Triathletes sure are tough. An obvious statement, you say? Well, of course. Nothing exemplifies this statement more, however, than when a triathlete faces a physical challenge that threatens to take them out of the game, and end their racing days.
Karen Smyers has arguably had the most successful career of any female professional in the sport’s history. She won the ITU World Championship twice (Olympic distance), the U.S. Pro Nationals 7 times, and the ITU Long Distance World Championship. In 1995 she was so dominant that she took first at the Hawaii Ironman, the Pan Am Games, the ITU World Championships, and the U.S. Pro Nationals.
This powerhouse of a woman has had a few bumps along the way, though, to say the least. In ’97 she had an accident that sliced her hamstring severely. She decided to have a baby during her rehabilitation, but had to have a Caesarean section after 48 hours of labor. Finally back in training for the Ironman in ’98, she was hit by an eighteen-wheeler while on her bike and broke six ribs and separated her shoulder.
Her 1999 season was going well, she had some great results . Then during an ultrasound check of her collar bone, a mass was discovered around her thyroid gland and she was told that it could be cancer. This was only a month before the Hawaii Ironman. She raced anyway, and placed second! Then in her last event of the season, an ITU points race in Mexico, she was involved with a crash on the bike and broke her collar bone, DNF-ing for the very first time.
Karen was subsequently diagnosed with cancer, went through radiation and eventually had her thyroid removed. Despite all of this, she came back to win the pro nationals again this year, and place fifth in Hawaii.
One of the most amazing things about her story is that through all of these many ordeals, she continued to be so positive. Often considered the friendliest of the pros, Karen is well known for her accessibility to the age-groupers, her easy-going attitude, and perpetual good nature. And this from someone with plenty to complain about.
Czech triathlete Jan Rehula won the bronze medal in the inaugural Olympic Triathlon in Sydney. Then in January he was out on a training ride when his seatpost broke and as he went down he was impaled in the back. He lost so much blood he almost died and spent a week in intensive care after surgery. During his hospitalization he regularly posted to the news groups about his progress and thanked everyone for all of their notes and calls of support. Not only has he recovered but he placed fifth at Ironman Switzerland in August and completed the Hawaii Ironman with a 2:56 marathon.
Here at home, Longmont’s Jason Kaminski was almost killed by a hit-and-run driver while on a training ride. Left for dead with a broken skull, ribs, fibula, elbow, jaw, and right arm; punctured lung, torn knee ligaments, and severe nerve damage to his right arm and hand, he was discovered later by a school bus driver. Jason was barely back to work when he began making plans for his next Ironman race. The next year he finished Ironman USA in Lake Placid, coming in 514th (11:40:19) out of a field of nearly 1800. He didn’t even miss a whole season of racing.
Triathletes have always been a source of inspiration, for their dedication and discipline as well as for their athletic accomplishments. When they manage to achieve so much in the face of tremendous odds, they become true heroes.