December 8, 2015 — Meet: Eliza Cooper, who is pursuing her master’s degree in social-organizational psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University and is interning at Catalyst. Eliza is an award-winning triathlete—who also just happens to be visually impaired. Through her athleticism and perseverance, Eliza inspires others. Her “no limits” mindset helps her power through—whether she’s swimming through murky waters, running 26 miles, or leading a meeting or presentation.
We recently caught up with Eliza to chat about her experience running last month’s New York City Marathon. She shared what keeps her motivated during training and competing, the impact that the organization Achilles International has had in her life, and lessons from racing that she applies in the workplace.
What inspired you to get involved in the marathon?
Since I was about 13, I’ve been involved on and off with an organization called Achilles International. It is a nonprofit that provides athletes with disabilities the opportunity to participate in mainstream sports. It was started by the first amputee to do the NYC marathon. I grew up going to a chapter in LA where I lived and when I moved to New York after college I got involved with the NYC chapter. When I first heard about their triathlon team I didn’t really want to do triathlons, but I went to a swim practice since I swam competitively in high school. When the practice was over, the head of the chapter pulled me aside, told me I was one of the fastest swimmers there, and asked why I wasn’t running too. I told her I wasn’t interested in triathlons. Then she told me there are not really that many visually impaired triathletes, let alone female visually impaired triathletes...and that’s where she had me.
How has the sense of community from Achilles impacted your life?
It’s huge. It’s huge for all of us—both volunteers and athletes. The beautiful thing about it is that we’re all there because we like the sport we’re doing. After a while the distinctions between the athletes with disabilities and the volunteers start to go away—sure they are guiding us through the race, but we have to have the skills and physical stamina to do the race ourselves. Some of my closest friends have been my guides. It’s been a big part of my social life, and now triathlons are a big part of my life.
What keeps you motivated throughout your competitions?
In the New York City marathon, the crowds kept me going. There were times when it got hard, but then I’d run by someone in the crowd who would shout out, “You’re my hero!” The crowd factor was huge for me, especially since it was my first time. But last year I did a half Ironman in Maine. It was beautiful, but there were no crowds and it was the longest triathlon that I had done: a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and a half marathon (13.1 miles). It took me six hours and three minutes—that’s a lot of time to spend on your own, listening to your inner monologue. For me it was all about telling myself, “I’ve got this, I’ve trained for so long.” Sometimes I would think of family members and other people who inspire me. Sometimes I would think about my guides and the time devoted to training with me. Sometimes I would just try to convince myself for the millionth time that I was prepared and doing well.
Who inspires you?
I’m inspired by people who have gone through a lot and achieved things in spite of that. For example, someone at Achilles met an 87-year-old woman on the subway who had just finished the marathon, though it had taken her 10 hours. To me that’s inspiring—what she accomplished requires much more intrinsic motivation than completing the same event does for a young person like me.
How does competing help you personally and professionally? I found that training for a race of any kind gives you a goal, and something to look forward to accomplishing. It also gives you a routine that can be really helpful. When I was starting to train for the half Ironman, and was doing other triathlons, I had a family loss. Training was the main thing that turned me around and got me through it, both because of the community of people I trained with, and because working out just helps you feel better—whether you want to or not—because of the adrenaline rush and the endorphins. It was really huge for me in terms of my personal strength—in mind as well as body. That ended up impacting how I operate at work, because it got me to challenge myself and really explore where my limits are. It’s made me really interested in leadership development and employee development. It’s all about trying to help people appreciate how they can push themselves and how they can encourage others. I think I’ve learned a lot from being trained and motivating myself, and those skills are absolutely transferable.