Former Hawks look to Soar Again with help from Team HEADstrong

By: Drew Haig

On a crisp, clear night last fall in upstate New York, five former college athletes sat around a campfire trading stories from the glory days, sipping on cheap beer and otherwise preparing to celebrate another teammate’s forthcoming nuptials. As the evening got later, the tales got taller and all of University of Hartford alumni realized that they longed for the days of fierce competition and the camaraderie gained from training together day in and day out with a singular mission in mind. A few years post college, and life had spread the group across North America, including British Columbia, Chicago, Boston, and Toronto. Although mens leagues and the occasional recreational softball game provided some respite, the reality was that these former Division I lacrosse players needed to scratch a particular itch: shared adversity through athletics. 

As the realization struck the group, Dr. Aidan Genik, a once “guaranteed goal” if he received a pass on the inside for Hartford Men’s Lacrosse, began informing the group about the Iron Man 70.3 that he was entering in Victoria, BC consisting of a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run, nearly double the lengths of a standard triathlon. The mood and atmosphere was just right, and Dr. Genik had little trouble convincing his four former teammates to join him on the difficult but achievable journey of completing a half Ironman. A quick call to another friend solidified the group, and six former Hartford Hawks were once again embarking on a journey to train and compete together.  

“If you don’t give in to peer pressure from the guys you spent so much time and energy with, what kind of person are you?” joked Packy Dollard of Albany, NY. “The reason I decided to join the race was partly because it meant I would get a chance to finally go back to the Pacific Northwest and see Vancouver, but mostly because in the end it meant more time spent with these guys. Athletics has always been the common denominator, so it was an easy sell.”

Over the first few weeks of training, the group setup a team WhatsApp chain so that they could share their different workouts and enjoy the typical banter that goes along with a group message. With various time zones as an obstacle, it also served as a motivator. 

“I definitely still have plenty of competitive juices flowing, so seeing the unreal running times that Dr. Genik posts or the fish-like swim times that Knapton puts down keeps me motivated to try and catch those guys,” said Packy. “Even bigger than that though is recreating some degree of that compete level that we know from college lacrosse. All of us have one goal in mind of finishing the race and having a good time with one another, but then we also have our individual goals, which is exactly the way college was when we were playing together.

And still, the group of six knew that they needed some other ways to keep them accountable. Although regularly active, going from a Sunday jog and some free-weight lifting to training six days a week in three very specific exercises cast some early stage doubts. Old injuries began to flare up including slip disks, unrepaired PCLs and a dozen ankles that have been sprained or broken more times than anyone cared to count. It was the first time that most of the group had trained for an endurance event in general, and everyone’s first time adding a biking and swimming component. What they needed outside of camaraderie and reliving their college days was a why.

They found that why in Team HEADstrong, an initiative from the HEADstrong Foundation that encourages current and former athletes to use their endurance events as a vehicle for service. By adding a charity and fundraising component to their Iron Man commitment, the group finally had the accountability necessary to ensure that they completed their goal. Aside from having the cancer community counting on them to raise funds that go directly to patients and their families, Team HEADstrong also provided the know-how to improve their training.

“We always had a coach, and now we were just sort of repurposing old workouts and things we found online, but with a very different need than we had in college,” explains Packy. “We had never tackled something like this. Pair that with the challenge of nutrition and helping the body recover, and we were a bit lost to be honest! I want to give an enormous shoutout to Team HEADstrong though for helping make the training component much easier. Connecting us up with Coach Chase (Stewart) was amazing. She went above and beyond to build us a guideline for runs and lifts, stretching tips, nutrition tips and countless other info that we hadn’t considered.”

All Team HEADstrong members can count on Coach Chase assisting with fitness and nutritional programs to help them reach their goals. Plus, Team HEADstrong members are provided access to their personal fundraising page, and guidance from a fundraising coach that will assist them in solidifying the details while providing assets for sharing the page. As you reach your incremental fundraising gear, Team HEADstrong members are also provided with athletic gear to add some flair to your workouts, and outfit you for “gameday”.

Although the “Hawks for HEADstrong” race has been cancelled due to the COVID-19, they have elected to participate this December via a half Iron Man in California. They have continued to train and fundraise as Team HEADstrong members and cannot wait for their chance to compete.

“Fundraising has been easier than I could have ever predicted,” said Packy. “Everyone knows someone who has been affected by cancer and so that allows people to connect to the cause and want to support. Then I think when you pair that with the fact that we are all former lacrosse players and that this foundation was started by a lacrosse player it makes that connection even deeper. Our friends and family watch us train on social media, and have even asked us how they can support. It feels good, and gets you out of bed for those 5am runs with a smile on your face.”