By Alan Prendergast
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In 1989 she enrolled in a master's program in transpersonal counseling psychology, a discipline that blends psychology and spirituality, at Naropa University. For her, exercise had always been a method of avoidance, a way to run away from her troubles and numb herself from thoughts and feelings. At Naropa, she learned the importance of deeply embracing pain and joy alike, and how to make exercise embody exactly the opposite: wholeness.
With her master's, she started doing counseling — and discovered she was a good therapist. Maybe it was because of all the time she'd spent helping her troubled mother. Maybe it was because she went about her new vocation with the relentlessness with which she'd pursued her athletic career, working with abusive men, domestic-violence cases, women with violent pasts. "It was intense, raw and real, just like triathlons," she says.
But she also made time for athletes who needed help, since she figured she could understand them better than anybody else. In honor of John Matuszak, an American football star and World's Strongest Man competitor who'd died of a drug overdose, in 1990 she organized a local conference, "The Athlete's Journey Into Wholeness," dedicated to helping former pro athletes like herself find life after competition. "It was like a conference dealing with divorce," she says. "Learning a new identity divorced from athletics." There was even a talent show, to encourage the sort of playfulness and creativity that athletes like Diane had long ago left behind.
Creativity wasn't the only thing that Diane had suppressed. While at Naropa, she found herself attracted to women. As a tomboy who'd always wanted to hang with the guys, the revelation was surprising — but deep down, it made sense. "Of everything in my life, my sexuality has been the hardest for me to be comfortable with," she says. "Being raped definitely swung me more towards feeling safe around women."
In the span of a few short years, Diane had become a different person, one with a new career, a new circle of friends, a new sexual orientation. One day, she took all her running shirts out of her closet and donated them to a home for people with developmental disabilities. Later, she spotted a kid with Down syndrome walking around Boulder wearing one of her shirts. "World's Toughest Triathlete," it read.
On a beautiful summer morning, Diane Israel is sitting at a picnic table with a group of racing experts and filmmakers, making final preparations for an upcoming Ironman triathlon in Zurich. How, exactly, are they going to come up with the $600 needed to get a bike to Switzerland? What should they say to the Triathlon Magazine reporter who wants to do a story? How are they going to capture the chaos of the event for a documentary film they're working on? And what happens if something goes wrong — as it often does — in the middle of the race? In an Ironman, there are no guarantees.
The Diane of triathlons past would be a wreck of nerves. But she's not, because she's not the one racing. Since her collapse 23 years ago, she hasn't been in any professional races, though she still exercises regularly. In many ways, the person who participated in those races is gone. Here at the picnic table, for example, Diane is calm and collected as she works through the details of the race, flashing wide-eyed smiles and exclaiming, "Oh, wow!" with childlike wonder.
It's easy to see why she's been a successful therapist for two decades, easy to see why she's been a hit teaching transpersonal psychology classes at Naropa since 1997. One of her students called her "the most authentic, radiant teacher I've ever had."
Diane is here to support Karin Linnér, a 36-year-old Olympic distance swimmer and marathon runner who suffered a freak stroke a few years ago that left her temporarily unable to speak. Now Linnér's racing in triathlons and biking across the country with a film crew in tow to educate people about how they can prevent strokes from happening.
Diane, once again a pied piper, helped set up the project and is now an executive producer (she's using some of her family money to help finance it). Eight months earlier, Linnér was working as a massage therapist and trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. After hearing her story, Diane asked if she'd ever considered capturing it all on film.
Back in 2005, Diane had started work on her own documentary film about eating disorders and body image, titled Beauty Mark, drawing from the horror stories she'd heard as a therapist, stories about bodybuilders who couldn't bear the sight of their own bodies, about women who'd suffered miscarriages because of how they starved themselves. Partnering with filmmakers Carla Precht and Kathleen Man, she'd expanded the project to the country's obsession with being thin, moving from a Colorado factory that produces drastically unrealistic mannequins for store windows to the New York City fashion scene.
But her collaborators soon urged her to turn the camera on herself. "They told me, 'Your story is part of the film,'" remembers Diane. "'You are missing all your meals and working out every day that we work on this.'"