How'd She Do It?.

A triathlete's comeback.

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 11, 2000 -- Remember the old adage that 90% of all accidents happen within a mile of home? Well, it's wrong. New evidence suggests that 90% of all accidents happen within a mile of Karen Smyers.

Three years ago Smyers was the defending U.S. Olympic Committee Female Triathlete of the Year. She was at the head of an elite pack of women, each vying for the honor of representing the United States this year in Sydney, when Women's Triathlon -- a race combining cycling, swimming, and running -- makes its official debut at the Olympic Games. She was 35 years old, in exquisite physical condition, and had never suffered a major injury or illness during her professional career. Unfortunately, her luck was about to change.

The change began in June 1997, one day before she was to leave for a triathlon in Monte Carlo. Smyers was replacing a storm window in her Lincoln, Mass., house when the glass suddenly shattered, slicing her leg so deeply that it severed her hamstring. Recuperating from the injury, Smyers missed the rest of the season. A little more than a year after the first accident, in August of 1998, she was finishing a training ride near her home when an 18-wheel truck clipped her. She tumbled off her bike and off the road, suffering six broken ribs, a lung contusion, and a third-degree shoulder separation. (In between these two accidents, she gave birth to a daughter -- delivered by cesarean section after 48 hours of labor.) In November of 1999 during a race in Ixtapa, Mexico, at the apex of another long comeback, Smyers took a second painful spill off her bicycle. Unable to avoid a fallen cyclist ahead of her, she careened off her own bike and fractured her collarbone.


"I always ask Karen if she ever broke a mirror or something like that," says Jill Newman, a friend of Smyers and fellow triathlete.

Smyers must occasionally ask herself the same question. In October of 1999, immediately after she placed second in the grueling Hawaii Ironman triathlon, she was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid gland. Doctors operated two months later, removing the thyroid and two lymph nodes.


Nonetheless, she made it to the Olympic trials last May, the event that determined which two athletes would compete in the women's triathlon this month in Sydney. (She didn't make the team, finishing seventh.)

As the Olympics get under way, we'll be hearing a lot about the athletes who made it there. But what about Smyers and other competitors who'll be watching the games on television? How does a successful athlete cope with such a string of bad luck?

Overcoming Setbacks

Part of what drives Smyers onward is a trust in her own physical capabilities and strength. "The things I've learned from training and racing have helped me with my medical problems," she says. "It's given me faith that the body can bounce back. On days when you're totally exhausted from a workout, you learn that, with rest, you will get stronger."


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."

The Latest Road to Recovery

Smyers' loved ones hope she hasn't exhausted her reserve of pragmatism and her ability to see the silver lining, despite this huge loss. She'll need her strength, as her recovery from the thyroid cancer has not gone entirely smoothly. Her doctors decided to operate again in July when they discovered a couple of oversized lymph nodes. Then they pushed back the surgery to August after Smyers developed a mumps-like virus. It sometimes feels like she's riding into a headwind, but she forges on.


"People ask me, 'How do you do it?' " Smyers says. "But the alternative is not to be a pro triathlete. That alternative is distasteful to me. I love what I'm doing. There's more in me."

Jill Newman and the other elite-level triathletes fully expect to be dueling with Smyers on the World Cup triathlon circuit probably within the next few weeks. They offer her unqualified respect and admiration, but not a great deal of sympathy -- at least, not on the course.

"As competitive athletes, we're on the ragged edge at all times," says Newman. "I can universally say that none of us feel sorry for her when we compete. When the gun goes off, she's fair game. And she's a tough one to beat."

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