Commentary

Eric Shanteau ... swimmer, survivor

Originally Published: July 2, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

By its nature, swimming can be a solitary sport: You cannot talk your way through a workout if your face is in the water. Swimmers have just one constant companion: the black line on the bottom of the pool. It's the only thing that goes with you every lung-searing stroke of the way.

That was the existence Eric Shanteau chose, and he has excelled at it -- at Auburn, where he earned a degree in entrepreneurship and family business, and at Texas Aquatics in Austin, Texas, where he has trained since graduation. Shanteau made the 2008 Olympic team, and he is now the fastest breaststroker in America. He's poised to dominate the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events at the USA Swimming National Championships, which begin Tuesday in Indianapolis, and he should push Ryan Lochte for the 200 individual medley title as well.

[+] EnlargeEric Shanteau
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesEric Shanteau qualified for the 2008 Olympic team around the same time he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

But to be that good, every swimmer must be more than a little self-centered. It is a sport built upon individual times, individual results and individual glory. There are teams and there are relays, sure, but swimming is mostly first-person singular.

Shanteau is still immersed in that world, but a vicious physical detour to his life's journey positioned him to think and act outside himself.

He isn't just Eric Shanteau, largely anonymous swimmer. He is Eric Shanteau, Olympian cancer survivor and semi-involuntary role model.

"I'm a swimmer with testicular cancer," Shanteau joked. "I don't have a lot of secrets left."

Spend your life in a Speedo and you're an open book. Add in a very public bout with cancer in a very private place, and you couldn't blame Shanteau for feeling overexposed.

After his diagnosis last fall, Shanteau admits to "freaking out" a bit as the realization hit that even if he was physically fine, his life would never completely return to its pre-cancer form.

"At one point he said, 'I'm ready for all this cancer stuff to be over,'" said Shanteau's coach, Eddie Reese. "I said, 'It doesn't get over. Roll up your sleeves and get into it.' He's done that.

"A lot of times kids that age don't realize we're here to help people. Life and its realities were forced on Eric a lot earlier than he ever imagined. He's very conscious of other people going through similar battles to what he went through."

Shanteau has spent the last year transforming into something he'd never dreamed of: a spokesman for testicular cancer awareness, working through the Lance Armstrong Foundation and speaking nationwide to groups about his most personal of health issues.

In that respect, it can be argued Shanteau has grown more in the past year than any of the other main characters from the engrossing swimming dramas at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., and the Water Cube in Beijing. While Michael Phelps' eight gold medals were certainly very good for Michael Phelps, and for swimming as a whole, the story did not readily transfer to a greater good.

Shanteau's swimming through cancer? Then being inspired to help others through his experience? That can move the needle in a real-world way.

"I enjoy getting the message out there," the 25-year-old Shanteau said. "People cringe at the word 'cancer,' and then you add 'testicular' to it and they really get uncomfortable. One of the stigmas we have to overcome to save people's lives is to acknowledge it. People put off treatment for months and months or years and years. Getting to a doctor can mean the difference between life and death."

The battle began June 19, 2008, when Shanteau's doctors told him the lump on his testicle was indeed cancerous. Bad news was compounded by terrible timing. The Olympic trials were set to begin a week later, and Shanteau knew he had a solid shot at making the team. A lifetime of work was close to fruition -- and now this plot twist?

"The doctor told me at 11:30 that morning," Shanteau recalled. "I tried to get through to my parents [in his home state of Georgia], then I talked to Eddie and Kris [Kubik, Texas Aquatics assistant coach] and got in the water two hours later.

"That was one of the more difficult days. I'll definitely remember that practice. My mind was elsewhere during those two hours. It was like I was numb, like, 'What has just happened to me?'"

But doctors gave Shanteau clearance to go to Omaha and compete in the trials. Somehow, he kept his head together -- actually using the stress of competing for one of just two Olympic berths in each individual event to his advantage.

"It took a meet like the Olympic trials to get my mind off it," Shanteau said. "For eight or nine days, I could freak out about swimming instead of cancer."

On July 3, 2008, the freak-out ended in culmination of a dream. Shanteau finished second in the 200 breaststroke, punching his Olympic ticket. The race produced the most shocking result of the trials, as American record-holder and prohibitive favorite Brendan Hansen finished fourth and Scott Spann surprisingly won the race.

But there were too many conflicting emotions swirling for Shanteau to fully savor the moment.

"I'd always envisioned my making the Olympic team and going nuts," he said. "The first thing I thought of was 'I don't even know if I can go to the Olympic Games.'"

After consulting with his doctors, Shanteau was cleared to go to Beijing if he kept clearing weekly checkups to make sure the tumor was not growing rapidly. But that process put him three days behind the rest of the national team in arriving to train in Palo Alto, Calif.

When Shanteau showed up late, he knew he had to explain himself. That's when he told the team he had cancer -- and he was going to swim anyway.

"That was the first time I said it in front of a group of people who weren't all family and close friends," he said. "The look on people's faces -- they were totally dumbfounded."

Shanteau went on to finish 10th in the 200 breast in Beijing, swimming a personal-best time. He got to march in the opening ceremonies. He got all the Olympic memories and gracefully handled his private health issue's becoming a major media story.

Then he came home and had surgery Aug. 26 to remove the cancer. On Sept. 15, 2008, he was given a new birthday. He was declared cancer-free, and if that's still the case Sept. 15, his chances of a recurrence drop considerably.

Given that new lease on life, Shanteau decided to stay in training, unlike many other Olympians. Along the way, every checkup has been clear. He's had a strong winter and spring and comes to Indy a near-lock to make the U.S. world championships team, which will be selected from this meet.

After that, who knows? The 2012 Olympics are a long way away, and Shanteau would be 28 by then.

"I do want to see what else is out there," he said.

Eric Shanteau already knows there are a lot of people with cancer out there. And his impact on them is greater than anything he could do in the pool.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.