Karen Newman, with her husband Peter, at the September 2 Flynn Center fundraiser. 

Karen Newman Survivor, Inspirational Speaker, World-Class Triathlete: One Woman’s Long-Distance Race from Near-Death to Life

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Thursday September 07, 2017

How often have you told yourself you cannot win, cannot overcome the seemingly impossible challenges facing you? Well, let me introduce you to South Burlington resident Karen Newman: survivor, mother, inspirational speaker, and world-class triathlete. She is living proof that anything is possible.

As we sat on the patio of her lakeside cottage a couple weeks ago, the sun spotlighting Karen’s contagious smile, she shared her miraculous story – a tour de force. It all started with her being bullied in middle school. As she describes on her website, the daily insults about her physical appearance “took the magic out of my life.” She coped by striving for the unreachable: perfection. Her body bore the brunt of her classmates’ brutal lies: by the time she turned 14, she was anorexic, and in college suffered from bulimia. Her “addiction,” as she calls it, “tormented” her for 40 years.

Then, in 2008, the unthinkable happened: a diagnosis of stage three breast cancer. “Cancer was my wake up call,” she said. If she wanted to live to see her three boys grow up, she knew she had to acknowledge her bulimia. To do that, she had to finally tell the truth to her husband of 18 years. She had told him she had an eating disorder but was “over it.” For years, she managed to hide her bulimia, even while working as a dietician and running in triathlons. But those long years of denial ended when her doctor spoke three words to her, “Karen, it’s cancer.” In telling her husband the truth, she freed herself from her secret. “Secrets love the darkness,” she said. “They slowly kill you, but when you bring things to light, the healing begins.”

In spite of the diagnosis, Karen continued competing in races. A triathlete for two decades, she had finally earned a slot in the World Triathlon Championships in Vancouver, Canada. The start of her next race was soon – four months from her life-changing diagnosis. “I had to show my boys that Mom is strong and can overcome incredible odds,” she said. For Karen, triathlons became “a metaphor for life, for overcoming adversity, and getting to the finish line.” But three different oncologists refused to treat her, because she insisted on competing. “Get with the program, your diagnosis is serious,” she recalled one of them telling her. Karen heard, “You can’t do this.” Her response, “Get with the program, I’m still going to live my life.” Eventually, she found an oncologist who agreed to treat her, and to support her athletic drive, as long as her blood work remained stable.

With her doctor’s blessing, she competed in Vancouver, undeterred by the cold temperatures, cold enough that participants were pulled out of the water during the swim event. But Karen refused to succumb. “Over my dead body,” she remembered thinking. Shivering and numb, she continued swimming. Then, 200 yards from the end of the run, the U.S. coach handed her the American flag, and she carried it across the finish line. It didn’t matter that she came in second to last. It mattered that she completed her first triathlon world championship.

A vibrant woman who believes dreams do come true if you keep chasing them, after Vancouver, her “dreams got bigger.” But she wasn’t immune to hard days. She recalled one day in particular, a few months after her diagnosis; she broke down and began to cry. In that deeply emotional moment, she heard God whisper, “‘Karen, I’m going to take you through the valley and put you on the mountain top, and you’re going to be singing.”’ So she held on to her dreams, and ran forward with them, training and competing in multiple triathlons despite the debilitating chemotherapy treatments. In 2012, she earned a silver medal at the Triathlon World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand. A year later, she set a triathlon world record at the Huntsman World Senior Games in Utah. And she wrote and published a book, Just Three Words, a gripping and candid story of survival and triumph.

She had been cancer free for three years when she received the crushing news on Mother’s Day, 2016. It had metastasized to her pelvis and spine in the form of tumors. Once more, she had to tell her sons, “Mom has cancer.”

But she refused to let cancer win. “The greatest trials are the greatest triumphs,” she said. “Trials push us to another level.” Through lots of prayer and what she describes as “grit” on her part, she endured four months of radiation treatments, and made it to the September 2016 Triathlon World Championships in Mexico. Miraculously, she placed fourth in the world in her age division. And once again, she carried the American flag across the finish line – an athlete in remission.

In June 2017, the cancer returned. But Karen feels very much alive and hopeful, no matter the mountain she now faces. “Cancer brings life into sharp focus,” she noted. “It’s a reminder not to waste a single minute.” Karen embodies her awareness to the fullest. A few days before our meeting, she competed in a triathlon, and will be competing in an aquathon in Austin, Texas next month.

Next year, she’ll be serving a three-year term as President of the Vermont Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

In anticipation of the Over the Edge Fundraiser for the Flynn, Karen remarked that she gets queasy just looking over a building. “I’m going to take a leap of faith,” she said, and “visualize the cancer gone as I jump.”

And a leap of faith is exactly what Karen did September 2 when she rappelled down the side of the Marriott Hotel, an experience she describes as incredible. She admits, “To be honest, I was frozen with fear at the top. I didn’t want to let myself down or anyone else who’s trying to jump over fear and give back to the world.” So, as she has done in all areas of her life, Karen courageously faced her fears.

“At that very moment, my dear friend Lynn arranged for Josh Groban’s song, “You Raise Me Up,” to be played. I started weeping. God can raise us up. And we can all be His hands and feet. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had in my life. I visualized cancer going down, fear going down, and every obstacle I face going down. And most importantly, I visualized love and victory rising up. When I stepped on ground I was overwhelmed. Thank you so much for everyone who supported me and came to cheer me on. I love you. We can do amazing things. Don’t ever give up. Go over the edge. Step out of your comfort zone. Nothing is impossible.”

Karen continues to invite each one of us to tap into our “well of courage,” and to jump with her, “over our fears.” As we jump, she reminds us to enjoy the journey, because “there really is no finish line.”

Karen Newman welcomes you to explore her inspiring stories and more at http://thekarennewman.com/. She will be the guest speaker at the Lunafest Film Festival: October 7. 6:30-10 p.m. Main Street Landing (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/lunafest-womens-film-festival-a-benefit-for-girls-on-the-run-vermont-tickets-35508641302.) In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a portion of ticket proceeds will benefit Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (https://www.bcpp.org/).


SOURCE:  Melissa Cronin, Contributor