Janet Cantwell Papale
Challenge. Risk. Persistence. Those words don’t warm the hearts of most women but they define the life and career of Janet Cantwell Papale. What she learned through athletics in her youth, and in her life and career since, is the stuff of victory that makes Janet a Victorious Woman!
Janet Cantwell grew up in a family of nine children and one of seven sisters. The first six Cantwell sisters were all competitive gymnasts. They started because their mother, who had just so much time and money, told her daughters, “There’re six of you – you’re all doing the same thing.”
From a very early age, Janet had a burning desire to become a gymnast like her athletically gifted sisters. But while her five sisters sailed along, Janet’s early years were marked by health problems, including rheumatic fever (an infection that can affect the heart, joints, skin, and brain) and a sledding accident that left her without a spleen. So while Janet really wanted to be in gymnastics like her talented younger sisters, everyone told her she couldn’t.
But Janet wouldn’t accept her obvious fate. Instead, she was relentless until finally her parents gave in and decided to “let her try” – and mostly just to get her off their backs. But when she did, Janet discovered she was inflexible, “like a board”. Her efforts were so comical to some relatives that they would even ask her to do splits and flips just to get a laugh.
Undaunted and determined, Janet pushed herself; her sisters became built-in motivators. “I worked my butt off,” Janet says, “to show them all I was worthy of being a contender for a spot on the team.” That included finding ways to improve her flexibility. At first, she asked her mother to stretch her. “My mom would stretch me to the point of tears,” Janet remembers. “She’d want to stop, but I’d say ‘no.’ Later, when they said I wouldn’t ever be able to do a split, I practiced by putting two phone books on either side of me, stretching until I did it.”
In addition to the physical part, Janet also helped with team fundraisers and other team-related activities, explaining, “I worked at it and did whatever I could,” adding, “Most people don’t take the time at a young age to go after what they want, and don’t feel they need to pay their dues or are not strong in their convictions. I happen to be a go getter and I don’t let ‘NO’ get in my way.” Nothing was going to stop Janet because, she affirms, “I was determined to be a gymnast.”
The “let her try” appeasements of her parents plus Janet’s persistent efforts paid off! She eventually made the local team…and that was only the beginning. During the 1970’s, Janet also made the United States National Team, participated in the World Games and the Israeli Hapoel competition and was the DGWS Collegiate National Balance Beam and Vaulting Champion.
While she loved the excitement of the competition and travel, gymnastics was more than a passion for Janet; gymnastics was her identity. “I wasn’t the best but I didn’t stop,” she admits and says she learned that just being good at the sport wasn’t enough, that there’s more to it. “As you grow, you learn. I learned to compete. Competition isn’t just about the skill but it’s a ‘whole system’ that includes visualization, breathing and confidence. It’s about competing against yourself, the mental gymnastics. And sometimes we are our own worst enemy.”
Janet was enjoying life until, at eighteen, tragedy struck. During a competition against the Hungarian Team, Janet severely injured her knee. In a flash her gymnast days were over, her dreams shattered and her contractual obligations gone. “I was devastated.” Janet remembers, wincing slightly.
At the same time, her parents were going through a divorce. It seemed to the teenager as if everything she knew up until then was suddenly washed away. But, says the invincible woman, “if you lose your identity, you have choices to make.” Janet made several choices, and not all good ones, but none that she regrets, even now.
During that time she met and became engaged to a doctor who was moving to Penn State University; Janet went with him. Once there, she felt uncertain about her role in the relationship. So she enrolled in the Health and Science curriculum. She also found success on the diving team, breaking all the school’s current records. She started thinking about the Olympics but then heard that the University of Pennsylvania was looking for a gymnastics coach. Having never lost her passion for gymnastics, Janet wanted the job – and so badly that she quickly handwrote a resume. And in her cover letter, she held nothing back when telling her prospective employer why she, and she alone, was the person for the job. Janet’s letter got her an interview and a part-time “let her try”-style job, with the promise of the head coaching job when she got her college degree. Without a second thought, Janet ended her engagement, moved back to Philadelphia, made academic arrangements and moved forward. She was head coach for the University of Pennsylvania’s Gymnastics Team for eleven years.
During her UofP years, Janet had the opportunity to travel all over the world as either a director or instructor – and sometimes both – in the United States, Mexico, Malaysia, Germany, Bermuda and South Africa. She served on the 1984 Olympic Committee and was also active in her hometown of Philadelphia, enjoying the honor of choreographing a gymnastics event on the world famous “Rocky” steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum during the United States’ 1976 Bicentennial Year Celebrations.
In 1988, Janet was diagnosed with Lyme disease, which was then a somewhat unknown disease and for which treatment hadn’t yet been fully developed. Unable to continue her career, she left the University of Pennsylvania, got a real estate license and began a new career.
In 1992, Janet met former Philadelphia Eagles football player, Vince Papale. Though their paths crossed years earlier through business, this time the meeting turned personal. Janet was just shy of forty when she married Vince, forty when she had their first child and, ignoring the risks, pushed the envelope to have a second child just one month before her forty-fourth birthday!
In 2006, spouse Vince Papale’s incredible football saga was showcased in the movie Invincible. The movie led to a book of the same name. Recently Janet collaborated with Vince to write Be Invincible, a motivational book based on what the two athletes learned during their respective sports careers and in their lives that enabled them to create their personal and professional victories.
Looking back, Janet isn’t shy about saying, “I never considered myself smart – I wasn’t a good test taker” but also acknowledges, “I could think outside of the box.” She credits that skill for being the one that enabled the girl who was made fun of to go on and accomplish feats nobody thought she could. It’s also what made it possible for her to grow through one victory stretch into another and into a woman who is nothing short of invincible. And, she beams, “I guess you could say I got the last laugh.”
Janet describes her marriage relationship as a partnership. Here’s her advice to other women:
- Figure out who you are: A lot of women aren’t their own person before they get married. They follow the example of what they knew growing up and pick the same kind of people. When I met Vince, I had a life. I invited him into my world.
- Don’t compromise: I didn’t get married just to have kids. I didn’t need to get married. I wanted someone who listened to me, respected me.
- Take risks: It’s ok to fail, to fall down and pick yourself up. And remember that competition is a mental game.
- Adjust: Try, fail, tweak, and get back up. If you fall off a horse, get up and do the same thing again without making an adjustment, you’re still going to fall off.
- Be grateful. When you open up your life in gratitude, things happen.
Learn more about Janet Papale at https://www.youcanbeinvincible.com