Reinvent Yourself After Misfortune

These women never knew their own inner strength—until adversity bent and almost broke them. Here's how they got onto the comeback road and started living their dreams.

by Andrea Atkins
reinvent yourself after misfortune
After a devastating accident, Karen Putz gave up barefoot water skiing. Twenty-five years later, she's competing in the sport she loves.
Photograph: Ben Hoffmann

A passion rediscovered

As a teenager, Karen Putz spent every minute of every summer barefoot water skiing at Christie Lake in Lawrence, Michigan. One sunny day, as she crossed the boat’s wake, she caught her toe and slammed into the water. When she climbed back into the boat, she could see her friends’ lips moving but couldn’t hear any sound. “In an instant, I had gone deaf,” she says. Putz was 19.

In college, she at first resisted learning American Sign Language and floundered in class. “I cried night after night,” she says. Eventually, she graduated with a master’s in counseling, married a fellow student and had two sons and a daughter. The family settled in Bolingbrook, Illinois, and Putz went to work for a company that sells communication products for deaf individuals. Her weight ballooned to more than 200 pounds (she’s five foot four). “I was tired all the time and filled myself up with emotional eating,” she says. “I didn’t exercise.” Her life felt flat and joyless.

In the summer of 2009, while her family was visiting her parents’ lake house in Michigan, Putz’s older son asked her about barefoot skiing, and she decided to demonstrate. But as the boat started, Putz found she wasn’t in good enough shape to rise to her feet and ski. She tried again, several times, but all she got was water up her nose. “I was out of breath, and my heart was hammering,” she says. “I figured I’d never be able to ski again.

That fall Putz’s husband came across a Today video on the Web and forwarded the link to her. “The clip showed this heavyset 66-year-old woman, Judy Myers, doing what I once loved doing,” says Putz. Tears ran down her face as she watched. She felt her heart beating hard, this time from excitement. “I played the video over and over and asked myself, What’s my excuse?

Putz learned that Myers had started skiing at age 53. “But I was scared to try again,” she says. “What if I made a fool of myself? How would I communicate with the hearing people on the boat? Did I really want to show my fat self on the water?” Then she asked herself one more question: If you don’t try to ski again, will you regret it for the rest of your life? The answer was yes.

She connected with Myers through Facebook, and the two started chatting. Putz decided to join a health club, and by March 2010 she’d lost 20 pounds by running on a treadmill and skipping dessert. Myers urged Putz to join her at the World Barefoot Center in Winter Haven, Florida, so they could take lessons together. Realizing she could learn the sport’s latest techniques and best practices, Putz agreed and that month attended her first barefoot-skiing class, with instructor Keith St. Onge, a 33-year-old world-champion barefooter. On the first day, he gave his students a lesson on the dock. Putz, who can read lips, watched him intently. Then everyone piled into the boat. Her fellow students, all in better shape than Putz, skied backward, executed one-footed turns and crossed back and forth over the wake. Putz kept debating whether to back out. But in the end, she stunned herself—and impressed the entire group—by successfully “rising up.” She did several runs that day, each a little longer and a little more controlled.

Putz returned to Florida a few more times for instruction, and her skiing improved. She even learned to ski backward. “I didn’t know I had it in me to learn this at age 45,” she says.

As so often happens with people who make one change in their lives, a series of changes followed. Putz, who had always wanted to be a writer, began tweeting about her barefoot experiences, and the Chicago Tribune invited her to be a paid columnist. She scaled back her hours at the communications company and became a part-time mentor for families with deaf babies.

Early in 2011, Putz, by then a size 6 or 8, lined up funding from a number of sponsors (including her ski school, the communications company, the Chicago Tribune and General Motors) to help defray the cost of training for and entering tournaments. At her first competition, in June, she performed a trick called a Flying Dock Start, in which she leaped from the dock into the air as the boat took off, then landed on her butt in the water and bounced along until she pulled herself to a standing position. But her most exciting moment came during the slalom event when she crossed the boat’s wake—the very trick that had caused her fateful stumble 25 years earlier. “I crossed over four times on the first pass and six times on the second pass. I was on cloud nine when I finished,” she says. “Before, I was a gal who had buried her passion deep inside. Putting my feet on the water again gave me back my passion—and a new outlook on life.

The courage to start over

In 1977, Sonya Dakar moved from Israel to California with her husband and their children. Back in her native country, she’d been an aesthetician, so once settled in the U.S., she decided to create her own product line. She concocted lotions and salves in her kitchen and converted her garage into a little skin-care clinic. Word spread quickly, and in 1982 she opened a salon in West Hollywood.

By 2000 the Dakars had their own manufacturing plant, and Sonya Dakar Skin Care products were featured in fashion magazines and on TV shows. Dakar’s husband, Israel, had left his job in construction to help her develop the business, and their four now-adult children worked for the family enterprise.

Then, in 2007, as Dakar was negotiating to open a second skin-care clinic, Israel filed for divorce. “My husband was my first boyfriend,” says Dakar. “We grew together. He helped me by believing in me. We had a shared dream to turn our company into the next Estée Lauder. Then everything shattered.

After the divorce, Israel retained the right to manufacture the company’s products and also received control of Sonyadakar.com. The skin-care clinic and the related website, Sonya dakarskinclinic.com, went to Dakar.The couple’s younger son, Natan, took his father’s side in the split, and the three other children, daughters Mimi and Donna and son Yigal, all went into business with their mother. Dakar had a large inventory of her products at the clinic but was no longer able to restock when necessary.

At night I cried,” she says. “I had lost everything. I kept thinking, What’s next? Where am I going to go?” She spent her days working at the clinic and then would go home and collapse. In the big kitchen, where her family of six had once gathered, she’d nibble at hard-boiled eggs and a salad, then go to sleep. She no longer bothered to open the curtains in her bedroom.

She contracted pneumonia so severe that she was hospitalized for a couple of weeks and had to recuperate in bed at home for a month. Then a request from USA Today to feature her house in its pages motivated Dakar to pull herself out of her slump. Before the photo shoot, she ripped out the home’s English-country decor, replacing it with a sleek, modern look. Renovating the house gave her the confidence to renovate herself. “I thought, I’m not going to be wiped off the earth,” she says. “I’m going to start over. When somebody pushes you to the wall, you have to fight.

Dakar began by launching a line of nutritional supplements (something she’d always wanted to do) and entirely new skin-care products. She researched botanicals and hired chemists and a manufacturer. Previously, she’d had a staff of 25 to do quality control and administration; now she was on her own with a tight budget and three of her children—two of whom lived on the East Coast.

In 2010, Dakar launched her anti-aging line (sold on Sonyadakarskinclinic.com), which contains only botanical and natural ingredients—including, you might say, her own blood, sweat and tears. Her clinic is now housed in a 12,000-square-foot, five-story building in Beverly Hills. In spring 2011 she introduced a new acne treatment. “I wake up in the morning and think, I can really make it. I have two eyes, two legs, a brain,” she says. “My perspective has totally changed. I don’t cry or whimper or ask for pity. I am strong, and when you learn a lesson, life becomes better.”

 

Empowered by Katrina 

After the killer hurricane struck in 2005, all that was left of Sharon Hanshaw’s Biloxi, Mississippi, home and business was nasty, smelly muck. “My car was nowhere to be found. My house looked like something huge threw up in there,” she says. “The floor was gone, and I was standing in a kind of mud I’d never seen before.” Next door, the beauty salon she’d owned for 21 years was also in ruins. Hanshaw, a widow, went to live with a sister in Houston. “But my life was in Mississippi, and I felt like I had to get home,” she says. She returned to a city in chaos, moved in with one of her three daughters and found a temporary position as a clerk for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. She remembers once lying on the floor of her daughter’s house, crying uncontrollably.

Meanwhile, Oxfam America, the international relief organization, focused its first domestic program on the Gulf Coast. Aiming to develop community leaders, Oxfam invited Hanshaw, as the owner of a popular hair salon, to help. “All I knew was that some women were getting together to see what they could do,” Hanshaw says. The group started attending city council meetings, and Hanshaw began to speak up, arguing for better hurricane preparedness and storm-resistant housing. She insisted that residents be included in rebuilding plans. She wrote letters to senators and congressmen. “There were no jobs,” she says. “The only thing people could do was meet. And we were at every meeting.” The group decided it needed a name, and when Hanshaw proposed Coastal Women for Change, everyone agreed. CWC secured a $30,000 grant from the 21st Century Foundation and hired an executive director: Sharon Hanshaw.

Job one was learning to use a computer. The first time she was asked to “Google” a piece of information, she didn’t know what to do. “Not having an education, that was a handicap in my mind,” says Hanshaw, a high school graduate. “I had no idea that you could create, learn and empower yourself and others through your work.” With Oxfam’s help, she turned CWC into a bona fide nonprofit. She created bylaws, put together a board, learned to fund raise and advocate. Her biggest achievement to date: helping to win a lawsuit compelling Mississippi to distribute $132 million from government disaster funds to low-income households. “The people I’ve met as a result of Katrina are amazing,” she says. “I didn’t know there were people in the world like this. And to have my voice be heard, to know how to advocate for others—that is a powerful feeling. I learned that if you fight, you can make a difference.”

 

Andrea Atkins, a frequent contributor to national magazines, lives in Rye, New York.

Find other inspiring Second Acts stories in More magazine’s recently published book, 287 Secrets of Reinventing Your Life (Wiley).

 

Originally published as “I Didn’t Know I Had It In Me”  in the November 2011 issue of More.

 

Related stories: When Life Forces You to Reinvent

 

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First Published Thu, 2011-10-13 09:54

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