If there’s one thing you should know about Rebecca Wanagel, it’s that she doesn’t quit…ever.
She doesn't slow down. She doesn’t stop, and she certainly doesn’t let cancer get in her way. Talk to anyone who knows her and you’ll hear the same line, “Rebecca is amazing.” Shawn Sinskie, owner of Rebecca’s home affiliate, CrossFit ThunderRidge, admires her by saying, “There are some people in the world who can make you realize that no matter what hand you are dealt, adversity you face we can always learn and grow from it and inspire someone to fight with all their might no matter what. Rebecca is one of those people.”
Rebecca was leading a normal, active life in June of 2017, when she found a lump. She was leading her physically demanding life of CrossFit, volunteer trail work, backpacking, and yardwork on the 10 acres she caretakes, without any problems. She describes finding the tumor has “happenstance” and “thus began the journey.”
Rebecca works as a private tutor, doing mostly math with kids of all ages. She adores all of her kids and truly cares about each and every one of them. When it comes to her teaching style, she says, “One cannot take life - or math - too seriously!” When she’s not molding the minds of kiddos, she’s doing volunteer trail work in the mountains, something she is extremely passionate about. She says, “my spirit comes mostly to life in the mountains, most especially the Olympics - my backyard.”
Volunteering and spending time in the mountains gives Rebecca purpose. She discovered trail work a number of years ago through a group called Thursday Trail Crew. She’s made lifelong friends there and learned new skills for building and maintaining trails. It’s when she discovered the Washington Trails Association, however, she says, “that’s when my life took a serious turn.” Luckily, this was a positive one!
“I started doing day work parties with WTA all over the Olympic Peninsula, and eventually morphed into doing mostly their "BCRT" trips, which stands for Backcountry Response Team. Those are the volunteer crews who head into the backcountry for many days on end, self-supported plus carrying the necessary tools. They can be very tough trips, but there is no other way to get the trails maintained that are too far in for day trips.
After doing this for a while, I became an Assistant Crew Leader for WTA where I learned more and more about all aspects of trail work Mostly, though, I began to specialize in what we call logouts. That's where we go into the backcountry and clear the downed trees off the trails, of which there is never a shortage due to the rugged terrain and climate we have on this Peninsula. WTA does not use chain saws, we use crosscut saws. I learned and learned, and eventually became a sawyer certified by the Forest Service, which meant I would lead saw teams. After a long time and hundreds more trees, I eventually became "C" certified, which means I can saw any tree off the trail that I deem I can do safely. Now, I have become an official Sawyer Instructor / Evaluator and will help both WTA and Backcountry Horsemen by teaching and certifying others in the skill of bucking trees.
Somewhere along the line I became Chief Crew Leader for WTA. Now I lead volunteer crews all throughout the Olympic National Park and Olympic National Forest and some in the Cascades, keeping those trails open so we don't lose them. Being a Chief Crew Leader is a tremendous amount of work but I love it all. This past season, I even started doing some volunteer work for the National Park outside of WTA. My friend and I use a chain saw for that work, which is a nice changeup, much as I love keeping the art of crosscut sawing alive.”
Rebecca’s passion for teaching and the outdoors is evident to those around her. Longtime friend and coach, Rob Mason, describes her by saying, “Rebecca 's true passion is the outdoors! Almost every weekend she is in the backcountry of the PNW working on improving the trail system. She leads a trail crew here and, with that, she is a natural leader. People listen, respect and look up to her. She is also passionate about teaching kids and teens math, and helping them improve and prepare for the next steps in life. I've seen Rebecca more excited about improvements in one of her students grades than her own PR's in the gym.”
CrossFit ThunderRidge has played a big part in helping Rebecca keep her spirits up with fist bumps, hugs, and joining her for the last reps of her workout. “They totally supported me and cheered me on even when I was scaled way way way back and gasping for air at that. The coaches kept a watchful eye on me, but did not fuss and worry - just supported me. They always told me they were glad I was there.” She compared her workouts during chemo to a marathon. “It's like when you're running a marathon and you're about to bonk - but then suddenly there's a crowd of people you love just going wild, believing in you. Doesn't that just give you that extra kick of energy you needed?” When it comes to effort, Rebecca never slows down. Gym owner, Shaw, says, “She hasn’t changed one bit. She gives 100%, whether she’s at 100% or not.”
Rebecca doesn’t let any obstacle stand in her way. In fact, she’s been overcoming one all her life. Rebecca is 100% deaf. “My life growing up was as a profoundly hearing impaired person, I lost the little hearing I had when I decided it was time for cochlear implants. It is a personality shaper to grow up in your own part of the Venn Diagram of life: not a part of any Deaf culture because I had a tiny bit of hearing, but not at all a full and functional part of the hearing world.” Her implants allow her to function in the hearing world. She credits her independent spirit to living with a hearing disability. “having a hearing disability like I do doesn't have to stop anyone from living life to the very fullest. That's what I choose.”
There is one particular photo that comes up every time there’s a conversation about Rebecca. The photo of her drinking coffee on top of Mt. Olympus was shot by one of her friends on the last day of a multi-day trip to the mountains. “During that time, because I had just lost my hair and was self-conscious about the bald head plus the implants on prominent display, I had worn a scarf or a hat the entire time. That morning, as we were getting ready to hike out, I decided "aw, the heck with it," took off the scarf and sat to enjoy the phenomenal view. It's sorta like giving cancer the middle finger.”
Having finished chemo and a recent mastectomy, Rebecca is cancer free! This outcome only happens to roughly 25% of people with her form of cancer, but she’s beaten the odds! In her usual, positive spirit she commented, “I'm already thinking about how having no breasts will make it easier to keep the bar close to the body during cleans and snatches. Ha! There's a good side to everything if you look hard enough!”