By Karen Billing
Robyn Benincasa, a San Diego firefighter, has been named among the CNN Heroes, one of 30 “everyday people changing the world.”
Benincasa was singled out for the inspirational work she does with her nonprofit Project Athena, which helps women who are survivors of medical or traumatic setbacks live an adventurous dream as part of their recovery — from learning to run again or standup paddleboard after losing a leg to amputation to besting the Grand Canyon after battling cancer.
Women come to Project Athena from a place of uncertainty and are given hope.
“Very often people are saying, ‘OK, I survived, but now what?’” Benincasa said. “We want to be that ‘now what.’”
Benincasa was completely surprised when informed she was a CNN Hero; several Project Athena participants had nominated her. The network will whittle the 30 heroes to a top 10 and finalists will be notified in mid-October. The public then votes on which of the top 10 will be named the Hero of the Year and featured on an end-of-the-year show.
“I would be just be floored if I made it to the top 10,” Benincasa said. “I never imagined this in a million years (when starting Project Athena). I thought I’d help maybe one to two people a year. We’re super-psyched that it’s been successful because there’s really not anything out there like it.
“It’s about getting your spirit back. These women need to find out how strong and amazing they are and it’s our job to facilitate that process.”
Benincasa, who lives locally, has been a firefighter in San Diego for 15 1/2 years, spending three years at Pacific Highlands Ranch’s Station 47 and now working out of Station 46 in Santaluz.
What she enjoys most about being a firefighter is the problem-solving, being there for people who are often in “the worst moments of their lives.”
“They’re waiting for the cavalry to come, and we get to be the cavalry,” Benincasa said.
Project Athena was born in 2007 out of Benincasa’s own physical challenge.
For her entire life she has been an athlete to the extreme: seven years of elite gymnastics; three years running track; six years of diving; six years of judo; 10 Ironman triathlons; and 36 expedition-length adventure races. Not sure what an adventure race is? Think teams competing nonstop for seven to 10 days in a variety of disciplines such as trekking, kayaking and mountain biking through tough terrains in places such as Borneo, the Himalayan peaks of Tibet and desert of Namibia.
In 2007, during the last 36 hours of a 10-day-long adventure race in Scotland, Benincasa’s body completely shut down and she was in terrible pain. She found out that she had stage-four osteoarthritis in both hips and was told she would never run again.
At age 40, she underwent four hip replacement surgeries.
Benincasa realized how she had taken being healthy and her ability to move for granted. She was determined to keep fighting, to make the best of who she was now, on her two “bionic” hips.
As she set out to reach goals for herself, she wondered whether others were in the same predicament, looking for inspiration to achieve some kind of physical and mental milestone. She wanted to help, and Project Athena was her way to do that.
“The journey is really not about setbacks, it’s about the comeback,” Benincasa said.
Since 2008, when her organization received 501(c)3 status, Project Athena has made what once seemed impossible, possible for 170 female survivors. The organization has “Gods” and “Goddesses” who serve as trainers and motivational coaches for the women. The Gods and Goddesses also fundraise, which helps Project Athena provide equipment, airfare, entry fees and whatever else the Athenas need to live their adventurous dreams.
“We make sure they’re trained appropriately so they have a great time on their adventure and they’re not just struggling through it,” Benincasa said. “We try to make the adventures things that even people who haven’t had a setback would be amazed to accomplish, such as paddling from Key Largo to Key West or hiking the Grand Canyon.”
For someone who has been through a double mastectomy, hiking rim to rim of the Grand Canyon becomes just a “blip on the radar screen,” Benincasa said.
There have been many stories of inspirational Athenas over the years.
One Athena, Alli Morgan, started with the organization when she was 18 years old after tearing her ACL playing field hockey at age 15. After routine surgery, her knee had become infected and she spent four years in and out of the hospital for different treatments. After 46 surgeries, her leg was locked straight.
Morgan made the difficult decision to have an elective amputation above the knee at age 21.
“When she first came to us, she wanted to ride in a bike race,” Benincasa said. “She stayed with us three years and we were her ‘chief inspiration officers’ through three years of change. She wanted to get her life back.”
Morgan was able to accomplish Project Athena’s Florida Keys to Recovery Adventure, a 100-mile kayaking, cycling and multi-sport adventure over three days.
“She was great and now she’s taken up skeleton and is on the Paralympics Team. She’s just an awesome kid who really has no limits,” Benincasa said. (Skeleton is “a fast winter sliding sport in which a person rides a small sled down a frozen track while lying face down.”)
The survivors have been through cancer, debilitating illnesses, traumatic injuries and horrible personal losses.
“One woman lost two kids to suicide — where do you go from there? She said she likes to walk and run because that’s her time with them,” Benincasa said. “Endurance sports can really change your life because it makes you realize how strong you are.”
This summer, the Project Athena fundraising team ran the San Francisco Marathon in July and another group of Athenas completed the rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike in June. Another hike will be held in October, and Athenas will return to the Florida Keys in November.
Benincasa has not slowed down at all. In addition to being a full-time firefighter, running Project Athena and working as a motivational speaker, she still pushes herself to compete and accomplish the unthinkable.
In November 2013, Benincasa set the Guinness World Record (her third) for the greatest distance of stand-up paddleboarding in 24 hours — she paddled 90.7 miles in 24 hours. She set two previous Guinness records in the greatest distance paddled by canoe or kayak on flat water in 24 hours by a female in 2010, and the greatest distance paddled by canoe/kayak in 24 hours on moving water by a female in 2011 on Canada’s Yukon River.
She’s training for a 340-mile kayaking race down the Missouri River on Aug. 12. In September, she plans to take on a 22-mile stand-up paddleboard across Lake Tahoe.
She still runs, although she calls it more of a “lumpy-walk-jog.” She’s not as fast as she used to be, and she can’t run longer than two hours anymore, but she still can do it.
Some may call her a hero, but Benincasa knows that everything she’s able to do with Project Athena would be impossible without support. She has Andrea Randle, her VP of synergy; Louise Cooper, her chief inspiration officer; Anne Hall, her commissioner of courage; and numerous, generous volunteer Gods and Goddesses.
“I had to have a team to really make it happen, and I have found really great people willing to make it happen,” Benincasa said. “There’s no way I could’ve done it alone.”
To learn more about Project Athena, visit