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
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
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