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Seeking peak shape, Riverview woman ended up on Mount Kilimanjaro

RIVERVIEW — Jami Fencel had always led a busy life as a wife, mother and volunteer.

But she never put any kind of exercise on her "to-do" list.

"I was not into sports," Fencel said. "I was not an athlete."

At 49, her life was full but not always fulfilling. Maybe, she says, it was her empty nest. Her daughter, Nicole, had graduated from college and was starting a career in New York City, and her son, Jordan, was in college. Her husband, Mike, had a busy career as a hospital executive.

So four years ago, she began transforming herself from slacker to exercise devotee.

But Fencel, now 53, never knew the path to a fitter life would take her to the hike of a lifetime.

• • •

While helping to set up the decor for an America Cancer Society fundraising event, Fencel met Paula and Dave Spence of Brandon. She bonded with them immediately.

The Spences invited Fencel to join them on walks and bike rides and to exercise at the Campo Family YMCA in Valrico. Fencel's family had a Y membership but she never used it. In fact, her husband had joked about deleting her name from the Y membership.

Fencel accepted the Spences' invitation.

"I was open to it," she said. "I was ready for something."

Fencel subsequently joined the Spences on a hiking and camping trip in the Appalachian Mountains in Maine.

She had become a fitness fan.

She liked the exercise, enjoyed meeting new people and loved being outdoors. It didn't hurt that the 20 pounds she had gained over the years began to fall off and her energy level began to pick up.

Her circle of exercise-loving friends grew, too. She soon began training for and participating in triathlons.

But a larger goal loomed in the distance. A calling came from 8,000 miles across the ocean and 19,000 feet above sea level.

• • •

In January, Fencel's friend Ginny Miller, 60, of Crystal Beach in Pinellas County, asked her to hike Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, in East Africa. Fencel didn't think twice about her answer. She wanted to go with Miller and another friend, Connie Boudreaux, 56, of Bradenton.

"I said 'I'm in.' Then I said, 'What am I getting myself into?' " Fencel said, laughing.

Fencel knew she would have to train seriously to hike the mountain, Africa's highest peak.

So she worked out six days a week, jogging, bicycling, working with personal trainer Karen Joseph of Valrico, and spending hours at the Y wearing a backpack on the Stairmaster and taking group classes like Spin, Body Pump and Pilates.

• • •

Fencel made the hike of a lifetime Sept. 13 through 25 and reached the Mount Kilimanjaro summit.

"It was euphoric," she said.

She carried her own backpack, slept in a tent and happily adjusted to having no running water, electricity or campfire.

Hikers traverse farmland, forest and desert, and ultimately are in awe as they see snow on the mountaintop.

"It was beautiful," she said.

Fencel relished every day of the climb. But she always had someone else on her mind while hiking — her sister-in-law Joa Fencel of New Jersey, who is battling breast cancer for the second time.

Jami Fencel said Joa had thought about making the trip but could not because the cancer had returned. When Fencel reached the summit, she placed a lock of her sister-in-law's hair in the dirt and used lava rocks to spell out her name.

"She was there with us by doing that," Jami Fencel said.

• • •

Fencel is using her Mount Kilimanjaro climb and her sister-in-law's battle to raise money for the Campo Y's Livestrong program, including the Corks & Forks fundraiser being held tonight at the YMCA. Fencel, who is on the Campo Y board and the event committee, wants to match donations made specifically to the Livestrong program so it can be made available to more people.

Livestrong offers three-month memberships at no cost to cancer survivors and their immediate family members. They can exercise and receive support and nutritional information.

Livestrong is one piece of the Campo Y's Healthy Living program. Fencel, who co-chairs the Healthy Living committee, said the program includes programs to fight diabetes and childhood obesity, cooking demonstrations and speakers.

• • •

Fencel loves to volunteer in the community and be there for her family. But she thinks her life is better because fitness is part of her routine.

"I'm good now," she said. "I'm at my ideal weight. I'm happy with the lifestyle choices I made. I like the way I feel. I love the energy."

With a smile, she said she is ecstatic that her friends and family now call her "an athlete."

She encourages everyone to exercise, and insists that a person's fitness or age do not matter.

Just start.

"I'm nothing special," she said. "I'm an average person. If I can do it, anybody can."

Monica Bennett can be reached at