Swimming was everything Karen knew.
While other girls her age were playing with dolls, she was in the pool–on her town’s swim team competing against older, stronger, and faster kids.
At Princeton, she led her swim team to win their conference division championships three of the four years she swam.
But when Karen graduated in 1983 and jumped into her first job, she faced a crisis: how would she continue to stay active when she was stuck inside a cubicle most of the day?
So she biked every day to her job at a computer consulting firm, but she was itching for more.
Her roommate was training for a triathlon, so she tagged along — but only because she knew she needed to keep active.
But it wasn’t anything serious.
A year later, she entered her first triathlon ever, riding the same bicycle she rode to work every morning. She didn’t win. Or even get close. But she did finish. And was eager to take her game to the next level.
So she did another one. And another one. And another. And another.
It was her 6th triathlon that year where she won her age group, finishing 2nd overall. But she missed out on the $500 cash prize because she checked the “amateur” box.
Karen Smyers was no amateur.
Five years later, after finishing 4th at the International Triathlon Union World Championships in France, she decided to compete full-time.
Her dream was to get on the podium at the Championships. To do that, she needed to train full time. But after a year of hard core training, her return to the Championship was disappointing.
After swimming nearly a mile in open water and biking almost 25 miles, she was stuck in 4th place 4.5 miles into the 10-kilometer run that would ultimately determine the winner. And it sucked.
Physically, it sucked.
It was a hot, humid September day in Orlando. Mentally, it sucked worse. After all of her training and after exerting every ounce of effort through the swim and cycling parts of the triathlon, she still wasn’t good enough to earn a medal.
Out on the course, her friend, the 1985 Ultrasport Athlete of the Year Scott Molina, saw her struggling and shouted: “Karen, you gotta want it!”
Those five words burrowed their way into her soul, reigniting the flame that the miserable conditions had begun to put out.
Off in the distance, she could see three people: Erin Baker, Joy Hanson, and Carol Montgomery. She began to drive. Pushing herself to the edge of breaking.
She churned her legs madly and soon slipped past Erin. She pulled even with Joy and Carol with only a half mile left. She had been gaining on them, and they didn’t even realize. They had passed Karen long ago and forgot about her as a threat. To Joy and Carol, it was just the two of them battling it out to see who would become the best triathlete of 1990.
And as Karen slipped past them too, she took them by total surprise.
She pushed her way through the final minutes of the race and into the heart of Disney World, the most magical place on earth, with a performance that could only be described as magical.
Nobody forgot Karen after that. Between 1990 and 1995, she twice won the St. Croix International Half Ironman Triathlon, took second in the Gatorade Ironman and fourth in the Ironman World Championship in 1994 (her first time competing), and won the USA Triathlon Elite National Championships in 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994.
Karen Smyers clocked the fastest marathon time to that date for new entrants in the 1994 Ironman World Championships.
In 1995, she forever left her mark on the sport.
She won the USA Triathlon Elite National Championship, was named Triathlete of the Year by Triathlete Magazine (for the 3rd time in 5 years), was named the US Olympic Committee Triathlete of the year for the 2nd year in a row, took gold at the Pan Am Games triathlon, and pulled off an accomplishment no other woman ever had.
Karen Smyers won both the International Triathlon Union World Championship and Ironman Championship in 1995 — the two most prestigious races in the sport.
She was unstoppable.
And then life happened. In a freak accident, a storm window she was installing slipped and sliced through her left hamstring in 1997. It was a setback. But she fought back.
In August 1998, three months after giving birth to her first child, an 18-wheeler sideswiped her while she was out cycling, breaking six ribs, dislocating her shoulder, and leaving her with a collapsed lung. It was another setback. But she fought back.
Four months later, she was back on the bike training for another triathlon. She refused to stay down.
In September of 1999, she finished in the top 40 at the ITU World Championships — despite being sick with debilitating bronchitis. She was tired and beat down, but not out. Fighting back was her move. She refused to quit.
But weeks after the World Championships, doctors came back with devastating news. It wasn’t just bronchitis she was fighting. She might have thyroid cancer.
Knowing what could be growing in her neck, she decided to compete in the Ironman Championship a month later — finishing just 7 minutes behind 1st place over the nine-hour race.
Then she did it again.
Postponing the biopsy on her neck until after her next triathlon in Mexico.
Cycling through the streets of Ixtapa, Mexico, tragedy struck again. A cyclist ahead of her lost their balance, flipping their bike–causing Karen to spill off hers and tumble into the streets, breaking her collarbone.
December of 1999 found her lying in a hospital bed after having her thyroid removed over the course of a complex 6-hour surgery: the same amount of time it typically takes to complete a Half Ironman. It was a setback. But she fought back.
She had more reason than ever this time around.
The triathlon would make its debut as an official sport at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. If Karen could be one of the three fastest triathletes during the US trials almost a year after her cancer surgery, she would be able to represent the country she loved competing in the sport she’d given her life to.
There were to be two rounds of trials: the first in Sydney, Australia, and the second in Dallas, Texas. If she could outright win the first trial, like she had won so many other competitions, she wouldn’t need to compete a second time. She could secure her spot on the first try.
Except she finished 4th. Again.
In Dallas, the top two finishers would round out the US Triathlon team. It wouldn’t need to be an outright win. Karen just needed to finish either first or second.
She finished seventh.
Her bid for Olympic history was finished. It was a setback. But she fought back.
She would go under the knife again to remove another cancerous lymph node and endure chemotherapy.
But a year later, she came back from her battle with cancer in a flash, finishing fifth in the Ironman Championships and winning the U.S. Elite National Championship.
Her story continues. Today Karen coaches triathletes & cyclists at all levels, helping them push through their own obstacles.
She didn’t win every race, but she never stopped trying.
She never stopped fighting.
She fought cancer. She fought broken bones. She fought peer pressure. She fought broken dreams. She fought unrealized expectations.
It wasn’t a cookie-cutter journey to greatness. She lunged forward and got pushed back by life. She made massive progress and then lost soon after.
She won when she should have lost. And lost when she wanted to win most. Which is a perfect illustration of what it takes to be a champion.
You have to keep fighting. Even when life seems unfair. Even when you give your best and it’s not enough.
Karen’s life is a story about trying. Desperately. Fiercely. Against all odds.