Home>Features>Feature - Motivated: Triathlete draws inspiration from his wife’s battle with cancer
Lt. Col. Joe Matchette poses with his wife and kids after completing the Ironman World Championship. Matchette said when the race got hard, he found the strength to press on by thinking of Gen and her ongoing battle with breast cancer.
by Master Sgt. Steve Staedler
Air Force Reserve Command
5/25/2012 - Citizen Airman/June 2012 -- Aside from the required annual six laps around the track, Lt. Col. Joe Matchette wasn't much of a runner. He owned a bike but seldom rode it. He knew how to swim, but no one would confuse him with Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps.
"I wasn't a runner, biker or swimmer," Matchette said, describing his level of fitness in the spring of 2007. "I didn't do any of the three in high school or college."
Amazingly, just four years later, he found himself in Hawaii participating in the famous Ironman World Championship -- a grueling test of endurance that starts with a 2.4-mile ocean swim, continues with a 112-mile bicycle ride and ends with a 26.2-mile marathon.
Matchette's journey to Hawaii involved more than just himself and a personal goal to improve his own fitness. He also competed for his wife, Gen, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in the fall of 2010. Since that time, the road for them, along with their three children, has been filled with ups and downs. But together, the couple has beaten the odds in more ways than one.
Friendly Family Competition "I came to this sport late; it's my wife's fault that I'm involved in it at all," Matchette said in recalling his motivation to start training for triathlons.
It started in the fall of 2006 when Joe's cousins encouraged Gen to do a sprint triathlon. The distances for a typical sprint triathlon vary. They range from a quarter-mile to half-mile swim, a 10- or 15-mile bicycle ride and usually a 5-kilometer run.
Gen, 41, took her family's support to heart and decided to enter her first race in the spring of 2007. Her husband and their three kids were there when she crossed the finish line. Gen's accomplishment was not only an inspiration to her cousins and family, but Matchette as well. He figured, if she could do it, he should try to do one, too. A friendly family competition was born.
Matchette, 44, began training in the summer of 2007 during a deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Later that fall, he competed in his first triathlon. ... and was hooked.
The next year, the Matchettes received orders to Robins Air Force Base, Ga., where he's currently the F-16 evaluator for Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command. His plan was to compete in an Olympic-distance triathlon. However, he signed up for the Arizona Ironman, another sprint triathlon, mainly because he liked the challenge of it and wanted to see if he could do it. To him, once he signed up, there was no turning back.
"A friend of mine gave me a quote that has stuck with me forever -- motivation through registration," Matchette said. "For me, it's a registration thing. Once I sign up for something, pay for it and have a date on a calendar, then it's real. It makes the workouts have meaning."
Matchette continued training and competing in various short-course triathlons. Three days before Ironman Wisconsin in September 2010, he got the news that would change his life forever. Gen called him to say she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
"Breast cancer and Ironman are forever intertwined," Matchette said, describing the phone conversation with his wife as "hell." "There was a question in my mind but never in hers: Was I going to do the race?"
The family joined him in Wisconsin for the race, and immediately thereafter his wife began her treatment.
Racing for Two During Gen's chemotherapy treatments, she was determined not to let cancer keep her down, much less beat her. She remained active and continued running and biking with Joe, even competing in sprint triathlons. They were preparing for a bike ride on April 15, 2011, when Matchette checked his email. He had previously thrown his name into a lottery -- along with roughly 10,000 other people -- for a chance to compete in the Ironman World Championships.
With fewer than 200 slots available, the chance of winning an entry was slim. Nonetheless, Matchette had a chance, and when he received an email with "Ironman World Championship Lottery" in the subject line, he knew it was game on.
"They don't send an email telling you that you didn't win the lottery," he said. "I was absolutely shocked. For triathlons, this is the World Series, Super Bowl and Masters all wrapped up in one."
Matchette had six months to prepare for the trip to Kona on the big island of Hawaii, where the Ironman competition is held. Heading into the race, he had two goals: enjoy the experience and complete the entire event.
Matchette said he knew he wouldn't be competitive in the race, so he kept reminding himself to take in the once-in-a-lifetime experience and enjoy the day. He carried a waterproof camera with him and took photos throughout the day. A memorable sight during the swim occurred when a pack of dolphins swam right underneath him. He called that "one of the coolest things I've ever seen."
During the marathon portion of the race, he gave himself a reward -- 30 walking steps -- each time he passed an aid station. The stations were spaced a mile apart.
"At times, when you're hitting certain points and entering dark spaces, being able to walk for a few steps is a big reward," he said.
But he wasn't out there swimming, biking and running alone. Gen was with him, not in body but in spirit. To help him overcome dark spaces during the race when his body wanted to give up, he focused on his wife and her ongoing battles.
"You need the one thing that you can focus on as to why you are doing it," he said. "It's going to get hard. An Ironman race is going to hurt at some point. When I got to those difficult points, I thought of Gen."
He finished the race in 12:38:05. Matchette spotted Gen about 10 feet before the finish line. He gave her a long kiss and then crossed the line.
"It was pure emotion," he said, "a moment in our lives that I'll never forget."
Matchette used the Ironman competition to raise more than $7,000 for a Warner Robins, Ga., cancer charity. Battling cancer can take a financial toll on people, and he wanted his fund-raising efforts to stay in his local community and help families in need.
He chose the Georgia Cancer Friends Foundation, an organization formerly known as Color Me Pink. Judy Mason, chief administrative officer with the foundation, said 100 percent of the money donated to the organization goes to families in Middle Georgia. She called the Matchettes incredible people and said their donation will go a long way toward helping local people.
"Joe's money is a tremendous help," she said. "He really made a difference to people here in the area. Gen is a real fighter, and she's not going to let cancer get her down.
"People don't think about cancer until it hits close to home," Mason said. "Cancer can hit anybody at any age."
Next Steps The road for Gen has been a tough one. She underwent a bilateral mastectomy followed by intensive chemotherapy. After the initial chemotherapy was complete, she began the process of reconstruction. Fortunately, her chemotherapy treatments ended this spring, and her long-term outlook is positive.
They've signed up to race together in July in the Ironman 70.3, a triathlon that includes a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bicycle ride and 13.1-mile run, in Racine, Wis. Gen, who is from Wisconsin, ran the race last year as well.
Matchette said the family is taking life one day at a time. His wife and children were on hand when Matchette passed 3,000 flying hours in an F-16 in March.
When it comes to training, the phrase motivation through registration inspires him. Now that the Matchettes have gone through breast cancer, another phrase has meaning for him.
"The advice I have for people is save a life, grope your wife," he said. "The men in women's lives probably know them better than the women do. If you feel something new, different, strange or weird, get it checked out right away."