Karen Smyers won the first triathlon she entered in 1984 and has been hooked ever since. In those days, she was working full-time, training during lunch, and often getting passed during the bike portions of races. A few years later, she had sponsors like Trek and Nike and was crushing her competitors. In 1995, she won Hawaii Ironman and followed up with a third place finish in 1996. Then, in 1997, her real challenges began.
After a string of painful and life-threatening accidents and a bout with thyroid cancer, triathlete Karen Smyers is back in training and thinking about her next Ironman. But racing comes second to the most important thing in her life: her family.
I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in the fall of 1999. But I’d had a string of mishaps before that.
In June of 1997, the day before I was supposed to fly out to races in Monte Carlo and Germany, I took down a storm window and it shattered. A big piece of glass went through my hamstring. I went into the emergency room and they repaired the hamstring, and I woke up with a giant cast on.
I needed four to six months of rehab. But there was a silver lining—[my husband] Michael and I wanted to start a family and this seemed like a good opportunity. We went right to plan B, despite the cast!
Jenna was born in May of 1998. While I was pregnant I was able to rehab my leg completely. I went back to training during the pregnancy, and swam up until the day she was born. The labor took 48 hours and ended in a C-section—another surgery. But my pain threshold went up after that labor.
I did a few races that summer. But in August, I was out on a training [bike] ride and was hit from behind by an 18-wheeler. I broke six ribs, separated my shoulder, had lung contusions, and a lot of road rash. That was scary—it occurred to me how close we came to not having a mom for Jenna. She was only three months old, and I was still nursing.
The ribs and the separated shoulder just healed eventually, but it was very painful for a few weeks. Poor Michael had to take care of both Jenna and me. I had a really good physical therapist, and we started working with the shoulder right away. I wanted to get back as soon as I could.
Our sport got into the Olympics for the first time in 2000, and I wanted a shot at making the team. I was having a great season. But in September, about a month before Ironman, I got bronchitis and had some swollen glands around my throat—so I had an ultrasound. They found a lot of nodules and thought it might be cancer.
I needed to get a biopsy before we could be sure it was cancer. Thyroid cancer is very slow growing and fairly treatable, so my doctor told me it was fine to put off the biopsy until after Ironman.
I finished second. I was leading until eight miles into the run. But that was my first time back after two surgeries and the truck accident, and I was very happy. After the race, I knew I had to deal with the biopsy. It was scheduled for three weeks after Ironman.
I decided to go to one more race, in Mexico. The race was draft-legal, which means you ride in a pack. A girl crashed right in front of me, and I went head-over-heels and broke my collarbone.
I got back, and I had to go to my biopsy the next day, and the result showed thyroid cancer. And the Olympic trials were now four months away and I had a broken collarbone.
I had surgery to remove my thyroid right away. There was cancer in six lymph nodes, and they removed those, too. Then they recommended radioactive iodine treatment. But since the iodine treatment really zaps your strength, I decided to wait and do the treatment after the Olympic trials.
I rehabilitated the collarbone and got back into training. It was good to have an impending goal. I didn’t have time to sit around and mope. I got in pretty good shape for the Olympic trials—just not good enough. My swimming held me back. But it was still worth the journey—and it was great to be part of our first Olympic trials.
I went in June. I had very high absorption of the preliminary radioactive iodine, and they saw that I had a few more lymph nodes that needed to be removed. I raced all summer between treatments, but I was having a hard time training, and I didn’t do very well.
I was low on energy, I felt very sluggish and kind of sleepy. My savior, absolutely, was exercise. I kept making myself go out and swim or run and if I kept going, after ten or fifteen minutes I would wake up. My metabolism would kick in and I’d feel good the rest of the day. But overall, I didn’t feel good for a long time.
I came back in 2001. I had a pretty good year. I won our national championships, just a couple weeks before my fortieth birthday. Then I went back to Ironman last year and got fifth, which wasn’t too bad, all things considered.
I am training and racing but the primary goal right now is to try to have another child. I think my child-bearing years will run out before my competitive years do. I’m taking it month by month.
I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t pop into my head now and again. The way I’m swimming, it’s just not an option. But it could eventually come back. It’s already much better than it was last year.
I want to see how long I can keep going. I’m much more careful and conservative, but I think I can get a lot out of myself athletically and keep my life in balance. And someday I’d love to break the 80-84 age group record at the Ironman.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.