Shanteau inspires cancer victims everywhere

Aug. 10, 2008, 3:42 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) Eric Shanteau will be swimming for more than himself at these Olympics.

There's the husband and wife he's never met - both cancer survivors, now the proud parents of their first child. "They sent me pictures and everything," the U.S. swimmer says proudly.

He's gotten e-mails from as far away as Ireland, read all sorts of heart-wrenching stories from people stricken with hideous forms of a hideous disease. A couple of reporters even reached out, eager to share the personal stories about battling the "C'' word.

"I'm here for my country first and foremost, but also for everyone who's ever had to deal with this ... around the world," says Shanteau, who made the U.S. Olympic team just weeks after learning he had testicular cancer. "They're going to be in there swimming with me."

His story struck a nerve with those who admire the way he refused to let a devastating diagnosis ruin his lifelong dream. Going against conventional medical wisdom, Shanteau decided to put off surgery until after the Beijing Games, but only after being checked repeatedly to make sure the cancer wasn't spreading and threatening his chances of a full recovery.

So, while he prepares for his first race Tuesday night in the preliminaries of the 200-meter breaststroke - his only Olympic event - Shanteau continues to be amazed by the impact of his decision to go public.

"People kind of look at me as an inspiration, but the people who send me those messages and stories, they're my inspiration, especially since a lot of them are in far worse situations than I'm in right now," the 24-year-old said.

Shanteau has naturally struggled with the idea of getting ready for the biggest race of his life while he has cancer inside his body. He's tried to stay active and keep his mind on other things, which is why he attended the opening ceremonies even though the coaches discouraged it and most of his swimming teammates decided to watch on television so they wouldn't burn too much energy before the competition.

"It's been dragging on so long now," said Shanteau, who got the word some two months ago. "That's kind of been weighing on me the most since I've been here, just the fact that I still have this in my body and there is still some risk to it. The doctors have told me I'll be fine, I'll be cured of it. But I just want to hurry up and be done with it already."

The toughest times are when he's alone with his thoughts. He got a boost when the swimming competition started on Saturday, because now he can head to the pool to cheer on his teammates.

"It does take away a little bit from this experience," Shanteau said. "I've just tried to minimize it as much as I can. I don't want to think about it and I don't want to dwell on it. But sometimes that's hard, because it's such a big deal."

His fellow Americans are amazed at his resilience.

"The first few days you feel bad for him, then it's almost like you forget he has it," Dara Torres said. "He's part of the team. I can't believe what he's going through, but he still has that drive to be here and do his best."

But no one doubts that cancer is a serious matter, even when it strikes in a highly treatable form such as testicular.

Michael Phelps, for example, lost a grandmother to cancer.

"I know it's not an easy battle," Phelps said. "But his goal was to swim at the Olympic Games and he's excited. We're all supporting each other in everything we do."

Looking back, Shanteau's teammates suspected something was wrong from the way he was acting in the lead-up to the U.S. trials in Omaha, Neb. Even when he stunningly made the team in the 200 breast, finishing ahead of heavily favored Brendan Hansen, there wasn't much of a celebration.

"We were trying to figure out why he was being so coy and turning up to training late," backstroker Aaron Peirsol said. "There were many rumors floating around. We started most of them."

As soon as Shanteau touched the wall in second place at the trials, he knew there would be a decision to make: Have the surgery immediately and squander any chance of being in shape for Beijing, or hold off until after he got home from competing in the Olympics.

He chose the latter option after consulting with doctors who thought they could monitor the tumor through blood checks and CT scans. Shanteau was certainly eager to go to the Olympics after finishing third in both individual medleys at the trials four years ago - one spot off the team.

If the cancer ever showed signs of spreading, Shanteau would have pulled the plug on the Olympics and headed home to suburban Atlanta for surgery. But the frequent checkups, conducted at the team's training base in Palo Alto, Calif., showed no significant growth in the tumor. He was cleared to head to a last-minute training session in Singapore, then on to Beijing.

He's scheduled to go home on Aug. 24 and see a doctor two days later. There's a chance he could head into surgery that night.

"The Olympics look a lot smaller when you're dealing with something like cancer," said Hansen, who finished fourth in the 200 breast as the trials. "It gives us an idea that what we're doing here isn't as high on the pedestal as we sometimes put it on. We're going to be behind him every step of the way. It doesn't end here."

Shanteau is determined to live life to the fullest on this trip, which is why he decided to attend the opening ceremonies.

"I'm really happy I did that. It was one of the best experiences for a sporting event I've ever been to in my life," he said. "(The coaches) were worried about us being on our feet, being hot, but I don't care. That was something I always wanted to do if I ever made the team."

While conceding that Japan's Kosuke Kitajima is the overwhelming favorite in his event, Shanteau is hopeful of at least winning a medal.

Those sort of thoughts help him cope with that other thing.

"If it's not cancer on my mind, it's getting up on that podium," shanteau said. "That's part of the roller-coaster I'm on. It's going from the high point of thinking about a medal to the low of 'great, I still have cancer.'"