Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau is heading to Beijing with a devastating diagnosis: He has cancer.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, Shanteau said he learned just a week before the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., that he has testicular cancer. His doctors cleared him to compete in that meet and he surprisingly made the team in the 200-meter breaststroke, finishing second, ahead of former world-record holder and heavy favorite Brendan Hansen.
"If I didn't make the team, the decision would have been easy: Go home and have the surgery," Shanteau said. "I made the team, so I had a hard decision. But, by no means am I being stupid about this."
Although Shanteau's doctors have advised him to have surgery now, he's planning to put it off until after Beijing because he doesn't want to disrupt his lifelong goal. The 24-year-old Georgia native will be monitored closely over the next month and vows to drop out of the Olympics if there's any sign is cancer is spreading.
"I was sort of like, 'This isn't real. There's no way this is happening to me right now,'" Shanteau said. "You're trying to get ready for the Olympics and you just get this huge bomb dropped on you."
Shanteau stressed he's not willing to risk his life just to swim in his first Olympics. But, after considering the benefits of immediate treatment, he decided to put off surgery because it would keep him out of the water for at least two weeks, ruining his Beijing preparations.
Shanteau noticed an abnormality and was finally persuaded by his girlfriend to see a doctor. At his initial examination, he was told it was probably nothing more than a benign cyst. But an ultrasound showed the possibility of something more sinister, so he was sent to a specialist.
On June 19, exactly one week before he was scheduled to leave for the trials, Shanteau received the devastating news.
"It almost numbed me," he said. "I'll remember that day for the rest of my life. Talk about a life-changing experience. That's as big a one as you can have, I think. You're changed for the rest of your life. The few people I've talked to who've gone through this &
and they're all much, much older than I am &
say I'll know that even more in 10 years."
Luckily for Shanteau, the doctors determined his cancer was treatable and had not spread, so it wouldn't be a risk to compete in the Olympic trials.
If everything had gone according to script, Shanteau would have already gone through surgery and be on the road to recovery. But the improbable happened in the 200 breaststroke, where Hansen &
considered a lock to make the team &
faded badly on the final lap. Scott Spann powered by to win the race, and Shanteau passed Hansen as well to claim the second spot on the team.
Shanteau was going to the Olympics.
Surgery would have to wait.
"A lot of people kept asking me after that race, 'What was going on? We thought we would get a little more reaction out of you,'" he said. "It kind of put damper on things."
Only a few close friends and family knew about Shanteau's condition before the Olympic trials. He decided to go public with his story because he hopes to inspire others with cancer.
His camp already has heard from the agent of Lance Armstrong, who overcame the same disease and won the Tour de France seven straight times.
"Lance's agent told my coaches that I'm the closest thing to Lance Armstrong that there is on the planet right now," Shanteau said. "If I can have a fraction of the impact that he's had, just a tiny little bit, then I think what I'm going through will be good."
Olympic swimmer Shanteau will compete with testicular cancer