Saturday, January 28, 2012
A Man Among Boys.
During the month of April 2010, I was at the U23 house in Izegem, Belgium, passing the days like most cyclists. Hanging out with the boys in Europe is always full of good times and lots of joking, but that year, one of those jokes turned into a serious life changing experience. Connor O'Leary was experiencing some pain where the sun don't shine, but pain in this area is common for cyclists, especially during wet Belgian races. At one point during the ongoing joke about Connors jewels, I remember someone setting out a banana with a grape as one testicle and an apple as the other- at the time it was hilarious. Two months later while back in the US, we all received the information that the joke involving fruit on the table had become a reality. Connor was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 19, and I was shocked that such a thing could happen to such a young, healthy and positive kid. However, those attributes are what got Connor through his battle with the disease. Now cancer free, Connor will be joining his friends and teammates on Trek-LIVESTRONG for 2012. Connors experience is just one more lesson that shows us cancer knows no boundaries and can affect anyone at anytime. I am honored to have Connor joining the team for this season, as he is one of our countries promising up-and-coming climbers and is the most genuine, kind man I have come across in cycling.
1.) The BozBlog: When did you first start racing bikes, how did you get into this sport?
Connor O'Leary:I got into road cycling when I was nine years old. My Dad wanted to do a ride called RAGBRAI (Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa), a 7 day 550 mile ride across the state. I really wanted to go with him, so I trained on an old mountain bike, and right before the ride I got my first road bike, a little steel framed Bianchi. Once I swung my leg over the top tube I was hooked. I completed the 550 miles that year, and rode RAGBRAI for the next 4 consecutive years. After a few years of just riding, I was ready for something different, and wanted to train for more than just a ride. When I was 13 I decided I wanted to race, and Nationals happened to be in Utah. I showed up having no clue what I was doing, getting dropped hard in the crit that first year. I trained the next year, still really not knowing what I was doing, showed up for Nationals again and remember standing on the podium with none other than “The Boz” himself in the Juniors 13-14 TT.
2.) BB: What was your first reaction when you heard you had testicular cancer?
CO:Shocked. I remember going into the doctor, he felt me up, and within about 2 seconds he said we need to get you in to have an ultrasound. He said “I’m 90% sure that’s cancer”. I immediately got the ultrasound, and sure enough it was Cancer. My dad just started bawling, I felt distant. It was a lot to take in. I went from being in great form, and planning to leave for Nationals the next day, to scheduling surgery and seeing more doctors. I was beginning what would become the most important race of my life.
3.) BB: Do you remember the fruit diagram on the table in Izegem? What did you think then, and post diagnosis?
CO: Ha-ha I sure do remember that diagram! I’m pretty sure we were all on the floor crying we were laughing so hard. Ah that brings back some good memories. At the time, I honestly didn’t think it could be anything as serious as Cancer, it did cross my mind a few times, but I thought nah, I’m healthy, young, racing my bike on the National team, there is no way! It was just a good joke! Post diagnosis hindsight is 20/20 right? It definitely was something more serious than we all thought; nonetheless the fruit diagram still cracks me up.
4.) BB: I know that most of the Americans on LIVESTRONG rode in honor of you in 2011. How does it feel to now be part of this team?
CO: I can’t tell you how much having you guys ride in my honor meant to me and my family. I was Skyping with Nate and a few others, and I just remember them saying “We are riding for you at Nationals”. Not being able to participate really crushed my morale, but knowing that you guys genuinely cared, and were riding for me gave me strength to do what needed to be done. Having Ben King win the Road Race, and then dedicate the win to me, brought tears to my eyes. Being part of the team for 2012 is surreal. I’m looking forward to riding with a great group of guys, on behalf of other cancer patients, and hope to help raise cancer awareness. It is a cause that is very personal to me.
5.) BB: LIVESTRONG is a cancer foundation that provides resources for people with cancer around the world, what support/help did you receive from LIVESTRONG?
CO: The LIVESTRONG foundation was the first resource my family turned to for answers. Our first experience with cancer was when my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2007. My sister ordered a book from LIVESTRONG that helped to answer many of our questions, and helped comfort our family. Then, when I was diagnosed, we again turned to LIVESTRONG for answers. Lance Armstrong learned of my diagnosis and took the time to send me an email. I ended up flying back to Indiana to meet with his doctor Lawrence Einhorn who worked with Huntsman Cancer Institute to direct my care.
6.) BB: Did you continue to ride during your cancer treatment? Did your desire to race help keep your head up through such a life changing event?
CO: I tried riding for the first few cycles of my treatment, but it beat me down pretty bad. I remember wanting to be active even though I felt poorly, so I went to the community pool with all the senior citizens. I was doing some light walking in the water, and remember getting lapped by an 80 year old man (mind you, he was a fit 80 year old man), but nonetheless, I was distraught. I had gone from competitive cyclist to getting lapped in a pool by someone 4 times my age. I can honestly say cycling saved my life, a few months before finishing my chemo I was diagnosed with Pulmonary Embolisms (Blood Clots) in both lungs and in my heart. The doctor looked at me and said this would kill the majority of people; you’re alive because your heart is so strong. As you know, cycling is just as tough mentally as it is physically, so that mental toughness I used on the bike really helped me to get through my string of health problems.
7.) BB: What are your goals for the 2012 season?
CO: I’m really looking forward to the 2012 season; I’m healthy, and ready to race. I couldn’t ask to ride for a better bunch of guys to ride with, and hope to help the team in whatever way, shape or form I can. Riding for a team that promotes cancer awareness is huge! A major goal for me is to help my fellow cancer patients and survivors to LIVESTRONG!
Thank you so much Connor for your time, you have and will remain an inspiration for all of us on LIVESTRONG.
The photos is courtesy of Connor, from way back in the day. Nationals podium from 13-14 nationals in Park City UT. (Connor is the second from the left)