Video: Cancer survivor Eric Shanteau swims for gold

updated 8/5/2012 9:09:36 AM ET 2012-08-05T13:09:36

The athletes representing Team USA in London are about as top-notch as they come. They're quick, have incredible strength and endurance, and they're dedicated. But they're also human.

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These world-class Olympians fatigue. They experience fear and disappointment. And they're definitely not invincible.

Case in point: A week before the 2008 trials for Beijing, Eric Shanteau — Olympian and world champion breaststroker — was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Some people would have given up, but Shanteau competed anyway.

That's not to say it was easy. Being diagnosed with cancer was downright difficult, says the 28-year-old Shanteau, who had never had any kind of surgery before he was hit with the news. So what was going on in his mind that helped him board that flight to Beijing? "It's not so much what you think about, but more what you don't think about," the swimmer says. "You have to block out any negative thoughts, and concentrate on the good things that can come out of your situation."

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In Shanteau's case, the good that came was a realization of his own mental strength. "I learned that I can deal with stressful scenarios," he says. But a cancer diagnosis was more than a one-person task. And for a pro athlete — or any guy — who relies on himself all the time, asking for help isn't always easy.

"No matter the circumstance, being able to ask for help and knowing that you need help is one of those things that helps you grow and mature," he explains. "I learned to appreciate the relationships I had with friends and family."

But like anything else, returning back to your healthy self takes time and patience. Surgery left him with a 3- to-4-inch incision on his lower abdomen. "About three weeks after my surgery, I went to push off the wall for the first time, put my hands over my head for a streamline position, and I just felt like I was — for lack of a better word — tearing." Of course he wasn't, but the point is, you have to give your body time to adapt. Shanteau rested for another few weeks, and was back in the groove after another few months.

Now, Shanteau is back and cancer free. These days his focus is on "pre-hab" — preventative exercises, and light weights 4 or 5 days a week — instead of rehab. The way he sees it: Don't just worry about something once it's become a problem — make the necessary lifestyle changes that'll assure you're always in good health. If you want to be the best you can be, it's something you need to do, he says.

Additional research by Cassie Shortsleeve

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