Standing on the coarse, volcanic rock that jutted into the turquoise water, Colleen Cannon and I looked across Hawaii’s Kealakekua Bay to the Captain Cook Monument. The obelisk looked like a small white blur in the distance, towered by sheer cliffs.
“All right! Let’s go!” Cannon chirped as she slipped her swim cap over her sunbleached hair and plunged into the ocean. We were about to swim a two-mile, open water swim to the monument and back. For fun. I grew up surfing, but I had never swum seriously, let alone two miles. But when Colleen Cannon tells you that you can do something, you do it. So, I dove in after her.
I met Cannon at the start of the pandemic. She was working to shift her women’s yoga and adventure retreat company, Women’s Quest, online. Women’s Quest is designed to light “a spark and passion in people for the outdoors, their own bodies and their spirits.” At that moment, Women’s Quest’s mission was more important, and more unattainable, than ever. In 1992, Cannon founded Women’s Quest with a dream of creating a safe environment where women could find balance and strength through movement and play. Women’s Quest’s transformational retreats combined physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing — the first adventure retreat company to do so. They were more than just fitness retreats; they were a place where women could connect to each other, their bodies and the world. It didn’t take much; all they needed was the greatest “playground” of all: the outdoors, and Cannon. 30 plus years later, Cannon still runs retreats all year long to places like Canyonlands and Jackson Hole, Greece and Italy, Bhutan and Peru.
Based in Boulder, Colorado, Women’s Quest grew out of Cannon’s lifelong belief in the power of movement, connection and play, especially for women. Whether it was swimming, biking, running or horseback riding, Cannon grew up outside and in motion. She grew up in the midst of the formation of Title IX, and it was evident that not everyone had the opportunity. When she moved to Alabama in high school, Cannon found that the only sports she could choose from were baton twirling, cheerleading or the marching band — none of which particularly interested her. Steadfast in the belief that girls deserved the right to play sports as much as boys did, she helped create the school’s first women’s basketball and track teams.
Her love for movement eventually led Cannon to race professionally. On scholarship for both swimming and track, she competed at Auburn University and later stumbled, albeit unintentionally, into triathlons. Soon enough, she became World Champion in 1984, National Champion in 1988 and 1990, and a U.S. National team member multiple times. Alongside training, she worked to get equal prize money for men and women and helped make triathlons an Olympic sport, which required more women to participate in order to become official.
Her racing career only reinforced her childhood belief that an active lifestyle made her feel most alive. But, it was more than just movement. She learned the importance of staying fit and healthy — in the mind, body and spirit. While she trained extremely hard, she has always said that it was more about the mental work than the physical. Mentored by Louise Hay, Deepak Chopra and John Douillard on meditation, affirmations, visualizations and the Ayurvedic philosophy, Colleen came out of her racing days with a balanced toolbox that not many others had: physical grit, mental clarity and an unwavering love for playing in the world. She wanted to share that toolbox with other women, believing, “if I could ignite them to be healthy and well, then they would create something magical.” So came Women’s Quest.
In March 2021, 11 women traveled to the Big Island of Hawaii for the first in-person retreat since the pandemic began, and I got the chance to join. In the world and in themselves, the women were in transition. Maybe transitioning jobs or into retirement. Maybe going through a relationship change. Maybe learning how to love their body as they get older. They were searching for connection, belonging and strength, and they found it: in each other, in the world and in Cannon.
Meeting Cannon in person, I fully understood what made Women’s Quest retreats so successful. She looks at the world with a childlike wonder and astonishment that is contagious. She is open and questioning, unwavering in her belief in a world that adults cannot always see. As a child, she spent her days outside playing; over 50 years later, she still does just that.
“Playing is a way to get out of your head and into your heart. You make this pathway through play to kindness, compassion, exhilaration and awe,” Cannon explains. “So… tag! You are it!” she laughs. “We are in the eternal game of tag with the universe. You really are it. You are an awesome human being with all this potential.” When you go on one of Cannon’s retreats, your worldview starts to shift, crumble and rebuild. Everything becomes a little bit lighter, with a lot of room to play.
Photo one by Kellen Lovell. Photo two courtesy of Colleen Cannon.
Originally published in the Winter + Spring 2021-22 issue.