How'd She Do It? (cont.)

"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.