Karen’s race resume shows she’s an incredible athlete. She won the U.S. Pro Nationals in six consecutive years. In 1995, she was the only triathlete to accomplish the remarkable feat of winning the Ironman World Championship in Kona and five weeks later, the ITU triathlon world title. The way she has dealt with hardships shows she’s an incredible person.
On a warm day in June 1997, Karen decided to change her storm windows and replace them with screens for the summer. A last-minute chore before she flew to Europe the next day for the ITU World Cup in Monte Carlo and an Ironman race in Germany. Somehow a large storm window broke. When she lifted it over her head, a shard of glass came down and severed her hamstring. She was home alone and called 911. After her doctor performed surgery to repair it, he put her leg in a full cast – from her ankle to her hip.
“They told me I would need up to six months of rehab,” she explained, “My husband and I looked for the silver lining and decided a nine-month maternity leave was a pretty good layover for a six-month rehab. My daughter, Jenna, was born 10 months later in May.”
Her body went through some incredible changes that year. While her belly was growing, her leg was shrinking at an alarming rate. The stark contrast of training 20-24 hours a week and suddenly doing nothing caused the atrophy to accelerate. Karen got creative at the gym. She placed two rowing machines next to each other and worked on her cardio. While she rowed, her bad leg glided back and forth, resting on the seat of the other rowing machine. She used an electrical-stimulation machine at home to try to wake up her VMO. And she went to physical therapy for a couple of months to get her knee tracking properly again.
A few months after Jenna was born in 1998, Karen prepared to compete at Kona again. On a training ride in August, she was hit by an 18-wheeler. “I remember the terror that he was going to hit me. He came along side me and came so close that I was trying to hold my line for dear life and not go into the soft shoulder where there were trees and rocks or veer into him,” she recounted, “I fell pretty hard going down a hill. I had a third-degree separation of the shoulder, six broken ribs, a lung contusion, and road rash of course.” Unaware that he struck her, the trucker kept going, but six different motorists got his plate and reported him.
After the accident, she couldn’t nurse her baby without her husband Michael’s help. A week later, she was back in the water at her PT's recommendation. Karen went to Walden Pond and quickly realized it was too soon for a swim in deep water and she might drown. She opted for a friend’s backyard pool to rehab her shoulder. Those 15-yard lengths of the pool were quite challenging for the woman who was accustomed to 4,000-yard workouts.
The bike accident affected her physically and emotionally. “The thought that I almost robbed my daughter of her mom was scary. To this day, I’m still on guard when I hear a motor behind me when I’m on the bike,” she explained, “It causes a visceral reaction in me. If it’s a truck, I have a hard time controlling my trembling. In a way, it’s helped me examine how important the sport was to me. I knew I’d have to get over it. Now, it’s a healthy fear.”
Though she always thought of herself as a conservative rider, she plays it extra safe now. She avoids rush-hour traffic and certain roads with narrow shoulders. “You can’t protect yourself from everything. You still have to live,” Karen added.
She wanted to make a strong comeback in ’99 with the hope of qualifying for the inaugural triathlon event in the 2000 Olympics Games. “I needed to raise my rankings to even be eligible for the Olympic Trials. I did a few World Cup races and placed second behind Laurie Bowden in Hawaii,” she recounted. Karen raced Kona, knowing her body harbored thyroid cancer. Weeks before the event, her doctor discovered the swollen gland by chance when she went in to see him for bronchitis. He ordered an ultrasound and allowed her to postpone a biopsy until November after her final races for the season.
Karen did one more race in Mexico. She was involved in a fluke accident when a competitor's pedal came out the crank in front of her. “I went over my bars and broke my collarbone on the other side from my separated shoulder, which kind of evened me out,” she said with a chuckle.
She flew home and got a biopsy on her thyroid the next day. It confirmed the cancer. In December, Karen had the surgery to remove her thyroid. More treatment would be necessary, but since she had a slow-growing cancer, it could wait until after the Olympic trials in June. Karen was extra motivated to comeback right away after the shoulder injury and the thyroid surgery. The year proved to be too challenging. She gave it her all, but wasn’t fast enough to make the Olympic team.
In August, the doctors prepared her for the radioactive iodine treatment. A pre-test revealed some large lymph nodes that were too big, so they performed additional surgery to remove them. A month later, Karen had the radioactive iodine treatment. She was put into a lead-lined room, and given a radioactive pill from a lead-lined container. All of her remaining thyroid cells absorbed the radioactive iodine. The remainder of the poison passed through her intestines and damaged her organs.
“After the treatment, they run a Geiger counter over you to see if it’s under a certain limit before you can leave the hospital. For a week I couldn’t hold my daughter close or sit next to her when I read to her. I had to keep my distance because I was still a bit radioactive,” she explained, “I had to put my dishes in the dishwasher right away. I had to wash the toilet and shower right away after using them to protect my family.”
The treatment worked. There were no detectable cancer cells remaining. Her stomach was out of sorts for a few months. Amazingly, she returned to compete in Kona in 2001, and placed sixth. She also won the Pro Nationals in New York, a month before her 40th birthday.
Due to her cancer treatment, she was advised not to get pregnant for two years. Once she and her husband Michael started trying, she had two miscarriages before they finally welcomed their second child, Casey, into the world.
Despite everything Karen Smyers has experienced, she has a relaxed air about her. “I think going through those kind of things changes you. It makes you more appreciative of just getting to the starting line. And being healthy enough to compete,” she explained, “ I’m just really grateful for the sport because it was a huge motivator to get through these things. My whole background in sport gave me the tools to deal with adversity as it came to me.”
It’s no wonder she was the first woman inducted into the Triathlon Hall of Fame. Today, she’s passing her knowledge along to other athletes of all ages. She puts on a kids’ triathlon in her hometown, and coaches athletes like Ironman Brazil Champion Dede Griesbauer. Karen still competes at the professional level at the age of 47, and is thankful for her sponsors – Trek has been with her for the past 20 years and Saucony for the past 3 years.
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