Sadly, on June 18, 2021, Emma Roca passed away from cancer. Her indomitable spirit and the profound impact she made on the world will live on forever. I didn’t know her personally, but I’m incredibly grateful to have spoken with her–she was a truly special person. This interview is dedicated to Emma, her loved ones, and everyone who inspires us to keep going even when all we want to do is give up.
My first introduction to Emma Roca was watching her lead her team, Team Summit, in Amazon Prime’s World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji. I was awestruck by her unwavering optimism and perseverance as she and her team conquered the grueling 671km (417 m) race to place 10th out of 66. There were many teams that didn’t even complete the race so getting across the finish line was a feat in itself!
For 10 days nonstop, this tough-as-hell team of five climbed waterfalls, paddled in ocean waves, biked across muddy terrain, swam in ice-cold water (their team member Fran suffered through severe hypothermia and muscle cramps), and navigated through dense jungle forest. Every day was about pushing the limits of their minds, bodies, and spirits, and overcoming the desire to quit in tough moments.
To say that Emma is the embodiment of pushing one’s limits would be an understatement. Her list of accomplishments is endless as an elite-level athlete, biomedical engineer, firefighter, entrepreneur, advocate for women in sports, mother, wife, and all-around badass. Forget the superheroes you see in the movies–she’s the real thing.
1. What are the keys to bringing together a great team, whether it’s for an adventure race like Eco-Challenge Fiji or anything else in life?
Understand who you surround yourself with. Get to know each member well; figure out their weaknesses and strengths. There are surprises sometimes, but when you go through the experience of having done many races with many people, you learn a lot. It’s more important that your team acts in solidarity with courage, empathy, motivation, and equity than having the best cyclist or the strongest person on your team.
When people have to deal with pressure, fatigue, or adverse weather, they can change a lot compared to what they’re like on a day-to-day basis. So build a team that you know well. Make sure your team members have the same objectives, are ready to prepare as much as you, and above all, are trustworthy and possess the values it takes to be able to face the toughest challenges in the world, like Eco-Challenge Fiji.
2. Racing and competing have taken you to many places around the world since 2010. Which city or country was your favourite and why?
That’s a hard one! I’ve traveled extensively during the 20 years that I’ve competed at the international elite level. Some examples: Lesotho-South Africa, Argentina-Chile-Ecuador, Khirgistan, Fiji, Malaysia-Vietnam-India, Australia-New Zealand-Reunion Island, China, Tibet-Nepal, Mexico-Brazil, USA, a few Nordic countries, Morocco.
In each country, there is always something that attracts you and hooks you, especially when you compete giving it your best effort and explore unique environments with your people! But if I have to choose my favourite, I’d pick the ultra races in Colorado, the wild Argentine and Chilean Patagonia, or the unique environments of New Zealand.
3. You’ve talked about how people doubted your ability to compete at a high level in sports and be a firefighter as a woman. In your experience, has this attitude towards you, and women in general, changed?
Some things have changed, but there are still many prejudices, stereotypes, and cultural stigmas that persist. We still have to fight for equalities that should already be fixed. There is no balance but there is progress being made, even if it’s happening slowly.
The words ‘give up’ or ‘abandon’? I don’t have them in my vocabulary!Emma Roca
4. When you’re faced with tremendous challenges, whether it’s battling vulvar cancer, spending 10 days in the toughest race in the world, or dealing with academic challenges, what gets you through those moments? How do you overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles when your mind and body are screaming at you to give up?
The experiences that I’ve had in less critical situations help me overcome the most critical moments in my life. It’s also in my character, which is partly nature and partly nurture, to never throw in the towel and always dig deep for the last possible bit of energy and will to move forward. I have a very positive way of being and highly motivated. The words “give up” or “abandon”? I don’t have them in my vocabulary!
The body and the mind work them day by day, one grows and surrounds herself with experiences that help her better understand who she really is.
Within us we have unique potential, often unexplored, that helps us overcome situations that we didn’t even know we could overcome. I love this quote from the organizer of the Leadville 100-mile ultrarace: “You’re tougher than you think you are, you can do more than you think you can!”
5. What is the legacy you want to leave behind?
I would like to inspire people to make each day that they live valuable. We have to live it fully, doing what we like the most and with love and joy! You never have to look back and think about what you have done or what you have not done. Decisions made in the past have already been made and can’t be changed. We can make mistakes, but more is learned from mistakes than from successes!
One has to be consistent with her life, seek the purpose that pushes her day by day, to live it in the best possible way while still being herself!
I also love the sentence: no matter the starting point, what matters is to work hard towards becoming the best version of ourselves.
1. Favourite thing to do when you’re relaxing? Meditate, listen to music, rest and try to think about nothing!
2. What’s the best thing that happened to you this month? Get to know my authentic self a little more to be happier in every moment with my family, even if it’s during a leisurely walk or dinner time.
3. One thing you can’t do? Ride a skateboard–I’d fall for sure!
4. If you could have dinner with someone famous, dead or alive, who would it be? Marie Curie–she was one of the pioneering women scientists in the study of radiation. And Margarita Salas because she was one of the most notable Spanish scientists, with a doctorate in Biology from the Complutense University of Madrid.
5. Who or what inspires you most? Every woman who has had to fight for a better world for her daughters and has not given up.
Thank you for this, I’ve been watching the world’s toughest race: Eco challenge Fiji. Mrs. Roca truly inspired me and pushed me to challenge myself after recovering from a spinal injury. I just now heard of her passing and it’s crushing. Thank you all for publishing this, I hope she will continue to inspire others through her legacy.
Happy to hear that, Spencer. I’m sure she has inspired many others the way she inspired you!
I had just got done saying to my family “She is my favorite of all the women racers because of her constant positivity and the way she carried herself with such peace”. What an inspiration. I am so glad I got a peak into her life before she left this Earth. And I know she left it better than when she came into it.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. What an amazing woman.