Standing on the blocks at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, seconds before one of the most important swims of his career, breaststroker Eric Shanteau was not just physically competing against those swimmers to his left and right.
Like most world-class athletes, he tried to put himself in the moment of his race. The chance to realize a dream and qualify for the Olympic Games was on the line.
But as much as he tried to clear his head and focus on the task at hand, he faced even more challenging competition outside the pool.
The day life changed
Shanteau will never forget June 19, 2008. It’s the day doctors told him he had testicular cancer. He was 24 years old, and the timing was made more terrible by the Olympic pressure he already faced.
He was in the middle of vigorous training for the Beijing Olympics, and the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials were just a week away.
Shanteau was forced to make a decision–postpone treatment and risk his cancer advancing or miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in Beijing to start his treatment.
He consulted with his doctors, family and coaches, and “they gave me the go-ahead to compete at the Olympics,” Shanteau said. “It was an experience of a lifetime. It’s something I worked my entire life to do, and stepping foot on that deck for the first time in Beijing–I’ll definitely never forget that.”
While undergoing weekly tests to make sure his cancer remained stable, Shanteau swam a personal best in the 200-meter breaststroke but missed the finals by 0.13 of a second. Then he traveled back to the U.S. and underwent surgery to remove the cancer at the end of August.
He was declared cancer-free six days later, but the mental challenges never evaporated. Brian Balmes, a six-time cancer survivor and Shanteau’s good friend who has competed in 12 marathons, seven half Ironmans and one full Ironman, knows the toll cancer can take on someone over the years.
“One of the things you have to get through when you have cancer is living with the fear of it coming back,” Balmes said. “As a human we have to find things to do to help you deal with that mentally.”
Shanteau visited his doctor every two months for routine check ups. An elite athlete who dominated competition in the pool now hoped to hear everything was fine.
“Coping with everything I had been through was a struggle,” Shanteau said. “After everything finally calmed down and I realized what I actually had been through, I was worried about a recurrence–where it would come back, when, or even if it would come back. These thoughts are always going through your mind.”
Now four years later, the cancer has not returned.
Swimming from an early age
There was little question Shanteau, a native of Lilburn, Ga., would be back in the pool as quickly as possible. Swimming has been part of his life since childhood.
He broke onto the national scene at 16 when he competed at the 2000 Olympic Trials. Upon graduating from Parkview High School two years later, Shanteau became the first male in the history of the USA Swimming Scholastic All-American Program to graduate with a 4.0 grade-point average and win a national title.
His swimming prowess continued at Auburn University where he was undefeated in team competitions. Swimming for the Tigers, Shanteau was an 11-time NCAA All-American and helped his team compile 32 dual meet victories, four SEC titles and four NCAA titles. Shanteau quickly put himself in the international swimming spotlight. At the 2005 World University Games, he won gold in both the 200-meter and 400-meter individual medley, making him the first American to sweep both events.
Cancer didn’t slow his trajectory.
“I got back into the water and back in to shape,” Shanteau said. “I started swimming faster than I ever had before, pretty quickly. That’s really what led me to want to come back to the sport of swimming after 2008. I realized I hadn’t reached my potential quite yet.”
At the World Championships in 2009, Shanteau set American records in both the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke. He also broke the world record and became a world champion as part of the 4×100 medley relay, joining teammates Aaron Peirsol, Michael Phelps and David Walters.
“The success in 2009 was a really big catalyst to helping me continue on for another four years and go for another Olympic Games,” Shanteau said.
Swim for your life
Although his success in the pool is undeniable, his story goes much further. It’s what Shanteau has done outside of the pool that is changing lives.
After becoming cancer free, he began getting involved with the LIVESTRONG Foundation. He then was able to meet Lance Armstrong and attend his first LIVESTRONG Challenge. “The LIVESTRONG Foundation has grown to multiple cities, and that got me thinking,” Shanteau said. “I want to do this for the swimming community.”
Two years later, Shanteau started his own cancer awareness event called Swim for Your Life. The open-water event is held at Lake Lanier near Atlanta, Ga.
Now in its third year, it has continued to grow. All funds raised from the full day of open-water swimming races and clinics go to the Patient Navigation Center and other programs that LIVESTRONG offers.
“I try to and run it like a LIVESTRONG Challenge, just in the water.” Shanteau said. “The goal is to continue to grow it. As long as there’s a fight against cancer, it’s something I want to be involved with.”
Shanteau, who qualified for the London Games in the 100-meter breaststroke and relays, is hoping his exposure in London will help attendance numbers for Swim for Your Life once the event kicks off September 22.
“Year three is huge,” Shanteau said. “People only get to see the Olympics once every four years, and that’s when swimming is most popular. We’ll really get a feel for how much we can grow from this year. This is the year where we can expand and adjust more than we did last year.”
Balmes, a member of the organizing committee for the event, agrees with Shanteau.
“Participation last year was enormous, and I think we can double that this year–especially when he does so well over in (London),” he said with a smile, “which we all are hoping and praying for. It can be spectacular.”
Shanteau said one of the more specific messages behind Swim for Your Life is how it relates to men and testicular cancer. He said there are treatments that work, but it’s up to people to take action at the first signs of the disease.
“My message is that it’s OK to get help and it’s OK to acknowledge you have a problem,” he said. “Don’t be ashamed. Don’t be embarrassed. Straight, open talk about cancer is the biggest weapon we have against this disease.”
When Shanteau steps on the blocks in London, his incredible four-year journey likely will be identified as one of the great stories of this year’s Games.
“The mission of this has been to always give back,” Shanteau said. “I was given so much help and so much support from people I had never even met before. That was part of the reason why I started this, in some small way, to give back to people who I don’t know who will go through this or have a loved one go through this.
“There is life after cancer.”
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