When the world says no, they “say maybe.”
Now in 2022, stories about the horrors of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic are common tales — and rightfully so. The onset of the global panic caused thousands to lose their jobs, their loved ones, and their livelihoods. However, in some circumstances, the forced uprooting of life and the broken cycle of normality brought some unexpected, positive life changes. That was the case for queer athletes Kristina Nungaray and Jules Bursee.
In 2020, both women were looking to relocate to Jersey City. By chance, the two ended up in apartments two doors down from one another. “We both just kind of ended up here by fate,” said Nungaray.
Initially, the two strangers were convinced the other hated them. And although the two said their casual hellos as they walked their dogs and engaged in small talk attending the same CrossFit gym with their respective roommates, Bursee and Nungaray kept somewhat of a distance.
It wasn’t until the women discovered that their day jobs were ironically close (just a few blocks) from one another in New York City, that a friendship began to develop.
“We started to hang out a little bit more in the city,” said Nungaray. “We would grab coffee in the morning, during [Bursee’s] coffee break, right before I went into work. That’s whenever some mutual interest started popping up — through those conversations and getting to know each other a lot more.”
The first commonality the two discovered was both of their passions for cooking for others and meal preparation, specifically feeding those in need.
Without knowing, both women regularly gave to those in need on the way home from their city jobs. In fact, they had their own group of “regulars” they built relationships with on their daily commutes.
“There was one guy in a station that was kind of like my ‘Friday five bucks,”said Bursee. “I would give him five bucks every Friday, and he was always there.”
She continued, “Then, one day, we were commuting home together, and it was not like tit for tat, but we both kind of just went on our own little journeys as we were walking, and she actually had her own people too.”
The realization of that common generosity felt rare for the two.
“I would say a lot of times in our friendship, there’s been this kind of catharsis, but this lightbulb moment was the first time where it [was] like, ‘no one else has ever done that before in my circle,” said Nungaray. “[Bursee] is the first person I’ve met that’s a little bit like me.”
That passion was a launching point in their friendship. In a time where many restaurants were shut down due to COVID-19, the two began meal prepping together each week for themselves, their roommates, and their athlete friends. Quickly, the new friends found themselves cooking for more and more people each week.
“The one new person became another person, and another person, and all of a sudden, these people were meeting their nutritional goals,” said Nungaray. “I told [Bursee] on one of our morning coffees, ‘dude, I’ve always wanted to have a meal preparation business where if somebody bought food from you, somebody else in need could get a meal.’”
Not even a full day had passed before Bursee agreed to the idea.
“I was sold,” she said. “I sent her this long novel of a text message, just basically saying, ‘I know you said it in passing, but I just want you to know, I heard you, and I’m ready. I’m ready to do this right now.’”
From that moment, it was take-off. The pair launched Say Maybe, which was initially a meal preparation business aimed to build community around movement while simultaneously feeding people in food desert neighborhoods.
For six months, the pair cooked meals for a dedicated group of members, cooking easily over 100 meals a week. And for every meal the duo prepped and sold, an equal meal was given out directly to an individual in need.
However, after half a year passed, Say Maybe ran into some roadblocks. Unfortunately for the duo, New Jersey has strict laws about food donation and providing meals for those in need. These unanticipated barriers prevented Say Maybe from moving forward with their initiative for some time.
“It is not as easy to give to people as one would think,” said Nungaray. “We needed to hit the brakes on it so that we could actually build it into everything it was supposed to be.”
Although Team Say Maybe’s food-giving initiative remained at a stand-still, the duo persisted with other common goals. Both consistently engulfed in the world of athletics, Nungaray and Bursee were looking to challenge themselves further physically.
“I was trying to get more competitive in the CrossFit world,” said Bursee. “And then I found out that once you get to a certain level, there’s swimming involved — like competitive, real swimming — and I didn’t know how to swim.”
What may seem like a major conflict to the average athlete was actually the driving force for Bursee to learn a new skill. Luckily for her, her new close friend and coffee buddy, Nungaray, is a competitive, synchronized swimmer, and the perfect teacher to help her reach her CrossFit goals.
“I told her, ‘if you’re going to do this, you have to let me coach you, because I need to make sure that you’re not going to die,” said Nungaray.
Bursee and Nungaray did one swimming lesson together. It was in a smaller, non-full-sized swimming pool, but nonetheless, it went well.
“I swam like 10 feet across and back a couple of times, and I was feeling myself,” said Bursee. “And the next day at coffee, I was like, ‘So, do you want to do a triathlon now that I know how to swim?’”
The ambitious question came as quite a shock to Nungaray. However, the equally eager athlete didn’t rule it out of consideration. There was just one additional problem.
“I don’t know how to ride a bike to be honest,” Nungaray said, “but I’ve always wanted to do a triathlon.”
On a metaphorical runner’s high, the eager athletes found a beginner triathlon, and began training together. For two full months, the pair motivated each other to learn their new skills and to improve their running stamina. Just like that, the pair finished their first triathlon.
“We had a blast,” said Nungaray. “I was hooked from that moment… Especially at that time in my life, there was nobody crazy enough or passionate enough to do anything like that.”
She continued, “It was like taking a cold shower. It was like a really good wake up, and it put a new spin on a lot of things in a very hopeful way.”
The ambition held between these two queer athletes has only heightened since then. This year, the duo has taken on the gutsy task of competing in over 21 different endurance events spanning across marathons, half marathons, trail races, road races, open water races, triathlons, swim meets and ultra-races. The locations of these events span everywhere from Huston, Texas to Noosa, Australia.
Through these races, the duo is on a mission to highlight LGBTQ representation in endurance racing, and to take up space while creating space for others. Nungaray and Bursee want to inspire other LGBTQ people to immerse themselves in spaces, and to challenge themselves by doing difficult things they may not feel they are welcomed to do.
“Through racing, and really, really putting this LGBTQ visibility in endurance racing in people’s faces – because I’m not saying that there aren’t these types of athletes, but it’s not necessarily something that is celebrated, and it’s not something that is out in front,” said Nungaray, “the goal is to create space, so that other people can start taking some and helping them feel like they belong, even in spaces they feel aren’t meant for them.”
Using endurance racing as a platform, the racing team is also spending this active year partnering with LGBTQ non profit organizations to draw attention to, and raise funds for organizations that foster community and lend resources and support services to the community at large. Recently, the team has raised $835 towards The Montrose Center, a nonprofit aiming to provide help, hope and a second chance to LGBTQ youth in Houston who are experiencing homelessness.
While bringing LGBTQ representation to endurance racing is a priority for Team Say Maybe, it is not their sole initiative. With the understanding that not all LGBTQ peoples are necessarily competitive athletes, the duo has also developed, and recently started, a queer running club called The Queer Collective. Designed for runners on all levels and paces, The Queer Collective meets every Tuesday at the Grove St. PATH plaza at 6:30 p.m. in Jersey City.
“When the pandemic hit, and everybody was stuck at home or stuck in their local places, and with the more people I started to speak to, it became very, very clear how much queer people needed another outlet to meet in safe spaces, see friendly faces and make their own found family or their own community to whatever extent that was,” said Nungaray. “And movement was always a vehicle that we were going to use to do that.”
This July, the duo has also launched a free training program for first-time, hopeful triathletes. All are welcome to join the duo and learn training tips for a Fall Sprint triathlon that will be raced jointly. The same athletes are also welcomed (but not required) to join in a racing team that Team Say Maybe is forming to compete in the first Ragnar race, Ragnar Train New Jersey from Sept. 30 – Oct. 1 of this year.
All of these combined, ambitious initiatives stem from one true passion both Nungaray and Bursee share – human kindness.
“Kindness shouldn’t be so questioned,” said Bursee. “Kindness is a human right that people shouldn’t feel so privileged to receive.”
Together, Team Say Maybe hopes to open a community center in Jersey City one day, complete with open refrigerators, a full pantry, and fitness and wellness lessons. They hope to build a network of community supporters strong enough to provide care for all needs across the board.
“I’m a firm believer that resiliency begins at the community level,” said Nungaray.
Bursee added, “And it wouldn’t suck if more people just said maybe.”