When Newtown’s Christine Olszanski jumps into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Hawaii around 12 noon Thursday, she should be easy to spot among the thousands of female competitors in the 2022 World Ironman Triathlon Championships.
She will be the one wearing perhaps the biggest smile.
You see, even though the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run might seem daunting, Olszanski has not only already conquered this challenge but one far greater.
In her lifetime, she’s overcome forms of cancer not once, but twice.
Eight years ago we wrote about her amazing navigation through these life-threatening episodes and today the story is just as compelling.
Sixteen years ago, her health outlook appeared bleak.
She had been diagnosed with the disease in her neck and mouth. Surgeons had to do a complete dissection of her tongue among other painful treatments.
“I was going through all the normal stages of a cancer diagnosis,’’ the 56-year-old triathlete recalled in a recent telephone interview. “Denial, self-pity. . .you simply cannot absorb all that information at once.’’
No doubt her world-class fitness level played a part in surviving this dangerous threat to her life.
“When I went into surgery, I had already run 30 marathons,’’ explained Olszanski, who now has completed 55. “I kept wondering: ‘How does a young woman who is not partaking in alcohol, drugs and so on get to this?’ There were no red flags in my life. I drank milk, orange juice, water.
“That’s a mystery but I honestly believe my overall health helped me get through it and to recover. And to continue going forward. When you come to that fork in the road where you might end up dying, it changes your whole perspective on life.’’
Indeed. When you go through the darkness and come out the other side, you experience a greater appreciation for every precious moment.
“Every day, every second counts,’’ she said. “You tell the people around you exactly how you feel about them because you may not get that second chance. You live a life of drama, I don’t know how else to say it.’’
Olszanski also battled through ovarian cancer in 2013 and fortunately that struggle took place after she already had given birth to a pair of daughters. But that’s where the dream of a third child ended as a hysterectomy had to be performed.
“I pray that was my test,’’ she said, “and I pray we don’t need to go down that path again.
“It was difficult but nothing more has come of it. So far I’ve been healthy and I have been able to do these Ironman events and really excelled at them.’’
Olszanski grew up in the hills of western Pennsylvania and eventually became a standout cross-country runner in high school.
Little did she know her adult life would be quite tumultuous.
“I know I am high risk,’’ she said. “I will always have cancer cells in my body. I have to be on top of everything that’s not right. I have to be aware of every little change.’’
Events like the Ironman have kept her emotional outlook upbeat.
“This has helped keep me whole,’’ says Olszanski, a former energy purchase advisor for large corporations who recently retired. “I have a family and an oncologist for a husband (Anthony). Being able to do my sport has helped me to grow as a person. And to have a sense of integrity and self-accomplishment.
“When I was faced with the cancer, it’s a very scary time. You don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to do the things you did yesterday again.’’
This unbridled spirit was cultivated back in Monaca, a Pittsburgh suburb, during her formative years.
She grew up on a farm with three siblings and running was an escape valve.
“Just to get away from my siblings, I would run,’’ she said with a chuckle. “I ran cross-country for Center High School and a bunch of us decided on graduation day to run a marathon together.’’
After many marathons, the triathlon thing only started in 2013.
Some training friends in Newtown urged her to join them in a triathlon, which she did, with the blessing of her family, which includes daughters Laura-Ashley (24) and Rachel (22).
Only thing was, she had never biked before. She had been swimming (to complement her run training) since 1981 but getting up on a bike was pretty darn new.
Mike Joseph, owner of Firehouse Cycles, loaned her a bike and it didn’t take long for her to get the hang of it, even though that first half-Ironman was a bit comical.
“Yeah,’’ she said with a laugh. “56 miles and never down (on the tri-bars). I borrowed a bike and it was a very Mary Poppins-type event. I was off the bars the whole time. But I just really enjoyed finishing it. Knowing that I could do it was the catalyst that said, let’s go for the full Ironman.’’
She went on to do the full Ironman at Atlantic City, finishing 12th in her age group and providing a chance to think of one day competing in the World Ironman Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
“You have to want to live your life and live it everyday to its fullest,’’ she reiterated. “You can’t take it for granted. That’s how I’ve always been. I spend my time on the road praying and thanking God for everything he’s blessed me with.’’
9/11 Heroes Run 5K, 2 p.m., Doylestown. Contact https://911heroesrundoylestownpa.itsyourrace.com
Christine Englehardt Memorial Run 5K, 8 a.m., Newtown. Contact www.christineenglehardtmemorial5k.org