This time of year all I can think of is two things: maple everything and tattoos. It’s a little weird, but let me explain. The maple is because the end of summer for our family means an annual pilgrimage to Mont Tremblant, where even the money smells like maple syrup. The tattoos require a bit more time to explain.
For me, triathlon and tattoos are a thing. My tattoo story and my triathlon story go hand-in-hand. In general, we can agree it’s a thing for many people. M-Dot tattoos to commemorate Ironman finishes, swim-bike-run variations, distances…an endless array of ink. But the two are almost inseparable for me.
I found triathlon on a quest to be healthy after a catastrophic infection from breast augmentation surgery. It’s taken me many years to be so blunt about what happened and, for a long time, it was something I never spoke about.
Eight years ago, after the birth of my second daughter, I decided to seek breast augmentation surgery. Breastfeeding two children 18 months apart had taken a toll on my body, especially my breasts, and it made me feel embarrassed. In retrospect, I’d love to take it all back. My husband, my friends, everyone told me it was fine, but I didn’t listen. The ordeal ended with several months of surgeries, a severe septic infection, and ultimately the loss of my entire right breast and a significant portion of my left as well. I was sickly, weak and weighed less than 100 pounds.
Once my surgical incisions healed, I picked up swimming. I was too fatigued to do much else, so I’d wake up in the morning and swim a few laps in the pool. Eventually, I noticed my swim would end around the time spin class started. At first, I’d get tired and winded after 10 minutes in spin class, but I kept at it until finally I could complete the whole class. One day, I saw a flier in the gym for a triathlon. It was a “super sprint.” I signed up for the race, I did it, and I was hooked. Over the years my body got healthier and the races got longer. I no longer cared about being “botched” and I started searching for a non-surgical option to cover my scars and move on from what had happened.
I’m lucky to have an amazing friend in my life, Ina Vigilato, who is a renowned tattoo artist and was willing to accept the challenge of covering basically the entire right side of my chest with a “life-changing” tattoo. The only problem? I was training for my first Ironman and had to be able to swim. But swimming and new tattoos don’t really go together. We had about a year to work with, so we devised a plan that started in the fall and, hopefully, would end with me crossing the finish line with no evidence of my scars.
Because of the surgery, I lack the normal anatomy that provides the roundness of a normal breast. We chose to make the initial tattoo an octopus. Ina had the idea of wrapping the tentacles in a circle and using shadowing to create a three dimensional roundness that has the effect of looking like a natural breast. We called it my Mermaid Bra. Ina opted not to use stencils and instead used a series of sharpie markers to hand draw the tattoo on. The whole process took several sessions and ended in a tattoo that even my mom—who hated the idea of me getting a tattoo—admits is beautiful.
It’s amazing how something silly, like covering up a scar, can completely change you. Once my tattoo was healed, I started wearing bikinis again and running in sports bras. I was constantly in anything that showed off my new ink. I had covered up that part of my body for a long time and it was an awesome feeling to finally move on. Finishing my first Ironman at Mont Tremblant, with no scars showing, a positive body image, and my Mermaid Bra made me feel like I finally conquered what had happened. I was actually happy I had gone through the surgeries and the infection, because it started the journey that ultimately made me an Ironman. It only made sense that my next step would be the ubiquitous M-Dot tattoo.
When I got home from that first Ironman at Mont Tremblant, I met Ina for lunch and told her all about it: how everything smelled like maple, the beautiful clock tower in the square, the mountains, and how amazing the whole thing had been. I showed her the finisher medal and she snapped a picture of it. Everyone I knew was stoked for me, but I feel like Ina shared a special joy because she had been with me through the whole journey to the finish line. I knew she wanted to come up with a special way to help me commemorate everything we had been through.
A few weeks later when I arrived at her office, she showed me her idea. Using the finisher medal as inspiration, she hand drew a vignette: the whole little town of Tremblant surrounded by mountains and encircled with tokens of my experience—an M-dot, a maple leaf and the fleur-de-lis. It’s a pretty fancy M-Dot tattoo, I must say, and I absolutely love it.
I jokingly refer to my tattoos as my bumper stickers. And in many ways they are. They’re the bumper stickers of life. A way to decorate myself in constant reminders of the amazing life I’m living. I say all the time, “it’s all happening,” and it really is, and I hope it keeps happening and maybe there’ll be more adventures and tattoos to remember my adventures in my future.
Josie Vitale is an ironwoman and SMASH-Dimond team member. She has completed 3 Ironman races (so far) during the 2018 season alone! You can follow her on instagram at @josie.vitale