The Competitor

July 22, 2010

Alumna Laurel Wassner is the first cancer survivor to become a professional triathlete.

By Rachel Muir

Last weekend, Laurel Wassner, B.A. ’97, came in second in the New York Triathlon. Her twin, Rebeccah, finished first. The sisters, both professional athletes, train together in New York.

“It was a dream come true for us,” says Ms. Wassner. “We’re very close, and we’re very competitive.”

There was a time when that dream seemed unreachable.

At age 23, Ms. Wassner, who had swum competitively at GW and was “training hard” for a triathlon, noticed some bumps on the side of her neck. “Everyone kept telling me I’d be fine, that I was in great shape and just had to have a few routine tests,” she says.

It turned out, though, that she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that originates in white blood cells. The diagnosis was “pretty shocking.” “I had no other symptoms,” she says. “I felt fine.”

She went through a grueling six months of chemotherapy. Her sister moved up to New York and in with her to help. Gaunt and bald from the treatments, Ms. Wassner tried to keep up her training, running on a treadmill when she could. The experience was life-changing. “You’re never the same after cancer,” she says.

While Hodgkin’s is one of the most curable types of cancer, there’s a chance of recurrence. Hodgkin’s survivors are also more vulnerable to other cancers. “It’s always in the back of my mind, but you have to live your life,” she says.

The sisters, who grew up along with two other siblings in Gaithersburg, Md., have always been athletic. “We played tennis, softball, ran, swam, really did about every sport,” Ms. Wassner says. She competed on the swim team at GW, while Rebeccah ran track at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Md.

Ms. Wassner, who calls her undergraduate years at George Washington “great,” was originally inspired to try a triathlon by a teammate on the GW swim team. “I signed up for a race, but I hurt my knee so Rebeccah took my place,” she says.

Her sister turned pro in 2004 and she followed four years later in 2008. Both were named USA Triathlon’s “elite rookie athlete of the year” their first season.

Ms. Wassner now trains up to six hours a day, six days a week. A typical day of training starts with a swim, then a bike ride and concludes with a run. Even a day off involves pilates and other exercises.

So far this year, Ms. Wassner has competed in nine triathlons across the country and plans to race in at least five more. The standard triathlon includes a 1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike race and a 10-kilometer run. Professional women typically finish in a little more than two hours.

For Ms. Wassner, who only got a “serious” bicycle in 2007, cycling is the hardest part. Swimming, which she’s done competitively since high school, comes most naturally.

When she’s not training, Ms. Wassner is a freelance photographer. She has worked as a photo editor for Men’s Journal and other magazines. At GW, she was an accounting major in the School of Business and after graduation worked for an accounting firm “for about a minute.” It just wasn’t for her, she says.

There’s no doubt triathlons are, though. “Triathlons are always exciting,” she says. “The training and races never get monotonous.”

The sisters’ ultimate goal is the 2012 Olympics. There are only three spots on the American team for women, and the competition is fierce.

But Ms. Wassner says while making the Olympic team is a great aspiration, she will probably always count beating cancer as her biggest accomplishment. “In the end, it’s made me stronger,” she says. “I draw on it when I compete.”

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