Monday, April 16, 2001
A poster for the Danskin Woman’s Triathlon illustrates a woman running out of the water and asks the question “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Some will be doing the race for the first time. Some will be veterans. The only thing consistent about the racers is their variety. They come from different age groups and different backgrounds. But one group doing the triathlon, Team Survivor, does have a common thread. All are cancer survivors. At The Hills Fitness Center in West Lake Hills, just outside of Austin, these former and sometimes current cancer patients are preparing to put the dread disease in its place.

Tina Tess is a bit reluctant to talk about her goal. For a woman who had finished her last cancer treatment less than four months earlier, one would think a daily life would be an event, not a triathlon. Tess says she will “try.” Not so says Team Survivor director Melanie Tucker, “She gonna do it. She has me. Tina is doing very well and she should do it,” Tucker said. “Her challenge is to become confident in the water… You’ve been here three to four days a week, why wouldn’t you,” Tucker added. One of the first things one sees in Tucker is for every one word of doubt, Tucker will have 10 to counter.

Looking at Tucker one would not see a cancer survivor. She looks like a hard core triathlete(except for the baby due this Summer) who has never been sick a day in her life. But four years ago she was recovering from Hodgkin’s Disease, a cancer that strikes the lymph nodes, and found the group provided support, friendship and a great workout. Also during her illness she met many different oncologists, including Dr. Thomas Tucker, who is now her husband. She said the biggest mistake she made during chemotherapy was not being active. She started training right after chemo, but the athletic woman in her 20’s took 2 1/2 years to get her stamina back to the pre cancer level.

Cancer patients come in all varieties- any trip to a cancer treatment center will bear that out- so not all Team Survivor members are just alike. “I always wanted to know how to swim,” said Mary Star, who could swim as a child in the river back in Mexico, but a swimming pool was a strange environment. The team members did 1/2 mile in the pool on this Monday afternoon in mid April. “This group is keeping me wanting to do it. This group is really very energetic, but I’m still afraid,” she said.

Support is part of the reason the team environment is put to use in something that is generally considered an individual sport. Its one thing to hop on a bike and ride through the neighborhood, swim down at the city pool or jog around the block by yourself. But friendship is an obvious draw with this group. Tucker was quick to contrast it with a “support group.” “You can come here and feel awful, but somebody’s going to make you laugh,” said Tucker.

A triathlon is an environment most are not used to. Even veteran triathletes had to have a first time. “We learn from each other, like how to get on a bike…. I think of us as emerging athletes,” said Carla Felsted. Felsted and Barbara George have been with the Team since its inception at the 1995 Danskin Triathlon in Austin when five women ran with Team Survivor. They are the only two of the original five still with the program. “We have a whole new type of athlete. They’ve really earned there name the moment they put on there tennis shoes, they are an athlete,” said Tucker.

Ofelia Sauser was one of the last swimmers that day. Sauser finished her laps in 41 minutes- well under her goal of under 45 minutes. The group of about 10 women and swimming coach Jimmy Bynum gave her a round of applause. Sauser was visibly touched, “oh ya’ll are so good,” she said to the group. Sauser is also a new swimmer, “I’m really excited about being here. Just in a few weeks I feel more comfortable,” she said. “Doing better means your making it a consistent part of your life,” Tucker said to the group as they assembled around beach chairs along the pool side.

Monday, April 30, 2001

It’s now exactly two weeks later and today is quite different. Some of the women’s hair is a bit longer. The weather is warmer and the sun is out later. But the most obvious difference- more people. As the race date is getting closer, almost twice as many women crowd the pool at The Hills.

One of those is Mary Coneway who was there for her second time. She had just recently finished chemotherapy and Melanie Tucker gave her encouragement tempered with a bit of advice. “We are not here for you to start where everyone else is,” she said emphasizing improvement over how well she did that day.

During Leona Russling’s abs class, Coneway had to stop a couple times to catch her breath. The fifteen minute workout was a bit more than she was used to. But Coneway finished, then went directly to the pool, put on her goggles, swim cap and joined the other women. The swimmers looked almost like airplanes in a holding pattern as one followed the other, swimming on the right-hand side of the lane and returning.

Tucker was anticipating the Danskin Triathlon, a little more than a month away. “It’s a serious race, but it’s supposed to be fun,” she said. With the baby due in August, Tucker and her relay team won’t set any speed records. She will be doing the swimming portion of the race along with a float. Though not all of Team Survivor plan to swim, bike and run the Danskin, she is there to support. “You survived cancer, we’ll get you through,” she said.

Sunday, May 6, 2001

Today is the day of the triathlon. OK, not THE BIG ONE, but The Hill’s Backyard Triathlon. This race was a smaller, more close nit event with 52 participants compared to the Danskin which will have about 2600. Nine members of Team Survivor raced in preparation, many not knowing what to expect.

It all starts at the numbering table. A magic marker makes Joanna Fountain “35.” Ray Anne Evans is “27.” Then comes the anxious wait until the first group starts.

Triathlons start in “waves” not everyone jumps in the water at the same time, not even all of Team Survivor starts together. The winner is not necessarily the first one across the finish line but times are calculated, and then the winner is declared. That’s fine with most racers whose goal it is to finish.

Vera Valcom-Boone was in line ready to start the swim. Earlier that week she had cancer related day surgery, but still planned on doing the race. “Gotta get back up. You can’t lay down,” she said.

Patrica Todd was the first Survivor in the water. After her 300 meter swim, it was out to the transition.

The transition is the time between each individual event. It is where the swim cap comes off and socks come on. It is where goggles come off and running shoes are put on. It is a very brief moment to prepare for the next event. The women in Team Survivor are familiar with transitions.

For Debbie Garret her big transition was in June of 1997 when she was diagnosed with cancer. Another big transition was when she finished chemotherapy in January ‘98 and started training the next month. “I was active during chemo(therapy) and afterwards I was wondering what I would do,” Garrett said. After more than three years, she is still a regular at Team Survivor training sessions. “It does kind of raise your interest in life,” said Joanna Fountain as she waited for her wave to start. Fountain had been in the program for about a year and her husband is an active triathlete who also encourages her. “I don’t know if the coaches appreciate what this means to us,” said Debbie Garrett, “you feel alive,” she said.

Bicycling in this race was done on a stationary cycle. Already there was talk from those who rode the Danskin course that hills would be a part of the ride, and no, not all those hills were going down. But stationary bicycles still made for a grueling eight miles. As racers came and went the mirrors became less effective for looking and more effective as message boards. “You go girls” one wrote on the glass in the condensation. Even on stationary bikes, styles differed as to how to make the eight miles. Anne Jarriel kept her head down most of the time as if making her self more aerodynamic, while Ofelia Sauser kept upright looking for cars.

Transition time again. Most triathletes say this one is the hardest.

Imagine legs doing the same thing for the last eight miles. Now it’s time for them to do something else. The moment the runner gets off her bike and starts running, she realizes her legs are heavier than she remembered. The temperature was about 71 degrees, but the humidity was high so sweating would be the rule.

The two mile run is just a mile less than Danskin. Along the crushed granite path most of the team walked most the distance. Patricia Todd ran it. Each lap all the racers were cheered on by the handful of spectators. “Half way there!” an encouraging voice would say to one. “One more lap,” another would hear. It was all cheers when Todd finished the run. “the last two miles of biking was the hardest, running is all hard,” Todd said. Rae Ann Evans was also happy about the finish but was thinking about Danskin. “…. it’s really hard. I’ve got a lot of work to do,” she said.

As the end of the of the course came into focus, Tina Tess made a mad dash to the finish line and leaped into the air as a finale’ for her first triathlon.

Thursday, May 24, 2001
From her office at Cancer Lifeline in Seattle, Lisa Talbot can still remember Team Survivor’s beginnings. As one of the founding members of Team Survivor she and the others would not know how it would be accepted. The plan was to run the Team in the 1995 triathlon series and see the reaction. Danskin had an annual woman’s triathlon series for several years and the idea of a team of breast cancer survivors running a triathlon was a new concept. Certainly cancer survivors had climbed mountains and run races, but that was usually an individual’s effort. Here was an organized group. Ms Talbot was a physical therapist in San Jose at the time and Danskin was looking for coaches to train on this new endeavor. The first race of the year was in Austin but by the time the race was run in Seattle later that summer it was decided that this would be a continuing group. Talbot is now the National Director for the Danskin Team Survivor Program which currently has 16 groups across the US, 30 volunteer coaches, and some 400 participants.

“Cancer is like a near death experience,” Talbot said often patients survive cancer “reevaluating there lives asking ‘who am I spending my life with, how am I living my life,” she said. This Talbot believes is a motivating factor for those who join Team Survivor. Another reason that gets women out of relaxation and on to the track, bike and pool, she said is because “these are women who are seeking a very positive way of dealing with there treatment.” The atmosphere “is not real sad, it’s very positive. Women are more comfortable in an activity,” said Talbot.

For a new member of the team, they are first encouraged to set goals. “We really need them to think about what they want to do,” Talbot said. Some are set on becoming triathletes and some are just hoping to get motivated to do more walking. “We encourage them not to feel intimidated,” she said. They ask all team members to discuss plans with their health professionals and they are generally supportive. “Doctors are excited they are up and exercising,” she said.

Monday, June 4, 2001
Carla Felsted swam laps by herself late in the afternoon. It is less than a week before Danskin and Felsted says she generally does not like to push herself too much this close to a triathlon. “Taper off, don’t stress yourself,” is Felstead’s strategy just before a race. Felstead, who works as a librarian at St. Edward’s University in Austin, is a veteran of several triathlons, starting out doing just one event as part of a relay team, then working her way up to doing the swimming, biking and running.
“I was active till I was about 25 then I became a couch potato. Cancer was my wake up call,” she said. Felstead had a mammogram in 1993 that showed no abnormalities, but she felt something was not the way it should be. With a history of breast cancer in her family, she had another exam done. After the second exam in the fall of that year, it was discovered she had the early stages of breast cancer. Due to early detection she avoided chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She suffered another setback that year when she broke her ankle to the point surgery was required to put pins into the bones.

In the fall of 1994, the former “couch potato’s” new life was taking shape. It was then she ran in The Race For the Cure, a run to raise money for cancer research. She seemed to be a good candidate for Team Survivor who was taking shape for the next summer’s Danskin. After many years of not swimming it was difficult for her to relearn the process. Putting her face in the water was unnatural to her, but something she was able to get used to. The ankle injury is still a factor in her running and she says that slows her down.
“I did the first in ‘95 (running) then the next year I did the swim, the third year I did all three the same year I turned fifty as a birthday gift to myself,” Felstead said.

Sunday, June 10, 2001
They were all up before the first hint of sunlight. Members of team survivor did not need to be reminded of what today was any more than a child needs to reminded of Christmas morning. This was the end of several months of training.

Final preparations began the previous day as bikes were checked in to the transition area. With some 2600 participants, bringing bikes in early in the morning would have been a logistical nightmare. A pasta dinner was also part of Saturday night to get the racers plenty of nourishment, and raise money for Team Survivor.

The women made final preparations in the darkness before the race. Lay out the towel. Wolf down a bit of sports drink and power food and wish friends good luck. Racers came in from across the US. Lisa Talbot came from Seattle to race with the team. Bev Sigler, coach of Dallas Team Survivor, was there with several members from the area. One of the women, Christi Sestak, was undergoing chemotherapy for brain cancer. “Wanna hear about it? It stinks,” Sestak said as she got ready for the race. Sestak is undergoing a new kind of treatment for her brain tumor. “They(the doctors) said ‘we’ll keep you hanging on till something new comes out.” She hopes this is the treatment that will save her life. Therese Simmons of Austin who almost didn’t make it to the race, was inspired by her story. Though the breast cancer survivor dreamed of doing the race in five years, she was out there with the rest of them. “Before I ran into her I was thinking no way in hell I’ll go through this,” Simmons said. “That’s what’s so beautifull, they live with the chance cancer will come back but they’re not letting cancer dominate them,” Simmons said.

Team Survivor would be the second group into the lake. With several waves of racers, some had a lot of waiting. The women donned there caps and made the trek to the boat launch ramp at Lake Walter E. Long. The crowd of racers, friends, volunteers and media looked less like a race and more like a small town in the park in Austin.

Shortly after seven am, the first wave- the elites- waded into the water. The signal was given and the elites swam off into the rising sun. For Team Survivor, anticipation began to build. They had been practicing for this and it was about to happen. The next couple of hours would mean no rest, no relaxation but lots of memories. It was a challenge about to be taken. Then they were instructed to take their positions.

“Go Team Survivor” the orange capped racers cheered with fists waving in the air as the women entered the water. “…..GO!” shouted the official. And Team Survivor was off into the dark green waters. Tucker, less than two months away from the due date, joined in the swim portion with the help of the float. The lead swimmers followed the buoys through the course and the others followed the trails of bubbles made by the lead swimmers. With hearing to a minimum a few went off course making the swim a little more than 1/2 mile.

As the shore came into sight, volunteers waded out to assist the women onto land. A run up the hill in bare feet took the women to the transition area.

With all the racers, running to the bicycles was like trying to find a car in a mall parking lot in December. Throwing shoes on and strapping on helmets began the second portion of the race. Team Survivor was no longer the group swimming together, but racing more as individuals. Tucker joined the Team Survivor transition area to cheer on the team members. Though she did not run or bike, her portion of the event was far from over.

Participants walked there bikes out of the transition area to the entrance. An almost constant flow of bicycles sped out of the park for about an hour for the twelve miles of farm roads circling the park.

Geographers call Western Travis County “The Hill Country.” Eastern Travis County, where the race was held, is part of “The Blackland Prarrie.” The bikers may beg to differ. The rolling countryside went from flat to roller coaster. Along the FM 973, bikers sailed down towards Decker Creek for about 1/3 rd of a mile- then climbed about the same distance. In the last 1/4 mile, bikers had cheers coming to them from crowds on the side of the road. Another welcome gift arrived when most of the women were on the bike course- clouds. The cloud cover stayed until almost the end of the race.

Melanie Tucker was still in the transition area as the racers returned their bikes to the racks. The coach was there to cheer on the team to the next phase of the race. The run was much flatter, except for one slight grade towards the end.

Tina Tess who said she would “try” to do the race back in April, “did” today and crossed the finish line.

“The hills were wicked,” said Barbara George, who finished despite recovering from a broken ankle earlier in the year. She said she enjoyed the run and the wildflowers in bloom along the course.

Christi Sestak had flowers waiting for her from her parents and husband at the finish line.

First-timer Phoebe Allen found the race “A lot easier than I thought it would be. Lots of people passed me but they were younger,” she said.

Sitting by the Team Survivor tent, the women discussed their plans to join the last team member across the finish line, just as they had began the race. Some members often trained together, some did not. Some trained in different cities. Some practiced on different days. Not all knew each other personally, but they were all part of Team Survivor and all had taken on the race as well as cancer. The now relaxed team members saw Teresa O’shaughnessy getting closer to finishing her run. Excitement returned as the team ran to join her. Three hours, thirty two minutes and thirty seconds after Team Survivor took to the water, a human chain of about 20 survivors raced across the finish line together amidst cheers, hugs and medals.

But still out on the course was Therese Simmons. Her training was interrupted so she decided to wait out this race. Her initial goal was to do it in five years, so she still would have been ahead of things had she raced in 2002. But Tucker knew Simmons had it in her and encouraged her to show up and she did. Simmons even postponed reconstructive surgery until after the race. “It was incredible the support I got from (director) Lisa Talbot and Team Survivor,” she said. In the water, Talbot swam along side her offering her a flotation device as she fatigued and encouraging her as well. Out of the water, Simmons and Talbot got on bikes and despite the grueling swim, she was supprised how well she rode after not biking for about a year. But the hills were overwhelming towards the end and Danskin Triathalon National Spokesperson and veterean triathlete Sally Edwards told her “don’t pedal, let me push you,” according to Simmons. “My heart monitor was going off at 190 (beats per minute) so I tried to slow my pace,” she said.

As she walked the run course, the volunteers were joining her to the finish line. “At that point it was like I didn’t come to terms with what I had accomplished,” Simmons said. She crossed the finish line, misty eyed, in four hours, nineteen minutes and twenty seven seconds feeling “a love for Danskin for having this program and for Team Survivor,” she said. Throughout her cancer, which was diagnosed in January 2000, she says she received enormous support from her husband, family, prayers from strangers and the team. Almost two weeks after the race, she reflected that something about her world changed that June morning in East Austin. “I feel like life started all over again.”