Together, apart: connection through physical challenge

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News Article / March 30, 2021

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By Camille Douglas 

In a year defined as unprecedented, a military move is less than ideal. For a service couple being posted to a city in lockdown, things may seem overwhelming.

Captain Rebecca Wheaton-Sparkes and Major Teesha Wheaton-Sparkes arrived at 1 Canadian Air Division (1 CAD) Headquarters in Winnipeg, Manitoba, during the peak of the pandemic lockdown. Maj Wheaton-Sparkes joined A4 Log and began work while physically distanced from her team. The virtual water cooler talk revolved around COVID-19 and the challenges of continuing physical fitness routines, critical to maintaining soldiering abilities. Gyms were restricted or closed, and most Defence Team members were working from home.

“We’ve had to find new ways to adapt as soldiers,” explains Maj Michael Duong. “We decided to ‘stick it to COVID’, showing we can achieve our physical training goals regardless of restrictions and barriers created by the pandemic.”

Maj Duong signed up for a social media 4x4x48 Challenge, taking place on March 5, 2021. For 48 hours, participants committed to walking or running four miles (6.4 km) every four hours. The aim of the challenge, launched by a retired Navy SEAL, was to provide people around the world with an opportunity to come together.

As Maj Duong started recruiting his team, he soon realized that he hit the jackpot when Maj Wheaton-Sparkes joined A4 Log. His new colleague and her service partner happened to be high-level athletes keen to embrace physically demanding challenges. Better yet, Maj Wheaton-Sparkes is a consummate planner who was searching for connection during the lockdown. She agreed to lead the team through their social media journey, a critical element of the 4x4x48 Challenge.

With three other members, Master Warrant Officer Ken Reynolds, Lieutenant Stéphane Rodrigue, and Capt Shelly Simms, team COVID-off and Soldier On was born. The six members of the team, aged 36 to 61, have over 114 years combined service in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). Their charity of choice, Soldier On, was a natural fit since it supports ill and injured military members and veterans in overcoming their injuries through sport and activity.

“Donations directly help ill and injured members who really need it,” adds Maj Duong. “We were taking back our freedom of movement through physical training, and needed the help of donors to appreciate that the human spirit is greater than we all may think.”

Capt Rebecca Wheaton-Sparkes and Maj Teesha Wheaton-Sparkes called upon a pair of ultra-athletes, friends from a Comox posting, to develop the team’s six-week training program.

“Capt Mallory Pullman and Master Corporal Chris Pullman provided valuable information on nutrition, training ideas and suggestions, and shared their knowledge and advice on how to succeed at ultra-events,” says Capt Wheaton-Sparkes. Winnipeg is widely accepted as one of the coldest cities in Canada, and the March 5 event date meant training through January and February. Most of the members of the team ran outside and alone. “Our team wasn’t able to run together because of COVID-19, but we established a connection and maintained it throughout, via WhatsApp,” said Capt Wheaton-Sparkes. “If I can get others to just start moving, or set a goal they never thought possible, or demonstrate what your mind and body is truly capable of, then it’s all money in the bank!”

The 4x4x48 Challenge kicked off Friday, March 5 with people around the world starting their four miles every four hours for 48 hours. With three children under five at home, and a partner working 24-hour shifts, Capt Simms had to delay her start to 10 p.m. so she could get her kids to bed. The members of the team were in constant contact via WhatsApp throughout the entire challenge, continuously chatting with each other to provide words of encouragement, or on day two, a listening ear to vent. Capt Rebecca Wheaton-Sparkes and Maj Teesha Wheaton-Sparkes used social media to promote the event over the 48 hours, going live on Facebook at the start of each leg. “The support we got was astonishing,” says Maj Wheaton-Sparkes. “We raised an additional $1,400 during the actual 48 hours of the challenge.”

Capt Simms proved that she was "Supermom", carrying her child while running on her treadmill. MWO Reynolds and Lt Rodrigue shared disgusting pictures of their feet as the distance took a toll, and Maj Duong shared an ad from the local buy and sell for a walker that he was seriously considering putting an offer in on.

“This was a way for us all to stay connected despite being apart,” says Maj Wheaton-Sparkes. “It kept us all accountable. We knew we had to report in after each leg, so not finishing was not an option. The team was counting on you!” The participants all agreed that the most disappointing part of the challenge was not being able to eat what they wanted after. “We each had a delicious meal planned, but only one of us was able to eat everything they wanted. I think our bodies were too stressed out!” Capt Wheaton-Sparkes and Maj Wheaton-Sparkes planned on having burgers and fries with a victory banana split, but they couldn’t even finish their fries.

Soldier on – together, apart

Soldier On is a program of the CAF that contributes to the recovery of ill and injured members and veterans by providing opportunities and resources through sport, recreational, and creative activities. Managed by Support Our Troops and Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services, donations come from generous Canadians, members of the CAF, small businesses, corporations, and organizations.

When Krista Séguin, Soldier On’s regional coordinator in the National Capital Region, heard that six members at 1 CAD Headquarters were set to do the 4x4x48 Challenge, it was not surprising that the team was raising funds for Soldier On. After all, she had a previous connection to two members of the team. “I have known Rebecca and Teesha for several years and have always known them to accept a challenge, especially if it involves challenging the body and mind,” Krista shares. “They are both so strong and I credit both of them for re-introducing me to sport - volleyball specifically. They helped me gain back my confidence when it comes to sport after an injury that I sustained in the CAF.”

“Our program provides support by helping members acquire sporting or recreational equipment through our grant,” Krista explains. “We facilitate participation in local or national sporting, recreational or creative activities, and connect members to our social media sport and recreation communities.” Soldier On can also provide short-term financial support to remove barriers to reclaiming an active lifestyle.

Throughout the pandemic, Soldier On has communicated that although members may be apart, recovery and support doesn’t have to happen alone. The 4x4x48 Challenge exemplified this. “I think the amount of support the team received highlights this mantra,” Krista observes. “The challenge was remarkable, but it was so encouraging and special to see how many of the team’s friends and supporters opened their wallets and connected with them virtually.”

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