Shana Verstegen’s life moves so fast that it somehow makes sense that she was in Hayward the past few days, competing in the Lumberjack World Championships, while tonight she will be featured on the CMT network, in a new episode of “Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge.”
That reality TV show, hosted by the famous pro wrestler and airing at 7 p.m., is not as physically demanding as the name suggests. It’s much worse.
Verstegen, 34, a lifelong Madisonian, called her participation in it “the most exhausting and physically painful day of my life.” This is a woman who does triathlons in her spare time.
We’ll get to the TV show.
But sometimes, life — even Shana Verstegen’s — moves in slow motion. That was never more true than one morning last month, when Shana sat with her new husband in a counselor’s office, about to receive news she’d spent three decades avoiding.
We’ll get to that, too.
First, a bit about Shana — she pronounces it “Shawna” — who was Shana Martin when I met her several years ago, at Supreme Health and Fitness in Madison, where’s she’s fitness director.
When Shana was 5, her mother, Debby Martin, was diagnosed with Huntington’s, a degenerative brain disease. Her husband, George Martin, Shana’s dad, was a UW-Madison professor of forestry. They dealt with Debby’s illness as a family. As it progressed, she would need assistance. From the outset, Shana was included in discussions, including learning that as Debby’s daughter she had a 50-50 chance of eventually developing Huntington’s herself (in adults the symptoms are usually first seen between ages 30 and 40).
Shana’s early exposure to adult realities was offset by her parents’ determination that she also be given every opportunity to have fun. About the time of her mother’s diagnosis, Shana enrolled in a log rolling program at the YMCA. She excelled in other physical activities — at Madison Memorial High School, she was the first girl to compete in the pole vault, on the boys team — but Shana had a genius for log rolling. She is a six-time World Lumberjack Champion, has served as president of the International Log Rolling Association, and has taught the sport for several years on Lake Wingra through her group Madison Log Rolling.
At the same time Shana was immersing herself in log rolling and fitness, she was involved in helping care for her mom and active in the fight against Huntington’s. Shana has been a spokesperson for the Huntington’s Disease Society of America and is a past president of the Wisconsin chapter. In recent years, as Debby’s condition worsened, and she lost the ability to walk and speak, Shana and her dad would visit at Debby’s care center and play tapes of Shana’s log rolling competitions. Her mom’s eyes would brighten.
In February 2013, Shana got engaged to Peter Verstegen, a personal trainer and massage therapist she had known since high school and with whom she reconnected at Supreme. Two weeks later, on the night of the Huntington’s Wisconsin chapter’s annual fundraiser at Monona Terrace, Debby lost her battle with the disease. She was 65.
Peter and Shana were married in November. Their happiness is tangible. The other day, Shana smiled and said, “You know you’ve made it in life when you marry a massage therapist.”
She still looks for challenges, and earlier this year, friends sent along notice of a casting call for the CMT series hosted by the wrestler known as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. It was billed as a test of strength and stamina, which Shana has in abundance. After a lengthy interview and audition process, she was chosen for the show, which taped in April.
The publicity release for the show put it this way: “Each episode features eight contestants in head-to-head battles, until the last man or woman standing earns the right to take on the toughest obstacle course in America created by Austin himself, the ‘Skullbuster,’ for a chance to win $10,000.”
Shana couldn’t reveal how she fares in tonight’s episode, other than to say it was painful and exhausting.
She was able to share the results of another kind of test, one she took last month. Shana has known since she was a little girl that there was a 50-50 chance she had inherited from her mother the gene that causes Huntington’s. A blood test could answer that question, yes or no. Shana had resisted the test, living life fully, knowing she would take whatever came.
“I never wanted to be tested,” she said. “But after I got married, it was no longer just me.”
There were issues of insurance and family planning to consider. Together, Peter and Shana made the decision that she should be tested. They met with a genetics counselor. Two weeks after Shana had blood drawn, they were in that counselor’s office, to get the result. Shana saw tears in the counselor’s eyes. Shana thought, “She’s trying to figure out how to tell me.”
The counselor began, “I have good news.” Shana heard nothing else. She collapsed in Peter’s arms. They couldn’t stop crying. She will never have Huntington’s disease.
Anyone who knows Shana Verstegen will not be surprised to learn she intends to work as hard in the fight against Huntington’s as she always has. Shana said, “I am not going to stop because I got the lucky side of the coin.”