– Professional Triathlete –
“I am fortunate to the people who inspired me along the way to get past my doubts, fears and obstacles”
This is the story of Laurel Wassner, who lives in New York, NY. Laurel is the younger half (by five minutes) of the Wassner Twins. She grew up in Gaithersburg, MD, and always competitive and athletic from the start; by age 4, Laurel was swimming in meets, riding a bike and running (racing the cars) home from kindergarten. Laurel continued swimming and ran her first cross-country race in 5th grade. She is a survivor of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and is the first cancer survivor to win an Iron triathlon distance (Challenge Atlantic City).
In 1993, Laurel went to George Washington University in Washington, DC and joined the swim team. Within a year, she was awarded a full-scholarship to swim on the NCAA Division one swim team, which at the time was her biggest athletic and lifetime accomplishment to date! After she graduated from college, she moved to Brooklyn, NY (hometown of her dad) and began to run and bought a used bicycle.
Everything was doing great in Laurel’s life, but in 1998, and just as she was getting into great shape, and precisely after a hard running workout in Central Park, she noticed three lumps on her neck. When those didn’t go away, she went to a doctor, and then another doctor, and then another one to finally get a confirmation of the terrible diagnosis: She had cancer.
She was shocked and angry. She felt her life was completely over, taken from her at the age of 23, and just when she was starting a new life in the city. As much as she wanted to go away and hide, she knew she had to face this new challenge with the same determination it took to earn a swimming scholarship or get straight A’s during her senior year of college. Laurel decided nothing was going to stop her from beating the disease and going back to her life. She had a plan, but the execution wasn’t going to be easy. Fortunately, she had a fantastic team around Laurel – sisters, parents, aunts, grandparents, and friends who would not let her surrender. “If I had a bad day, (and there were a lot), I always had someone there to attempt to make things better,” she says.
Six months of chemotherapy followed, during which Laurel doggedly kept up her workout routine, running the treadmill at her health club, trying to keep her spirits up, and her life as normal as possible. But it wasn’t easy. Rebeccah, her twin sister, knowing her sister was having a rough time, moved from Washington, D.C. to Laurel’s New York apartment to cheerlead her sister back to health. Rebeccah tried to act like everything was normal, and she trusted everything was going to be okay, but at the same time she knew it wasn’t going to be easy. On days when Laurel underwent chemo, Rebeccah worked out extra hard—until she was utterly exhausted. It was her way to share her sister’s pain.
Before she started to feel good enough to exercise, Laurel was pretty down and out, physically and mentally. She didn’t know if she would ever be an athlete again, let alone a good one. So many things are changing at that age and stage in life (early 20s) that it was hard for her to feel like those around her knew what they were doing or where they were going in life. She had to rely on the support of her sisters to get her through and to help her remember that things would work out. She had to stay positive and move forward no matter how hard things were. Staying positive was made all the harder by the fact that she spent several years constantly tired and nauseated, along with anxiety that she might get sick again. “I spent a lot of time getting pep talks! I learned to live day by day instead of making grand plans, and slowly chipped away until I felt like things started to come together,” she says. This is one of the reasons she feels so strongly about sharing her story, and she hopes someone who is feeling hopeless reads this and feels compelled to change their life or decides to focus on the small steps it takes to make things better.
During the summer of 2006 Laurel signed up for a triathlon, and although she didn’t place that well, she loved it and felt fantastic when finishing it. While she ran past a ton of people, smiling the whole way, she knew she had a long way to go to before she could become a professional triathlete, but she knew then and there that it was possible.
She continued to work at her photography job, switching magazines a few times while training as much as she could. She took a vacation to see her sister race in the ITU World Championships in Luzanne, Switzerland. She was one of the top five Americans in the triathlon, and it was amazing to see her perform. After watching such a big race in person, Laurel knew she wanted to be there in that water, riding a bike, and running next to her sister. The following summer she completed a season as an amateur and placed 2nd in the US in the championship race with the fastest swim and run times. In 2008, she quit her magazine job and started doing triathlons full-time. She was awarded the rookie of the year in 2010, and won her first race as a professional at the Columbia Triathlon. It’s been a steady stream of podiums and wins since then! This year, in 2014, she won her first “Ironman” distance event and became the first cancer survivor to accomplish that feat. She is doing an Ironman triathlon this coming September, and she hopes to qualify and compete at the Ironman World Championship in 2015.
Throughout her triathlon career she hasn’t forgotten for one second where she came from… She uses her past and her experiences every day in training and puts that determination to use in racing. She thinks about all of the people who are fighting battles of their own, and she hopes they can gain some inspiration from her experiences. “I am fortunate to the people who inspired me along the way to get past my doubts, fears, and obstacles. To be able to repay that favor is incredibly rewarding and in turn even more inspiring to me,” Laurel says.
If you would like to know more about Laurel (and Rebeccah), visit their website at www.wassnertwins.com/. Laurel is also a supporter of The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. For more information, please visit the following link www.ulmanfund.org
Laurel in her own words
How does it feel to be an inspiration to others? Did you ever expect to become an inspiration?
It means so much to me to be an inspiration to others because I know how it feels to be the one looking for that bit of inspiration to get by. I am fortunate to the people who inspired me along the way to get past my doubts, fears and obstacles. To be able to repay that favor is incredibly rewarding and in turn even more inspiring to me. I realized when I started competing again that I was in the position to help others, and this a very big part of me quitting my job to focus on triathlon. I knew that I was going to make an impact on someone’s life and that is very important to me.
Why are Triathlons so inspiring? What makes this sport so special around the world?
Triathlons are inspiring because they are a challenge, physically and mentally. People of all ages and abilities are drawn to this challenge and that’s what makes this sport so special.
When did you start participating in triathlons? Where was your first competition?
My first competition was in 2006 in Maryland, the state where I grew up.
What motivates you in life?
I am motivated by my friends, family and fans-to bring them happiness. I am also motivated by stories of other people overcoming obstacles and achieving their goals.
What would you say to other people with similar ambitions?
My piece of advice is: Never stop fighting! All sorts of things can try to get in the way: illness, bad luck, other people’s doubts, etc. I faced all of those things and more but what got me to where I am is pushing through and doing my best to maintain my fighting spirit.
Who inspires you? Why?
I am inspired by my sisters. I have three of them and they are all genuine, hardworking, smart and compassionate people. The kind of people who put others ahead of themselves. They have showed me what good character really looks like.
How did you deal with obstacles in your life?
I usually let obstacles get to me – at first. But I think that’s important, because if they didn’t then I would be less motivated to get over them!
What do you like most about Triathlons?
I love the camaraderie of racers. It’s a hard sport and requires hard training which encourages people to support one another.
Mention major accomplishments in your life other than triathlons
Division 1 swimming scholarship to George Washington University.
Do you support or represent any Non-Profit Organizations?
Yes. The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults. For more information, please visit the following link: www.ulmanfund.org