Best friends Dr Jackie Sabga and Cherise Stauble open up about their journey to becoming IRON Women!
Meeting with this week’s cover stars felt like a celebrity moment for me, not because of what they’ve accomplished, but merely because in the first ten minutes of our interview, we got stopped by almost every person in the café saying hi to the dynamic duo, congratulating them or just introducing their friends and family members to these remarkable women. It shouldn’t have come as a shock to me, but it seems that everyone wants to meet Dr. Jackie Sabga and Cherise Stauble, best friends, riding partners and IRONMAN finishers.
If you were up around 2:15 am, local time, on Monday November 19th, you’d have been able to see Jackie and Cherise cross the finish line at the Arizona IRONMAN. After a grueling 15 hours and 48 minutes, and a 2.4-mile swim, 26.2-mile run and 112-mile bike ride, the two power women ran toward the finish line just as they anticipated: side by side, hand in hand, and with a Trini flag on their back and smiles on their faces.
But if you’d asked either of the women merely four years ago if they’d compete in a 140.6-mile endurance race, they’d be the first to laugh in your face. In fact, before 2014, they weren’t particularly active at all. So how do you go from not being able to run a mile, to completing 140.6? My thought: psychosis. But their story has nothing to do with their mental health.
“It was kind of an evolution, because it started as doing a half marathon, four years ago in 2014,” Cherise explained, when I asked just how they got into the sport. “Jackie was approached by a patient who said she wanted to do a half marathon with her, and so we roundsed up a few other women, and we started that group ‘Bucketlisters’.
Bucketlisters refers to a group of seven women that have trained together, ran together and rode together through all of the madness. And they came together to do just this one half marathon, with help from coaches Dexter and Derek Simon. (If you’re wondering, Jackie’s patient never even ran alongside them – she pulled out long before that).
“It was for the purpose of doing a half marathon, and that was it,” Cherise said. “We were never doing anything longer than that!”
Well, you know now that was a lie – but the women certainly didn’t think so after crossing the finish line after running 13.1 miles at the Miami Half-Marathon in January 2014. In fact, the women say, they crossed the line thinking ‘thank God that’s over!’. But as it turns out: their journey was now beginning. With encouragement from their coach Dexter (he said, once you run a half marathon, you can almost immediately train for a full right after), they signed up for the full marathon the following January in Miami.
January 2015’s full marathon led Cherise to qualify for the April 2016 Boston Marathon, and so their training continued to prepare her for the race. But Jackie was thinking beyond that. After their coach made them do the National Duathlon, (“On mountain bikes! Everyone else had a road bike,” Jackie added), Jackie knew what their next step was: a half-IRONMAN.
Keep in mind they were only really runners at this point. They barely had experience on a bike, and hadn’t swam purposefully a day in their life, so the idea of a half-IRONMAN, which is said to be the greatest triathlon event to exist, was laughable.
“Nobody could really swim, we couldn’t ride properly, we didn’t even own bikes,” Cherise said.
“We had nothing, we knew nothing, it was from scratch. But we signed up for the Augusta half-IRONMAN, 70.3 miles.”
It was only when they returned from Boston in April 2016 that it all came together. They bought bikes, they learned to swim properly (“Cherise taught me to swim down the islands,” Jackie said.) and they began training for the September 2016 half-IRONMAN.
With less than five months’ preparation for one of the biggest sporting events, the dream team thrived at the Augusta race. And when they finally finished the course – which consisted of 1.2-miles swim, 13.1-mile run and a 56-mile bike ride – they celebrated at the finish line, and vowed to never do something like that again. In case you haven’t noticed the recurring trend, Jackie and Cherise tend to do things they’ve sworn to never do, and this was yet another example.
“We said ‘one thing we know for sure, we are NEVER doing a full,’ because there’s no way we could do twice that distance,” Cherise added. “Well guess what…”
But before that even happened, the duo took on a bigger feat: riding from London to Paris. Finally comfortable on their bikes, and knowing that they’d have all of the training preparing for the Augusta 70.3, Jackie was ready for the challenge as soon as she heard about it.
One day after training, Jackie got a call from one of her patients and she’d agreed to go visit her. With Cherise in tow, they discover the patient was in fact Cherise’s aunt, and the doctor’s visit was paired with some old talk – namely how one of her cousins had ridden from London to Paris. Cherise, knowing immediately the kind of person Jackie is, begged her aunt to say no more, but Jackie had already made up her mind.
“When we left and got back into the car, Cherise said ‘I have a funny feeling we’re going to ride from London to Paris’,” Jackie laughs. “I said ‘No, we’re going to race from London to Paris’.”
And the competitive spirit didn’t stop there. Jackie vowed that they’d make the journey in three days – a total of 108 to 110 miles a day – just because Cherise’s cousin did it in five. With the motto ‘Side by Side’, the duo vowed to fundraise money for a cause they were passionate about: cancer. Before even taking off for London, they raised $160,000 for two organisations that they were involved with: The Just Because Foundation and the T&T Cancer Society. The ride wasn’t without trials and complications, but in the end, they survived the 550km ride, stronger for it.
“We were way out of our depth. We did the ride, we did it well,” Jackie said. “But in my brain, I had kind of done it to test the waters of the over-100 mile rides. So that I could then present my next thought.”
That thought is what brought them to Tempe, Arizona on Sunday, November 18th: a full IRONMAN 140.6. And their time on the London to Paris trek proved to them that they could handle it.
“If you could do that distance in miles consecutively on three days,” Cherise explained. “Then you could do one race in one day that would include one of those bike ride lengths.”
But the question is how did two women, who seemingly exercised just for the sake of it, end up becoming IRONMAN finishers? Most people dream of scratching a feat like this off their bucket list, but it wasn’t the case for Jackie and Cherise.
“It was really just an evolution,” she said. “It wasn’t something that was a lifelong dream or something that we wanted for years. It just happened.”
How they ended up at the Arizona IRONMAN, however, had a story of its own. This November was Cherise’s ten-year anniversary of beating breast cancer, and the women wanted to continue their Side by Side journey. This time, they weren’t raising thousands of dollars or recognition for the disease. This race was about celebration of life – and seeing their faces as they crossed the finish line showed nothing but joy, determination and life.
And though Jackie and Cherise weren’t friends when Cherise was battling the disease, they found each other shortly after her remission, and the rest, as they say, is history. Through the years, their friendship has evolved from liming to training and beyond.
“Now, our friendship has many facets to it,” Jackie said. “There’s the side of the friendship where we do training and athletic endeavours, either for raising money, awareness or just for self-satisfaction. But then, now we’ve actually formed an NGO, and we’re building a house.”
Yes, the friends and dynamic duo are taking on cancer in a whole new way: through a newly-formed NGO called Promise House TT. Jackie, who has years of experience serving as both the Chairwoman of the T&T Cancer Society and Vita’s House Hospice, and Cherise, who herself battled the deadly disease, know firsthand the stress that cancer takes on not only the patient, but their family.
“We should have all our approvals hopefully before carnival next year,” Cherise added. “So we can break ground and build a house for pediatric cancer outpatients and their families.”
This ‘home away from home’ will allow patients who live in far-flung places throughout the country and even up the islands, to stay closer to the hospital for their treatment.
“For kids who need regular treatment and have to go back and forth to the hospital from their homes, it’s hard when you’re coming from far,” she explained. “So that’s really the purpose of it.”
Just like the superhero, Jackie and Cherise are taking their IRONMAN title seriously, and they’re committed to helping people in whatever way they can. It’s not the end for the power duo, and they’ll be back to take on the IRONMAN again, side by side as always.
With a tri-suit emblazoned with the term “NOT TODAY, CANCER”, Jackie and Cherise crossed the finish line side by side, hand in hand, and with the support of hundreds of friends and family members. But most importantly, they crossed with 10 years of separation since cancer diagnoses, and with a long, bright future ahead of them. If you ask these IRON Women, they’ll say ‘not today, cancer’ and not any day soon.