Laura Schwanger Defies the Odds and Beats Cancer to Return to Paralympic Games

Sept. 02, 2008, 10:44 p.m. (ET)
Paralympian Laura Schwanger thought her competitive career was over.

In 1996, the 38-year-old Schwanger had retired with an impressive resume that included three Paralympic Games and 11 track & field medals. But it wasn’t until after a routine mammogram 10 years later that she faced her most daunting opponent yet – breast cancer.  

Schwanger was no stranger to receiving bad news from doctors. In 1981, while serving active duty in the Army, Schwanger was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a disease that would leave her in a wheelchair and eventually lead to her Paralympic track & field destiny. The news of cancer, however, was not something Schwanger was prepared for.

“I always knew I wasn’t going to die of MS,” Schwanger said. “The doctors said I might die from the side-effects, such as my legs giving out, but the cause of death wasn’t going to be MS. But with cancer, the cause of death is cancer.”

After grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation in 2006, Schwanger was left feeling weaker and more fatigued than ever before in her life. Her inner-athlete yearned to get back into form.

“I knew I had to do something to get my strength and endurance back,” Schwanger said. “I saw documentation on how good rowing and paddling is for breast cancer survivors. It was the ideal thing to use my upper body and regain my strength and range of motion.

“Also, I wanted to be part of those breast cancer survivors who were out there rowing.”

Schwanger received an invitation from a friend in Philadelphia to join a rowing group for the disabled, an offer she welcomingly accepted. Starting slowly with only two days of training a week, the positive affects of the sport were profound, both physically and mentally.  

“Each day I was feeling stronger and less tired,” Schwanger said. “I looked forward to those days that I was going out to row with the group. Just getting out and enjoying life.

“It was great to feel a good tired because I knew I had physically worked my body. Not because I was weak from illness.”

Only six months after joining the rowing group Schwanger received her classification as an arms-only rower and was made eligible to enter competitions. The rest, as they say, is history.

“I’m very athletic and pick up new sports very quickly,” Schwanger said. “I’m also very competitive. Give me a new challenge and I’ll do my darndest to succeed.”

And succeed is just what she did.

In 2007, one year after undergoing cancer treatment, Schwanger entered the U.S. National Championships – and won. The victory earned her an invitation to the World Championships in Munich, where she placed sixth and also qualified for her fourth Paralympic Games.

“To know that I have done this 12 years after I retired, and to do it in a different sport that is so incredibly anaerobic is amazing,” Schwanger said. “After all I’ve been through; I can’t even put the feeling into words. Excited just doesn’t even come anywhere near describing it.”

Today, at nearly 50 years of age, Schwanger trains in the water eight to 10 times a week and uses meditation and mental imagery techniques to prepare for the Beijing Games in September. A path the once-retired Paralympian never thought she would be following.

“I would not be doing this if I had not had breast cancer,” Schwanger said. “To be able to say I’ve survived cancer, anything that I do is a success. And if I can beat cancer, I can beat any of those other young women in the competition.”