Jaywalking: Wasileski coping with demons

  • Relieved Greenfield native Eric Wasileski cools off after finishing his first Greenfield Lightlife Triathlon. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

  • Greenfield native Eric Wasileski was upbeat following the 34th Greenfield Lightlife Triathlon. contributed photo

  • Greenfield Lightlife Triathlon finisher and Greenfield native Eric Wasileski displays his post-race mug after finishing his first race. contributed photo

Monday, August 07, 2017

There was little fanfare when Eric Wasileski crossed the finish line during Sunday’s Greenfield Lightlife Triathlon.

Only a handful of people were still at the Green River Swimming & Recreation Area as Wasileski turned left from Colrain Road onto Nash’s Mill Road for the final 100 yards of the run. The awards’ ceremony had long-since ended. The podium where the overall and age-group winners were announced after the race had already been dismantled. Lifeguards and volunteers were already well on their way to dismantling the make-shift fences that went up to section off the transition and finish-line areas.

The only people who were still hanging around were volunteers who had been literally working since sun-up on Sunday morning to prepare the race. A dozen or so were eating the remainder of the lasagna that was handed out post-race to those who participated in the 34th annual running of the event. Someone mentioned that there was still one person on the course and he was heading for home. At that point, several volunteers decided to head toward the finish line to cheer the man on.

When Wasileski finally finished the International race — which consists of a .63-mile swim, 30.28-mile bike and 7.19-mile run — he was not alone. The small cheering section of volunteers greeted the 45-year-old Shelburne Falls’ resident as he crossed the line shortly before 1 p.m., clocking in with a time of 4 hours, 30 minutes, 57.4 seconds.

To see the look on Wasileski’s face was not to look at someone who had come in last. You could have mistaken the smile for that of a winner. Wasileski not only smiled as he crossed the line, he took an ice bath in a small swimming pool that had previously been used to keep waters cold for those participants who had long since left the facility. He then made his way over to the stage, where the post-race awards ceremony had taken place, and continued to smile as race organizer Rick Roy presented him with a mug for finishing second in the two-person Clydsedale Division.

And when you spoke to Wasileski, you finally understood what the smile was for.

“Triathlons are better than suicide,” Wasileski said.

And just like that, everything made sense.

Wasileski was born in Greenfield and grew up on Lunt Drive, which is just off of Plain Road, one of the main roads used by triathlon competitors. He said that when he was younger, he remembered seeing participants biking and running during the triathlon, and he vowed to one day do the event.

“In high school, I was out there for the first triathlon and I promised myself when it went by that I was going to do it someday,” he said. “So I kept a promise to myself today.”

After graduating from GHS (class of 1990), Wasileski went into the Army National Guard and later joined the Navy. He found himself in Europe (Yugoslavia) in 1996, and in 1998 was part of Operation Desert Fox in Iraq. It was during his time in Iraq that his life changed forever.

“I have (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder),” Wasileski said. “The action in Europe didn’t affect me. I didn’t see it, I didn’t smell it, I wasn’t near it. The action in Iraq did. The moment it happened I knew. Something inside of me changed. It took me a long time to realize it, come to terms with it, accept it. That was half my life ago and here I am still dealing with it. But I’m dealing with it in a healthy way now. I stopped drinking and stopped doing a lot of the other things I was doing.”

Wasileski said his battle has not only been with PTSD, but also about with what he called “Moral Injury.”

“PTSD is when something shocking happens to you, moral injury is when you do something shocking to somebody else,” he explained. “It’s the same part of the brain, but there’s a subtle difference. There’s a reason why 22 (veterans) a day are killing themselves.”

After spending years trying to cope with depression, Wasileski finally found a way to deal with the pain in a healthy way, and he found it in an unusual place.

“I was painting a house and in the motion of painting I was attacked by a couple of poems,” he said smiling. “I wrote them down and a week after that I heard about Warrior Writers. I’ve been with them now for about five years.”

Wasileski said that Warrior Writers is a group of veterans who come together to use art as a way of expressing the things that don’t normally get expressed — the things that no one talks about. Philadelphia-based, the organization is celebrating its 10th year this year. Wasileski has been with it for five. He said that the last anthology put out by Warrior Writers had contributions from 40 veterans, while the upcoming anthology — due out in November — already has entries submitted by 100 veterans.

Another outlet that Wasileski turned to in order to fight off depression was exercise. He said that he began running this past April, and in June decided to participate in the triathlon. The next day he went out and bought a bike and has been training ever since.

For most beginners, doing the Sprint race would have been enough. It’s half as long as the International, but still plenty grueling. Wasileski said it just wasn’t enough for him.

“I wanted to challenge myself and I didn’t want to wonder if I could do it,” he explained. “Now, I know I can.”

During his time on the course, Wasileski said he began putting the pieces together for his latest poem, including the opening line, “Triathlons are better than suicide.”

You certainly would never have known that Wasileski was battling depression when he crossed the finish line. The smile remained on his face well after he crossed the line and took his plunge into the ice-bath.

“I felt good,” he said of finishing. “I’m smiling. I’m not on the couch, moping. This is a healthy coping mechanism, and so is my art, and I work hard at both. There are so many people who don’t make it, and I feel like I’m the voice for them. I feel that burden.”

As for advice for others who may be in his shoes.

“Develop healthy coping mechanisms,” he began. “Exercise changes your body chemistry. It gets you up off the couch and out into the world. It’s hard to be depressed when you get your endorphins going. If you do it yourself, you don’t have to get the drugs, which cause as many problems as they help alleviate. The side effects of exercise are all positive. You look better and feel better.”

The Greenfield Triathlon has always featured the motto, “To finish is to win,” and little did anyone know that on Sunday, that statement may have meant the most to its final finisher.

“I set a goal for myself and I followed through with it and I did it,” Wasileski concluded. “There is no better feeling than when you succeed at something you challenge yourself to do.”

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com. Like him on Facebook and leave your feedback at www.facebook.com/jaybutynski.