video that they produced.  “Production” style photos are below.

The team getting ready for video taping at my house:

Miceli Productions from Connecticut
Miceli Productions from Connecticut

Mike Miceli and his crew did an outstanding job of helping me share the story of my cancer treatment, survival, and recovery, and especially the powerful experience of training for and participating in the Young Survival Coalition’s Tour de Pink.  The best part of the day was after the taping at the house, when I set out with my bicycle, and met my friends at a local reservoir nearby to get some footage of the Inspire bike in action.

At the reservoir preparing for some Inspire action shots:

Getting ready for the outdoor filming
Getting ready for the outdoor filming

Mike put a helmet camera on my helmet to get some different angles for the video:

The helmet camera
The helmet camera
Me and more inspiring friends getting ready
Me and more inspiring friends getting ready

Off we go on camera:

Making the video
Making the video

Some future posts coming up will include some more photos from the filming and more of the bike and a little more about my cancer experience and design choices.

Spring Riding

Chilly start but we rode into sixty degree weather
Chilly start but we rode into sixty degree weather

My most recent long ride was a 60 mile trek out to Granville, Massachusetts in stunning, early spring weather.  Just a few months ago, I did the same ride, with the same collection of great friends, on a much colder day (see earlier post: Winter Riding).  In January, we set out in temperatures in the twenties and returned with the temperatures just a few degrees higher. In March, the ride began around the 40 degree mark, still cold, but ended with temperatures near or at sixty degrees.  Along the way layers came off, arms got some sun and the taste of the coming season brought a freedom that only lives in our minds in the winter.

On this beautiful ride in March, we didn’t sit inside to warm up once we reached the Granville Market, I didn’t even drink coffee, and I love coffee.  We stayed outside and it was water for everybody all around.  We filled water bottles and passed the time in the sun.

The ride also brought this for me:  We took a detour somewhere, making the ride a little longer than it might have been, turning 50 miles into 60, but easily so, nobody sweating and nobody complaining, the day is so good.  What’s not to like?  Why not put in the more miles?  We travel more scenic routes than usual and there is a bigger hill climb, too. I have already been laughing and having a great time on my bike for awhile when I see a horse in the distance crossing the road.  It’s so far down the road that I can’t see that someone has it on a lead, that it is not actually just wandering around, and that it won’t be running along with us.  But for just a few seconds, I thought that might be a possibility, that the horse had gotten free and was just roaming around the street and land.  I wondered in those seconds about all of the potentially dangerous things that could happen with this horse being on the loose, but I also thought about how incredible it would be to have the horse running and racing along in the road with us.  There was the strangeness of the intersection, too–bicyclists meet horse, horse meet bicyclists, ballerina meet horse, horse meet ballerina.  Degas paintings started crashing around in my head in a spectacular but far more modernized way (no tutu for me thanks, just some cool Rapha-wear).

Ballerina meets bicycle..and horse
Me in Rapha, sunny day spring riding 

The gap between us and the horse started closing, and as it did a person leading the horse became visible, the thin line of a tether appeared and then the horse went into a corral and the person closed the gate.

Finally, we came to the fence behind which was this animal. The horse surged.  There was a fantastic breath of force, a few giant hoof beats on the dirt, tail flying.  It was almost as good as the dream of having it roaming free on the road–horse racing all of us on our beautiful bicycles, ballerina mindset in the midst.  Animal, machines, human beings, hearts pounding madly.

I found a video of a horse breaking out of a fence during a real bicycle race and joining the cyclists in their pursuit of the finish line. I’m sure many people have seen this video before, it must happen with some frequency, but for my dancer’s brain–a brain that is after such a convergence of athletes and beauty–I love this.  Emily Gresh

http://www.flixxy.com/horse-cycling-race.htm

The Unstoppable

Daily Class, Diana Vishneva
Daily Class, Diana Vishneva Photo credit: Unknown

Here is a story for you: Tom Simpson died at the age of 27 while racing in the Tour de France in 1967.  Read just a tiny bit about him and you know that his story is about the body reaching its limits and him refusing to know them.  The body does have limits.  This is not news.  We all know it.  In old film footage, it is possible to see Simpson curving from one side of the road to the next, the crowd lining the street standing nearby, friends and medics rushing in.  Finally, we see him fall and get a view of him being carried off by helicopter, out of his own internal chaos which was at full throttle with body giving out and mind going on, going on.  The footage can be viewed here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtAyGvZqiwk.

And have you heard of the ballet Giselle?  It holds the romantic’s version of this scene: Giselle dies because she can’t keep herself from dancing, or loving, despite a weakened heart.  She must dance, in the same way that Simpson was compelled to keep riding his bicycle almost 100 years later.  Giselle falls in love, is then betrayed by her lover, making her dance even more.  Villagers gather around as her body fails her.  Just before her collapse, she wavers dramatically across the stage, no longer dancing but stumbling, believing otherwise–just like Simpson…only with Simpson there is the terror of reality, his falling while famously saying, “go on, go on.”  With Giselle, there is a rising from the grave–she succeeds in saving her lover from eternal condemnation by dancing from midnight until dawn for a dark hearted fairy queen.  The premise is just short of ridiculous.  I say just short because we know that there is the unstoppable in each us.

To watch even a few moments of professional cycling is to know that here is the body pushed to its extreme, here is the body in partnership with a very efficient machine that is the bicycle, here is the body looking to match angles, aerodynamics, grams, rigidness and flexibility of frame.  The cycling body is never an illusion.  It bears weight and power, kilojoules, and every kind of measurement one can imagine these days.  It is never rising out of the mist, never looking to appear as if it is not bearing weight.  Unlike ballet, races are won by fractions of seconds, there is a clear winner (although splitting seconds is not always so clear), and there is always the threat of crashing.  Results are posted, finishes are exact, great rivalries are not hidden, whether gentlemanly or ferocious.  The sport at its most extreme levels is unparalleled, its reality literally speeding by us on display.

There is indisputably some of the same “go on, go on,” within ballet dancers, but a greater game of illusion.  There is the same fire-playing with the limits of the body.  But we can’t see very much about what it is to be a dancer, about what the dancer’s body lives, feels, breathes, weighs, thinks—there are no kilojoules and weight is a well kept secret despite its prominence as a topic of conversation, always around it but the precise numbers never really revealed.  Here we have the body and not the machine–not the bicycle weight for a won-by-the-split-second time trial.  Would it be different if dancers disclosed their weight readily before their seasons at respective theaters the way one can weigh a bicycle?  Would the mystery of dancers fine tuning dissolve–a 5’6″ dancer would know definitively where she stood compared to her peers at one weight or another?  Less easily unveiled is the impossibility of endless hours of class that are kept behind the scenes.  Daily class can’t be as easily boiled down to a number or metric.  It is simply difficult and challenging, everyday.  We know about this ritual of class, but few ever really get a look at it or can actually comprehend that this is everyday life for a dancer.  To do it takes a certain unstoppable-ness, the just short of ridiculous kind.

At the end of Giselle, the lover wakes by Giselle’s grave stone and it has been perhaps all a dream to him, except that Giselle is still dead.  We wake everyday to our own limits, from the dream that we might be like Giselle or Simpson, unstoppable.  Lest we forget, there is the jolting reality of one and the dream-like illusion of another to remind us.  Emily Gresh