Trey Hardee: Taking A Swing At Cancer

By Karen Rosen | Sept. 30, 2013, 11:40 a.m. (ET)

Trey Hardee reacts after competing in the men's 100-meter portion of
the decathlon at the 2013 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships
at Drake Stadium on June 21, 2013 in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Few people know what it’s like to be in Trey Hardee’s shoes on the track.

He’s a two-time world champion and Olympic silver medalist in the grueling 10-event decathlon.

Off the track, though, millions of people each year can relate to Hardee’s experience of living with a family member diagnosed with cancer.

Now Hardee, 29, is using his fame to help families cope with such a devastating turn of events.

The Trey Hardee Charity Golf Tournament, teeing off Monday in his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., benefits the Flatwater Foundation, which provides cancer-stricken families access to mental health support, and the Cancer Support Groups of St. Vincent’s Foundation Birmingham. 

“We want to spread the message and help people understand what the Flatwater Foundation does and how much of a need there is for it,” said Hardee, who now lives in Austin, Texas, where the organization is based. His fiancée, Chelsea Johnson, the 2009 world silver medalist in the pole vault, is the director of development for the foundation, which aims to go national in 2014. She retired from competition in April 2011. 

The couple was in the midst of planning the golf event when Hardee’s stepfather, Frank DiCesare, died of leukemia in late August. The family learned of the diagnosis in February 2012.

“It was tough,” Hardee said. “You don’t know how to take that information in when the man that raised you has been given that kind of news. It was one of those moments frozen in time.”

Johnson said getting ready for the tournament has helped Hardee “in that it’s given him an outlet to look outside of his own situation. Just to hear the stories of other people going through almost the exact circumstances that he has, it gives you that comfort that you’re not alone. Cancer really affects everyone.”

Hardee became aware of the Flatwater Foundation a few years ago after his biological father, Jim Hardee, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, which he subsequently beat.

While Hardee said he possessed the mental stability to handle that situation, he recognized that “I’m in a position where if I needed help, I could afford it. But if you do a little research, you find out how much insurance companies actually will help out on the mental side of things — and it’s not very much. 

“So it became a mission to do anything and everything I could to help raise the funds that the foundation needs to help families in the Austin area.” 

Hardee became a global ambassador for the foundation. Wearing his world championship gold medal, he filmed a public service announcement “about what mental health really means to being successful or failing.” 

Ensuring that families have the mental support they need in trying times “was something that I believe in, and that I’m now more passionate about than ever,” Hardee said. 

As one of the world’s greatest athletes, he believes the mental and physical aspects of the two-day event go hand in hand.

“I think you can have one without the other,” Hardee said, “but your foundation and the thing that affects the end result more is that mental side of it. If you’re mentally prepared and mentally focused, you can accomplish more than your body even is capable of. At the same time, you could be as prepared as you’ve ever been and fit and strong, but if mentally you’re not in it, you’re worthless out there.

“It goes both ways.”

Hardee’s mind was strong, but his body let him down in early August during the 2013 IAAF World Championships in Moscow. His left hamstring began cramping during the fourth event, the high jump. He failed to clear a height for the first time in his career and withdrew. 

The hamstring was fine when he returned to the United States, but he strained it getting ready for the final decathlon of the season in Talence, France. While trying to rehab it, he tore a superficial nerve. Hardee wound up skipping the September event following “the calamity of errors in the whole month of August,” followed by the death of his stepfather.

Hardee said many of the 65-plus people who signed up for the golf tournament are playing in memory of his stepfather. “In my stepdad’s obituary it said in lieu of flowers and gifts for people to donate to the foundation or play in the golf tournament,” he said.

Olympic shot putters Reese Hoffa and Adam Nelson, who live in neighboring Georgia, will play in the tournament while Kathleen Hersey, an Olympic swimmer who lives in Austin, has donated items for an auction. Hersey’s adoptive mother, Regina, died of colon cancer in January 2012. Nike, which sponsors Hardee, has donated $5,000 worth of equipment, Johnson said.

Hardee won’t be part of a foursome at the golf course, but he will drive around in a golf cart and take guest shots in exchange for a donation.

“I’m not a very good golfer,” Hardee admitted. “If I’m under 90, it’s a great day.”

But he said he decided to host a golf tournament because it’s fun and relaxed. “I think you ask guys to take off work and play golf, that’s kind of an easy thing,” he said. 

Asking folks to sign up for a decathlon is admittedly tougher, but Hardee said, “I’ve got some ideas in my head about doing that in the Austin area, which is a really active community. I think it’d be fun to try to find out who is Austin’s best athlete, and Flatwater would be the beneficiary of that.”

Trey Hardee celebrates winning silver in the men's decathlon at the
London 2012 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on
Aug. 9, 2012 in London.

Right now the world’s greatest athlete is teammate Ashton Eaton, who wrested the title away from Hardee by winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal. 

Hardee wasn’t sure he would even make the U.S. Olympic Team after undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow, which he injured on his final javelin throw en route to winning the 2011 world title in Daegu, South Korea. 

“If I can come back from that in nine months, I can pretty much do anything,” he said. “I’m thinking one year at a time. I’m really excited about next season and the indoor world championships.”

But the big event on his schedule will be his wedding. Hardee and Johnson, who met at a track meet in Canada in 2004, are getting married on Sept. 13, 2014, in Austin.

Hardee proposed at Easter. After Johnson went out on a run with a friend and their two dogs, he waited along the trail.

“Trey popped out of one of the bushes, and my friend high-fived him and then kept running with our two dogs,” Johnson said. 

About a half mile before he appeared, however, she had tripped over a rock and fallen flat on her face.

“Both of my knees were bleeding and I was completely dirty,” Johnson said, “and there he is all dressed up in slacks and a buttoned-down shirt, which as you know with most athletes, Trey wears that probably twice a year. I’m like, ‘What is he doing? What’s going on?’ Then I figured it out.”

“I surprised her and did the whole ‘getting down on your knee,’” said Hardee, who also had flown in friends and family to surprise Johnson before everyone celebrated with a big barbecue.

“It was a happy day,” he said.

Hardee is marrying into pole vault royalty. Johnson’s father, Jan, earned the Olympic bronze medal in 1972 and holds pole vault camps in his backyard in California. He has a standing offer to train Hardee in the pole vault if he ever decided to specialize. 

“If I ever need any help from a Johnson, I usually look to Chelsea first,” Hardee said.

“My dad thinks Trey could be definitely one of the top pole vaulters in the world if he took some time and dedicated himself just to the event,” Chelsea Johnson said.

She called the relationship between her father and her fiancé “pretty entertaining.”

“They’re always kind of competing during Christmas and Thanksgiving,” she said. 

Jan Johnson will challenge Hardee to do gymnastics or skateboard — there’s also a high bar and a halfpipe and quarterpipe in the backyard.

“My dad’s a really, really good skateboarder, so he would try to get Trey to skateboard, everything that Trey can’t do as well,” said Johnson, adding that Hardee is game to try.

“He’s up for the challenge.”

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Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 13 Olympic Games. She has contributed to since 2009.