Beachwood teacher overcomes health obstacles to become winner of Step It Up challenge

Veronica Wendell’s neighbors may have seen an unusual sight this fall.

If they looked out their windows, they could see her running repeatedly around her home in Aurora.

It didn’t mean she’d had too much caffeine.

Wendle was racking up his final miles in the Step It Up Challenge, a fitness competition sponsored by the Health Action Council, on his way to becoming the best stepper out of more than 500 participants.

“I was really, really proud of myself,” said Wendell, an at-risk teacher at Beachwood High School, of earning top honors by racking up 1,298,186 steps from Oct. 10 to Nov. 6. “I knew I could do it if I put my mind to it.”

She was also part of the best group, Team Triple Threat, along with her Beachwood High classmates Jason Downey and Mark Gray.

Those who have seen Wendle running around the neighborhood or at school may not have known that she had a special motivation. Earlier that year, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy, and she was determined not to let that slow her down.

“I wanted to prove that I wasn’t just a survivor, I was a thriver,” Wendle said.

The Health Action Council is a national organization based in Cleveland that works with hundreds of companies, schools and other organizations to promote healthy habits and lifestyles among employees and their families.

The Step It Up Challenge takes place in the spring and fall and is open to teams of at least three employees trying to collect the most steps logged via Fitbit.

Wendle was the top stepper in the spring of 2020. She noted that with COVID-19 closing schools and all, it was easy to find time to run, and she averaged 51,000 steps a day.

She said she’s always been competitive and loves the outdoors and started running about four or five years ago with the goal of someday running at least a half marathon.

Before school, she ran eight miles “to get my mind and body going.”

Mark Gray approached her last spring about becoming part of the Step It Up Challenge team again, but something unexpected intervened.

Back in step

Wendell, 40, underwent a biopsy for possible breast cancer in May, and the results came back malignant. She was operated on at the end of July. She does not have to undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy, which speeds up her recovery.

She had to be off work for six weeks, but the dedicated educator returned after three.

“It was important to be there for my students from the beginning,” Wendle said.

The Step It Up challenge gave her an extra push to get back in shape.

“I wanted to show myself that nothing was taken from me and that my experience only made me stronger,” Wendle said.

Of course, her strength and stamina were far less than what they were before the surgery. She set small goals as she built up her stamina.

While having reconstructive surgery, “I was learning how to run again,” she said. “You learn to rebalance your body, getting into a different rhythm and movement.”

This time she was juggling work, home life and medical appointments. “I’d come home and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so tired’, but she kept insisting.

Wendell said her husband, Kevin, has been a “tremendous support.”

Her students were big boosters. “They were telling me, ‘You’ve got this, you can do it!'” Wendell hoped her actions inspired the kids to follow her advice to keep working until they succeed.

And there were her teammates, who were also pushing themselves to the limit.

“I didn’t want to let them down,” Wendle said.

During her last marathon weekend, she logged 50,000 steps the first day, 70,000 the second day and 80,000 on the final day, Sunday. This last stint covered almost 45 miles in about nine hours.

In the end, Team Triple Threat logged 2,472,344 steps, an average of 824,114, and won a $300 donation to either a school garden project or the Ronald McDonald House. Wendell received a new Fitbit for his individual achievement.

The autumn challenge involved 39 teams with 504 participants, who collected 110,846,394 steps.

“The challenge was fun to see what the other contestants from around the country were doing each day and it motivated me to stay active throughout the day,” said Jason Downey, Beachwood High School counselor.

Wendell isn’t done. She still has her eye on running half marathons and full marathons and possibly three marathons in the Step It Up Challenge, though she said she may have to wait another two years.

The Spring Step It Up Challenge will run from March 20th to April 16th. The deadline for registration is March 17, and registration is free. For information, visit https://go.healthactioncouncil.org/l/496131/2022-04-19/ 4hpn2l or contact Noelle Reinhart at [email protected]

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