A fierce competitor who was determined to make her mark in the triathlon, Lisa Bentley was feeling down in the days leading up to the 2004 IRONMAN world championship. 

She was battling a severe chest infection and was taking an array of antibiotics. This is an all too common occurrence among those who suffer from cystic fibrosis (CF), an inherited disorder that causes severe damage to the lungs and digestive system.

Bentley had dreamt of winning the race and delivering a message of hope to others with CF. Yet there she was, laid low by that very disorder. She showed up at a pre-race press conference feeling sorry for herself, fearing she wouldn’t be able to race at her best — but she left with a new outlook.

“I decided to be the best one on the start line with a chest infection.”

Tracy Richardson, a fellow competitor who was dedicated to raising money to help kids with CF participate in sports, also attended the press conference. Richardson, whom Bentley had befriended the year before, was motivated by the plight of her own two children, both of whom had the condition.

“When Tracy spoke about how the disorder had affected her kids and even threatened their lives, I thought, ‘Shame on me.’ I had no right to feel sorry for myself. Then and there I decided that I would be the best that I could be with the deck of cards I had been dealt,” she says. “I decided to be the best one on the start line with a chest infection.”

“I was feeling happy and grateful during that race and I embraced every minute of it.” Bentley finished fourth. “My mental attitude allowed me to rise above my illness,” she says, looking back.

Creating a legacy

Even before that day, Bentley had never allowed her disorder to put her on the sidelines. She completed her first triathlon soon after being diagnosed with CF at the age of 20. She excelled at the sport and competed internationally in Olympic-distance triathlons for the next eight years, even participating in the 1995 Pan American Games.

In 1997, she took up the more grueling IRONMAN event. It takes about nine hours for the top female competitors to complete the three-sport race. 

For the next decade, the Canadian competed in 33 IRONMAN races, winning 11 of them. She also competed in 11 world championships, finishing among the top five four times and never placing lower than ninth. Her best result came two years after that eventful press conference, when she placed third.

Throughout her athletic career, Bentley faced many challenges her competitors did not because of her illness. Susceptible to chronic chest infections and frequently on antibiotics, she competed in many triathlons while battling illness. 

Overcoming adversity

Bentley, 46, also sweats out an excessive amount of sodium because of her disorder — posing a serious problem during competitions. Because it is an electrolyte, sodium is critical for fluid absorption and muscle functioning. Lack of electrolytes leads to severe cramping. 

But the illness never broke her, then or now. Since retiring from IRONMAN competition, Bentley has done a handful of marathons, just for fun, and has continued to run, swim and bike on a regular basis.

She underwent surgery last month to treat an Achilles tendon injury, possibly the result of extensive antibiotic use, and plans to return to her daily exercise routine as soon as possible.

“My plan for the future is to be healthy enough to keep on doing what I am doing for as long as I can,” she says. That includes her work as a coach and a motivational speaker.

“I’m always encouraging people with CF to keep moving to keep their lungs healthy. Proper lung function is the ultimate goal,” she says.

“I also spread the message that CF is not a death sentence. It is important to be hopeful. Keep living true to yourself and never give up.”