Story Untold: “If They’re Going to Beat Me, They’re Going to Spit Blood”

There are origin stories, and then there’s Patti Catalano Dillon’s origin story.

A Hall of Famer and former World and American Record holder for distance running — with titles from everywhere from Montreal, to Honolulu, to Rio de Janeiro — Dillon became the first American woman to break the 2:30 mark in a marathon, and the second woman in the world to reach the mark. A five-time winner of the Ocean State Marathon and runner-up at the New York City and Boston Marathons, she’s been described by the Associated Press as “the queen of U.S. women distance runners.”

Incredibly, she did it after taking up the sport at 23 years old, at a time when she described herself as 40 pounds overweight and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

“I started smoking in the seventh grade, sneaking my dad’s cigarettes — oh, they were horrid,” laughs Dillon.

“I didn’t drink until I was 20. And then I fell into a habit. I went out with the girls after work — I worked the 4-12 shift [at the Quincy City Hospital] and would go out after work […] It became a lifestyle.”

It wasn’t until picking up a book by Dr. Ken Cooper, Aerobics, that Dillon considered running. Her debut came at the local cemetery, where she hoped to avoid being seen.

“I had knee socks, Earth shoes, cutoff jeans with fringe, and I had the neoprene belt […] and I wore three heavy sweatshirts — the kind that don’t breathe,” says Dillon.

“A police car came up and [the officer] asked me, ‘what are you doing?’ […] I thought I was going to be arrested or something. [I got back from my run and] looked in the mirror, and […] I had a white face, red patches, black and maroon circles under my eyes. I thought, no wonder he stopped me; I should be dead!”

“I’m sweating, and I’m breathing hard, and I’m spitting up brown phlegm. I’m cleaning out my lungs. Every run is hard.” – Patti Catalano Dillon

She fell in love, and soon enough, she was winning marathons — for a time, still hanging on to her old habits.

“I lived in two worlds; I lived in the running world for a couple hours a day, and then I lived in my world — and, you know, you wake up in the morning; the ashtray’s right there; you have your pack of cigarettes. I never connected the two,” she laughs.

By the late 1970s, Dillon was one of the best distance runners on the planet. Profiles began in People magazine, Sports Illustrated, and on ABC News. In a span from 1976-1981, she won five Ocean State Marathons, four consecutive Honolulu Marathons — setting a course record each time — and five Newport Marathons.

“If people are there, and they’re cheering me on, I’m going to do everything I can to make you happy — and so that means looking good and running fast,” she laughs.

“It was thrilling for me; it was exciting, and I fed off of it […] If I had to go through a brick wall to get it, gosh, I was gonna do it.”

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Story Untold: “I Want to Live Every Moment to the Fullest”

Mike Prosserman knows a thing or two about learning on his feet.

After falling in love with the freestyling nature of breakdancing at a young age, Prosserman began travelling the world as one of Canada’s top breakers by the time he reached high school.

Now the founder and executive director of UNITY Charity, Prosserman — also known as “Bboy Piecez” — has applied that same do-it-yourself ethos to turning what started as a high school project into a nonprofit dedicated to empowering youth through hip-hop and self-expression. The charity is celebrating its 10-year anniversary in 2017.

Listen to the podcast: “I Want to Live Every Moment to the Fullest”

“I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to connect with people all over the world and get to know all sorts of different folks who probably never would have crossed my path if it wasn’t for breaking,” says Prosserman.

“For me, [breakdancing] was an outlet – it was a community for me that I felt accepted by, and the real thing to me was [that] people appreciated me for something that I thought was cool myself.”

Prosserman found hip-hop at a pivotal time in his adolescence. His mother was dealing with schizophrenia, and breakdancing provided an outlet to sort through his emotions.

“To me, breakdancing was that core rock that I had. My crew was that core family in addition to my dad and my mom. Hip-hop culture really uniquely became a part of my life.” – Mike Prosserman

“My head was all over the place, and I really didn’t have any clear direction,” says Prosserman.

“My dad was really thankfully supportive, and he helped me through a lot of that stuff. For anyone who knows him, he was the b-boy dad who showed up to battles wearing graffiti hats and [was] always taking me to events. If he didn’t support me to get into breaking, I don’t think I would’ve ever really fit into any particular scene, and I probably would’ve gotten lost with everything else I had going on in my life.”

Prosserman quickly developed a knack for his newfound passion and began travelling to competitions around his hometown of Toronto — never mind if he was too young to get into the clubs where the competitions were held.

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“It’s interesting to think back on it now, because in the moment, it was this feeling of pure adrenaline,” he says.

“It felt kind of like a superhero at times […] You’re almost in control of this emotion that everyone together is feeling. It’s like nothing I could ever describe. It’s just this really, really freaking cool feeling — and it’s not an ego thing, it’s just this feeling that people really appreciate you and are genuinely on the edge of their seats [waiting to see] what’s going to happen next.”

“You could get the crowd to literally just lose it, just by showing them something they’d never seen before. That was, as a young person going through all this stuff, the most important feeling that I could’ve had at the time, because it was reaffirming to me that something I was doing was good.” – Mike Prosserman

Prosserman wanted to share that feeling with others, and in time, the seeds of UNITY were planted. He started an event in high school called Hip-Hop Away from Violence, in support of a local charity, and it eventually progressed into a club at York University.

Around the same time, Prosserman was diagnosed with fused vertebrae — a condition that cut him off from the one thing he loved most: breakdancing. After forging an identity as a master of headspins, suddenly, he had to give up his most powerful tool.

“It’s really hard to describe the moment where someone tells you [that] you can’t do the thing you’re most excited about doing,” says Prosserman.

Faced with the diagnosis, he rededicated himself to building UNITY as a nonprofit, fostering connections with emcees, breakdancers, spoken word artists, and creatives all across the country. The goal was no longer to be the best in the field; it was to give other people the same outlet he drew strength from. He also reinvented his style as a breakdancer.

“It put things into perspective. It wasn’t about being that competitive b-boy. That wasn’t the point. It was this community that I became a part of […] For me, that was the true value of this dance for me,” says Prosserman.

“It is quite dangerous to dance with the condition that I have. But I decided at the end of the day, I need to live my life, and I want to live every moment to the fullest. And if dancing isn’t part of my life, it’s just not the same.” – Mike Prosserman

Some might have balked at the idea of getting a charity off the ground and running, but Prosserman was undeterred.

“I spend 90% of my time doing stuff, and 10% of [my time] thinking about that stuff,” he says.

“And that was really what made UNITY successful — not sitting at home, writing the best business plan or talking about weird buzzwords […] We’ve gotta get ourselves out into this world doing stuff.”

After 10 years, UNITY has developed into a national nonprofit, reaching 75,000 youth across Canada. Programs run in cities across the country, and each year, the charity hosts a free festival in Toronto, offering a platform for aspiring artists to showcase their talents.

“There’s nothing more worth it,” says Prosserman. “Even if we stop tomorrow, I will forever be thankful.”

Photo of Mike Prosserman from Instagram (@bboypiecez). Photo by imad.x.

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Story Untold: “Everything Happens for a Reason”

Kay Okafor’s path to the CFL is about as unlikely as they come. Born and raised in Nigeria, the 6’4″, 275 lb lineman only came to learn about football after moving halfway across the world to attend university in Prince Edward Island, Canada.

At the time, Okafor’s plans for his life lay far away from the gridiron. He arrived as an 18-year-old on the path to medical school, with little idea of what life in Canada would be like. His hometown of Enugu — and all he had ever known — lay 8,000 kilometres away.

“I got to Canada in August, and I had a winter jacket on when I got to the airport,” Okafor laughs. “My cousin picked me up, and he made me change in the airport — he made me take it off and put on some warmer [weather] clothes.”

“I’ve definitely learned that situations can make anyone mature just like that. I left home at 18, so I had to mature very quick[ly].” – Kay Okafor

Back in Nigeria, Okafor had grown up a fan of basketball — idolizing Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. An unsuccessful tryout for UPEI’s basketball team ended those hoop dreams, but one of the players on the team introduced him to football.

“When I watched the game at first, I didn’t get it,” he says. “Just a bunch of helmets going at each other — that’s what it looked like from the stands — and for someone who just came from Nigeria, it didn’t make any sense.”

Nevertheless, he ended up on a football field and discovered he had a knack for it. A year after suiting up at Holland College, he was off to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, a prized recruit of the X-Men. He found his footing in his first two seasons, averaging a tackle a game as his team finished 3-5 and 4-4, capped by a crushing 29-7 loss in the 2014 Loney Bowl to Mount Allison University.

In that moment, a determined Okafor vowed to his teammates that he’d finish the job next year — a promise he’d make good on twice in the ensuing years. As his X-Men returned to two more consecutive Atlantic University Sport championship games, winning them both over Mount Allison, Okafor doubled his defensive output. By the time his career at St. FX had ended, Okafor had completed or assisted on 41 tackles. He would also be named a Top 20 CFL Prospect and invited to the Minnesota Vikings’ NFL Regional Combine.

Nothing felt as good as that first Loney Bowl win, though.

“I never cried so much until I started playing football,” says Okafor. “There’s this thing about the emotions — which is why I fell in love with the game — this family, brotherhood that I felt.”

For Okafor, the brotherhood aspect was important — after leaving his home country for university, he spent the next six years away from family.

“I’ve definitely learned that situations can make anyone mature just like that. I left home at 18, so I had to mature very quick[ly],” he says.

He finally reunited with family when he walked across the stage at his graduation — his father flew in from Nigeria for the ceremony. That same weekend, he was drafted 21st overall by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.

“It’s been a blessing. I’ve just been blessed with the opportunities and the people I’ve met along the way. It’s been a journey, for sure,” says Okafor.

“My plan was to study sciences and get to med school, and now, six years later, I’ve been drafted by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats […] It’s been amazing.”

Photo from Kay Okafor via Facebook.

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Story Untold: “I Wanted to See If I Could Hack It [Living on Mars]”

Want to know what it’s like to live on Mars? Ask Martha Lenio.

The Waterloo, Ont. native spent eight months simulating life on the red planet as part of a NASA HI-SEAS experiment in 2014-15. Along with seven other would-be astronauts, Lenio lived in a dome on a volcano in Hawaii, only venturing outside in a mock spacesuit to perform EVAs (extravehicular activities).

The researchers ate freeze-dried and dehydrated foods, conducted experiments, and learned to get along in a 1,000 sq. ft. enclosure — all while being studied by six different research groups.

“What they’re trying to get at is how you pick a crew and support a crew for these long-duration isolated space missions without, you know, everyone going crazy and killing each other,” says Lenio.

“I wanted to see if I could hack it. I thought, mentally, I could do it — and in the end, I could, so that was good. I also thought it would be fun, though, to get to pick my own research project to be working on in the dome, to be involved with NASA research, and hopefully contribute towards a human space mission to Mars in the future. I’m also really into sustainable living, so off-grid, recycling everything, limited water, limited power — so that part was really fun, too.”

“Before going in, I was like, ‘I know why I want to do this, and I’m a normal person, but all these other people who want to live in a dome for eight months must be [weird] people.” – Martha Lenio

Lenio, who has a doctorate in Photovoltaic Engineering from the University of New South Wales, ended up serving as mission commander.

“I never thought I was a terribly strong leader, but as the [training] week progressed, you learned that there are different kinds of leaders, and different types of leadership styles, and I’m more of a lead-from-behind, make sure everyone’s okay kind of person,” she says.

“And I learned that’s a totally valid leadership style, and that maybe, for this kind of mission, you want someone who’s pretty hands-off and capable of bringing out the best in other people.”

“It was really good, actually, that they took us on [a] camping trip [beforehand],” Lenio adds, “because before going in, I was like, ‘I know why I want to do this, and I’m a normal person, but all these other people who want to live in a dome for eight months must be [weird] people.”

From October 2014 until June 2015, the eight researchers were continually monitored and tested for body language, interaction, and other indicators of stress and morale.

“What they’re trying to get at is how you pick a crew and support a crew for these long duration isolated space missions without, you know, everyone going crazy and killing each other.” – Martha Lenio

“Astronauts tend to be very stoic — you know, they want to go to space — and so sometimes, they’re not very honest,” says Lenio.

“So if you ask them, ‘how’s everything going?’ they’ll be like, ‘everything’s fine; I can do the work,’ and they’ll keep saying [that] until all of a sudden, it’s not fine, and then it’s really, really bad.”

“All our communications were on a 20-minute delay,” she adds, “so you could email mission support or your family, but it would take 20 minutes for that email to get there, and then if they decided to reply, it would be [another] 20 minutes for a response. So it’s like 40 minutes to an hour round-trip for a conversation.”

For Lenio, the dream of becoming an astronaut started as early as Grade 8. Earlier this year, she made it to a shortlist of 72 candidates in line to become Canada’s next astronaut, surviving a pool of 3,700 candidates.

As for whether she’s eager to sign up for a life on Mars?

“We’re not there yet,” says Lenio.

“People talk about colonizing Mars; we’re not going to colonize Mars. We don’t know how to sustainably live on Earth, and Earth recycles everything for us. We don’t have to do anything, and Earth will take care of itself. On Mars, you have to do everything, and we don’t have that figured out.”

Photo credit: Neil Scheibelhut

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Story Untold: “It’s Bigger Than Mental Health; It’s More About Politics”

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He’s been dubbed “the most important basketball player alive.”

Royce White may not be suiting up for an NBA franchise, but his advocacy for mental health — and his outspokenness on the league’s lack of a mental health policy — made him a household name long before he was drafted 16th overall by the Houston Rockets in 2012.

These days, the 6’8″ Iowa State alum calls London, Ontario home, having recently been named MVP of the National Basketball League of Canada. His London Lightning are in the playoffs after a record-setting season in which White posted the most triple-doubles in league history. Three years after his NBA career came to an end with the Sacramento Kings, the Minnesota native’s unique skills — the combination of a point guard’s vision and a center’s power — are still there.

It’s his willingness to talk about his battle with mental illness, however, that makes him a rarity beyond the basketball court — the athlete unafraid of taking on the big brass, even if it costs him millions in lost potential earnings.

“Philosophy is seen as a distraction in a league that’s about hyper-competitiveness and tunnel vision. I’m talking big ideas that we don’t see eye-to-eye on, and [the NBA] knew that. That conversation [about mental health] became a conduit of just how different we are politically.” – Royce White

White deals with general anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, diagnoses he received at 17 but traces all the way back to childhood.

“I [remember] having [panic attacks] as a young child — eight, nine — on my way to a basketball game and throwing up in the morning,” he says.

As a kid, one of White’s best friends collapsed in front of him while running conditioning drills at basketball practice and ended up in hospital. His heart had given out.

“He just collapsed. Drooling, couldn’t breathe, clearly in pain,” says White. “Dad was the assistant coach, picked him up, put him in the ambulance, followed the ambulance to the hospital… spinal tap. Nine years old […] I still have panic attacks to this day, and my first reaction is still that they’re heart attacks.”

At Iowa State, White earned First Team All-Big 12 honours, becoming the only player in the country to lead his team in all five major statistical categories: points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks. White feels his public history of mental illness and a growing narrative surrounding his fear of flying, however, led NBA general managers to cool on him as Draft Day approached.

“The media is so good at what they do that headlines have become a beast that even they can’t control,” says White. “Twitter took that and put it on steroids, because it became all headlines. And I actually happened to get drafted into the NBA when Twitter was really starting to boom.”

“David Stern, at one point, didn’t want to meet with me, but he told me to stay off of Twitter. And it really pissed me off, because two or three nights before, I had a 13-year-old girl tell me that she had attempted suicide before, [but] that she was inspired by my story and it gave her hope.” – Royce White

“I was clearly one or two [of the best prospects], and they were talking about me possibly getting drafted late in the second round. I mean, how [expletive] absurd is that? It’s clearly about mental health,” he adds.

He ended up missing the opening of NBA training camp with the Rockets, waiting for the franchise to draft a plan for addressing his mental health concerns. Part of it surrounded finding ways to minimize the number of flights he would need to take, but as White tells the story, it had more to do with the NBA providing team doctors the ability to make decisions without influence from general managers. White felt his political views only separated the gulf between him and the league.

“Philosophy is seen as a distraction in a league that’s about hyper-competitiveness and tunnel vision,” says White. “I’m talking big ideas that we don’t see eye-to-eye on, and [the NBA] knew that. That conversation [about mental health] became a conduit of just how different we are politically.”

White’s once-promising NBA career ended after just three games, his debut coming 631 days — and on his third team — after the NBA Draft. His final NBA career log: three minutes of floor time.

“That time period put a lot of things in perspective,” he says.

“[Then-NBA commissioner] David Stern, at one point, didn’t want to meet with me, but he told me to stay off of Twitter. And it really pissed me off, because two or three nights before, I had a 13-year-old girl tell me that she had attempted suicide before, [but] that she was inspired by my story and it gave her hope.”

These days, White feels at home with the Lightning, enjoying his longest stretch of basketball since he suited up as a college player. The team finished the regular season at 35-5, and the former Cyclone talks glowingly about the journey he’s been on with his new teammates.

White estimates in the years since he went public about his experience with anxiety, he’s heard from thousands about their own mental health journeys.

“I see mental health as the way that we think and we feel, and the way that we interact with each other — every day,” says White. “It’s given me a profound connection with the common struggle, and ultimately, death […] When you have panic attacks, and you feel like you’re going to die, your brain tells itself that it’s going to die. You look death in the face. You know when people say near-death experience? People with panic attacks have that all the time.”

Photo from Royce White via Instagram (@the.last.renaissance).

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Story Untold: “Everybody Has Their Own Journey”

When I was in my first year of university, I met a man who would ultimately shape the course of my life.

As then-program director at 94.9 CHRW, Adulis Mokanan was responsible for training would-be volunteers on how to get involved at the campus radio station. As host and founder of The Come Up Show, however, Mokanan — better known as Chedo — had established himself as one of the leading Canadian voices in hip-hop journalism — interviewing the likes of J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar.

I had resolved myself during my second semester to get involved with 94.9 CHRW and get some hands-on experience before the rest of my broadcast journalism classmates. In walked Chedo to my training session, and it was like a sign from above.

I started shadowing him during his Saturday evening radio shows, and it wasn’t long after that I started writing and doing interviews of my own for The Come Up Show — meeting and picking the brains of countless of my favourite musicians.

As many artists as I’ve spoken to, though, I’ve got a long way to catch up with Chedo. Having interviewed over 500 artists in his decade in the music industry, during which The Come Up Show has been recognized by CBC Music as one of the ’10 Canadian music blogs you need to be reading,’ he’s learned one lesson:

“Everyone has their own path. Somebody can tell you everything that they know, but you’ve still gotta figure it out for yourself.”

Listen to my conversation with him here.

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Story Untold: “I am the Luckiest Man on Earth”

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Spend an hour with Mike Farwell, and you come to learn there are many sides to the man.

There’s the morning show host who can’t resist a joke at his own expense. As Farwell tells it, radio is the only thing he ever wanted to do with his life.

“I got into radio for one reason, and one reason only, and that’s because I loved the medium — I was fascinated by it,” he says. “I never had any illusions about anybody knowing my name. I never had any illusions about people even listening to what I do; I just wanted to get a job at a radio station.”

There’s the Kitchener Rangers broadcaster who grew up listening to, and then working with, Don Cameron — an experience he still describes as a dream.

“[He] was the soundtrack to my hockey youth,” says Farwell.

There’s the community servant, always eager to emcee an event. And there’s the brother who lost two sisters to cystic fibrosis — and still thinks of them over twenty years later. Each May, Farwell devotes himself to raising funds for Cystic Fibrosis Canada — offering his services through his #Farwell4Hire campaign. Last year, he raised over $40,000 for the cause.

“[My sisters] got robbed of the last twenty years that I’ve had to try to do something,” says Farwell. “So that’s why I do it.”

“My older sister [was] 24 years old,” he says. “Nine months later, losing my little sister at the age of 18 was excruciating. So I kind of went into a hole for awhile.”

Two quotes pulled Farwell out of his funk and drove him to using his platform as a radio personality to make a difference.

“[Former radio personality Neil Aitchison] brought out a quote: ‘Community service is the rent we pay for the space we occupy.’ And I’ve never forgotten that,” he says.

The other one, says Farwell, came from a book written by baseball great Roberto Clemente:

“[He said,] ‘A person who has the ability to help others and fails to do so has wasted his life.’ […] I honestly started thinking: what could I possibly do to help other people?”

“I am so grateful to this community,” says Farwell. “It’s taken care of me all my life, and I can’t help but want to give back to it.”


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