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Shanteau on comeback trail
Parkview grad back in the pool after cancer surgery

ATLANTA - Eric Shanteau looks as healthy as any other swimmer on deck at the Georgia Tech Aquatic Center.

But there's still those nagging fears that all cancer victims must overcome: What if the doctors didn't get it all? What if the dreaded disease is hiding somewhere in his body, waiting to strike again?

Shanteau, one of the most inspiring athletes of the Beijing Olympics, is competing this week for the first time since his surgery for testicular cancer. He hopes the thrill of the race will help him get on with the rest of his life, a minefield of doubts that reveals itself with every little ache and pain.

'You're like, 'Is that cancer? Is it coming back?' said Shanteau, one of several Olympians taking part in the U.S. Short Course Nationals that began Thursday. 'That's kind of what I've had to learn with, and what I'm still just learning to deal with.'

His plight leading up to the Beijing Olympics made him a rallying figure for millions touched by the insidious disease.

Receiving his shocking diagnosis shortly before the U.S. trials, Shanteau didn't tell anyone except those closest to him. Then, he surprisingly made the team in the 200-meter breaststroke, beating out overwhelming favorite and former world record-holder Brendan Hansen.

That left Shanteau with an excruciating decision. He chose to pursue his lifelong goal of swimming in the Olympics, even though it meant putting off surgery until after the games and running the risk of the cancer spreading. He went public with his story, hoping it would show others that even the dreaded C-word doesn't have to ruin your dreams.

While there was no Hollywood ending in the pool - Shanteau was eliminated in the semifinals - the cancer remained in check, from all indications. Shanteau underwent surgery on Aug. 26, two days after the closing ceremonies, and tests since then have come back completely normal. He got the latest bit of good news just before Thanksgiving.

Even so, Shanteau had to be talked out of further treatment. Worried that his cancer might return, he strongly considered undergoing a round of chemotherapy, which likely would have delayed his comeback while he dealt with miserable side effects such as nausea, weakness and hair loss.

'Everyone prepares you for dealing with the cancer, the surgery, getting rid of it, yada, yada, yada,' he said. 'But no one prepares you for life after it. It's like, 'OK, you've had it. Now you have a chance of it coming back. But here, go live your life.' To be honest, I kind of freaked out.'

Shanteau turned to many of the same support groups that had called on him to serve as a face for the disease, the one who was supposed to provide hope but found himself overwhelmed by the dread of being stricken again.

'I didn't know what to think,' he said. 'I expected to just be free and clear and done with it after the surgery. But that's not how my thought process was. I started thinking, 'What if it comes back? Is it going to come back?'

That's what brought him back to the pool much quicker than Olympic stars such as Michael Phelps and Natalie Coughlin, both still on break since Beijing.

'This was sort of a way for me to take back a little bit of control,' Shanteau said.

He returned to the pool about 51/2 weeks after his surgery. His first training attempt lasted mere seconds - as soon as he extended his arms, he felt an intense stretching sensation in his groin area, where doctors made a deep incision to remove the cancerous testicle.

'Everything was fine in my normal, everyday life,' Shanteau said. 'But when I jumped in the water and put my arms above my head ... it all stretched out. I was like, 'OK, I'm getting right back out.'

He took another week off, felt fine and has been training ever since. The short course nationals gave him a chance to return to competition in his hometown - he grew up in Lilburn - and get a feel for where he needs to be in order to qualify for the world championships in Rome next summer.

'I don't need a big pressure meet right now,' he said. 'If I swim great, it's great. If I don't, it's no big deal.'

Shanteau had been projecting the 2009 worlds as his farewell meet, the place where he hoped to achieve his one unfulfilled goal: winning a medal in a major international competition. Now, he's not so sure about a timetable.

'At this point, London is not out of the question at all,' he said, referring to the 2012 Olympics. 'I'm still getting faster. I'm still getting stronger. It's hard to retire on a note like that.'

Now that he's had some time to reflect on what he went through this past summer, the idea of competing in a cancer-free Olympics looks more and more appealing. He wonders what it would be like to dive in the water without worrying about his health, without having to face a barrage of questions about the deadly disease.

'I'm not going to say cancer was a hindrance. I don't want to give it that much credit,' Shanteau said. 'But I wish I could have savored it a little bit more. So much was going on. I was being pulled in so many different directions, between competing and cancer and dealing with the media and everything else. I almost didn't have time to sit back while I was there and realize what was going on.'

When he's not training, Shanteau has become a mainstay on the speaking circuit, talking with everyone from cancer survivors to major corporations. He's been on the road the past six weekends telling his story.

With each speech, he feels more and more comfortable discussing what he went through and where he plans to go.

'People really want to hear the story,' he said, 'so I'm more than happy to give it to them.'

Shanteau also has done extensive work with 'Livestrong,' the Lance Armstrong Foundation. The cycling star is a testicular cancer survivor himself, and recently announced a comeback that he hopes will focus more attention on research and finding a cure.

Until then, Shanteau and those like him must learn to cope with their fears.

'There's always that little voice in the back of your head that's saying something is not quite right,' he said. 'It sucks, but you have to learn to deal with it. You can't live like that.'