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How'd She Do It?

A triathlete's comeback.

Overcoming Setbacks continued...

Another part is patience. With every stumble, she has to take the time to heal and to retrain herself. "I'm learning that healing comes in incremental improvements," she says. "Just like you don't go from running three miles to doing a marathon overnight."

The rest is sheer iron-willed persistence: "I don't give up easily," says Smyers. "I'm sure that's part of how I've gotten through this." Such resolve makes sense for a triathlete, who must continually push past discomfort and exhaustion. Smyers has been able to apply her mental discipline to her sometimes slow and grueling medical rehabilitation. "It's not like a TV show," says her husband, independent film producer Michael King. "There's no epiphany, no 'Hey, this is working!' Rehab is kind of boring."

Sometimes Even Triathletes Cry

Of course, she's had her moments of frustration and sadness. The lowest point may have been the flight home from Mexico after she broke her collarbone, just a couple of weeks after her cancer diagnosis. Smyers, alone and in searing pain, thought she had upgraded to a roomier, first-class seat. But when she reached the gate, an attendant escorted her to coach.

"I lost it," Smyers says. "I started crying, and I cried for the first hour or two of that flight. And really, I had plenty of room. There was no one sitting next to me. So I finally figured, OK, that was a good therapeutic cry. This was probably about more than being in first class."

Smyers rarely broaches the subject of her health with competitors. Still, her fellow triathletes -- and, increasingly, those in other events -- know what it's taken for her to continue to compete. Their esteem became tangible when they elected her to carry the American flag at the 1999 Pan-American Games, leading the U.S. delegation into Winnipeg Stadium.

Smyers says having people to look up to has helped her deal with the adversity in her life and the roadblocks in her athletic career. "It has helped me so much to have role models," Smyers says. "It's nice to know I might be doing the same for someone else." Her models include cyclist Lance Armstrong and Emma Robinson, a Canadian rower who battled back from thyroid cancer to set a record at the 1999 World Championships. Closer to home is a friend who's grappling with Lou Gehrig's disease.

"As bad as I have it, thyroid cancer is a curable disease," Smyers says. "My friend has an incurable disease. He's basically in a race for his life, and he's handled it with good nature. That has kept me from dwelling in self-pity." Next week, when the Olympics are on, Smyers will watch her competitors race, cheering them on, but also wincing at what could have been. Her loss was hard for her: "I was disappointed at the time, for sure. I felt my husband and daughter had made so many sacrifices, especially in the months just before the Olympic trials. I was just feeling like I had sacrificed for nothing."

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