How'd She Do It? (cont.)

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."


Phil Barber is a freelance writer based in Calistoga, Calif.

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