Below are some of my thoughts from a talk that I gave at the inspirational dinner for this year’s TriRock Philadelphia Team in Training group. Most of this content made it into the talk, some may not have. This was a small but terrific group of heroes. I, as always, was moved by their fortitude, commitment, drive and willingness to make a change in someone’s life.
I think I’m supposed to talk about me, but before I do that, I need to talk about all of you for a few minutes.
This was an extremely rewarding season for me on a few levels. I was actually a little nervous going into this season since it was my first season as the head coach without our buddy coach Todd Wiley. I just wasn’t sure how things would go.
But with the help of assistant coaches Kenny Modica and Gretchen Cooney and great mentors I was able to thoroughly enjoy this season. Our team had great chemistry, made up of alumni, first timers, survivors, a father and son team, a husband and wife team, a survivor with recycled body parts, Mildred and Hazel our swim cap models who found a remarkable way of tying together fashion, training, yard sale shopping, with an insatiable drive to make a difference, and laugh.
And this organization was again lucky to have one of the kindest and gentlest men I know return in honor and in memory of his lost loved one. Mitch Kline you are the quintessential role model and hero for many people and I am so thankful you are here.
You have all been an amazing group of very genuine people all united to fight the common enemy. So, thank you for that. I get more out of this than you can possibly imagine and I get back much more than I give.
OK now I will tell you a little about me.
I grew up a gym and playground rat. I played at least one sport every season of the school year. And played in multiple summer leagues from the time I was 8 years old. I was never really sick. I have all of my God given parts, no extra ones, and to this day, I have never stayed overnight in a hospital.
I went to college on a soccer scholarship and hung on the fringe of a pro soccer career which didn’t quite go according to my plan (or my lack of a plan). I played some semi pro soccer for a number of years before discovering the dark side of triathlon and multisport racing and I was instantly hooked.
Like most people, I started small but then worked my way up to “one” marathon (or so I told my wife on New Year’s Eve of 1993). And eventually ”one” ironman. To my credit, I thoroughly believed that I could do one, get it out of my system, and be done. (I grossly misjudged that concept).
I settled into a lifestyle that proved rewarding for me and for my family on so many levels. I racked up countless races that my family was a huge part of either as volunteers, spectators, supporters, or all of the above.
I was healthy and living the dream.
Things got a little dark for us in 2005 and 2006. The curve balls started coming our way. Fast threatening curve balls that aim for your head. My dad underwent surgery to remove a large tumor in his chest, spending 2 months in the hospital and he never made it home. A few months later my mom needed triple bypass and aortic valve replacement heart surgery. That surgery was successful and my 89 year old mom is alive and thriving today. But this, on the heels of the loss of my dad, took its emotional toll.
Our family was ready for a fresh look at a new year and a new beginning in 2006 but that wasn’t going to happen.
I started having trouble swallowing which led to number of doctor calls. Of course I chalked it up to everything under the sun before actually making an appointment. Allergies. Stress. Infection. You name it. And we tried to treat it remotely with steroids, antibiotics, anti-allergy meds, etc. But we eventually saw a specialist who THOUGHT I needed to have my tonsils removed.
Preadmission testing told a different story.
My lab work revealed a white blood count that was extremely high. That led to an appointment with an oncologist and then a weeks worth of biopsies, x-rays, ct scans, pet scans, and blood work and ultimately a diagnosis of a chronic form of leukemia on February 24th of 2006.
I was told this would require several months of initial chemo and monoclonal antibody treatment and 2 years of follow up treatment. And while this can be managed it can’t be “cured” the way some other cancers can – today.
I’ve always felt fortunate and blessed and I’ll be honest (and I’ve never really shared this before) for a fleeting moment I listened to what the doc was telling me and I thought to myself, “so is this it”? “Is this how my fairy tale life will come to end”? “Surprise” We’ve all entertained the notion of how our lives may end but this isn’t something I ever saw coming. The payback for living a great life, surrounded by great people is I get to deteriorate and whither away in front of everyone a shell of the guy I once was?”
That moment and those thoughts were very fleeting and not shared with anyone. The positive me quickly resumed control. And the reality was that my prognosis looked good. I just needed to get out of my own head, stop Googling my disease, and focus on getting well. So we started into a chemotherapy treatment protocol of 1 week of daily treatment, followed by 3 weeks off – repeated for 4 cycles. And the long range plan would be to receive follow up treatments for one week, every 6 months for 2 years.
We did chemo right. We did it our way. My wife joined me for every treatment. Our daughters often cut class from their school which was next door to the hospital and hung out during chemo with me. We would hang out, have lunch together, and make it as positive as we possibly could.
Something worked. I responded to treatment favorably and hit remission by my 3rd round of chemo. I vowed to remain in shape and many days that meant running home from my chemo treatments. I needed to control something in a seemingly incontrollable situation and I have always been happiest when I am in motion so that became a big part of my overall plan.
That worked too because 4 months post diagnosis I was able to again race a sprint triathlon. And 7 months post diagnosis I raced another ironman triathlon. All of that is great but not as great as my decision to sign on as a triathlon coach for TNT. Which I did within days of being diagnosed.
Coaching is my opportunity to share my love for the sport of triathlon with eager individuals who want to both take on a challenge – while raising funds and awareness for my blood cancer. It became personal.
My relationship with this organization changed my life. While my own personal goals and races are important, watching each and every one of you grow from that first day of practice to crossing that finish will never, ever get old for me.
I love helping you achieve and celebrating your accomplishments.
So, here I stand. (Quite happily I might add) I live with a chronic leukemia. I manage it – it doesn’t manage me. I live above it and not simply with it. And like to think I am making it count for something.
While I am proud of the fact that I have completed many many races of all distances spanning 25 years of racing. The reality is they don’t mean all that much. You won’t find me talking that much about that.
I think I represent an old school and minority breed of athletes who believes you don’t need to broadcast your accomplishments to make them meaningful. And if done right, people will “just know” not only what you’ve done but who you are without a lot of self promotion.
I have learned just as much or more about myself in the couple of races where I became injured and wasn’t able to finish than those I did finish. How you react to that is success. The ability to adapt defines success for me.
What I am proud of is the fact that I have weathered 46 rounds of chemo. Slipped into relapse a couple of times and come back better and happier every time. And have helped others along the way to do the same. That is what matters. That’s what keeps hope alive.
Simply put – I’m in a good place and I wouldn’t change anything that I’ve been through or where I am. I’m not sure how many people would say that living with a chronic cancer.
My wife and I have raised 2 amazing daughters along the way. And they have very much been a part of everything about my life, including cancer, and racing. And we are enjoying a beautiful granddaughter with a grandson on the way.
My journey continues to connect me with some amazing individuals who only validate the fact that I am supposed to carry this disease and be a voice and a resource for others. One of the positives about living with a cancer is that you don’t have to wonder and worry about what it’s like to live with a cancer!! Usually it’s the fear of the unknown that scares the hell out of this. I know this disease quite well.
I also feel that the blood cancer future is incredibly bright. I am first hand living proof what a LLS funded drug like RITUXAN can do and I’ve seen the incredible success stories around GLEEVAC with others such as IBRUTINIB right around the corner.
My world is far from perfect but I’ve learned how to reconcile all of it. And man do I love living it. And appreciate it and everyone in it.
You are all a big part of that. Thank you for a GREAT season.