Shanteau beats cancer, finally wins elusive gold

ROME, Italy - Eric Shanteau wasn't really sure what to do. He'd never climbed to the top step of the medal podium at a major meet.

So he listened to two ol' pros, Michael Phelps and Aaron Peirsol.

"I was just following," said Shanteau, who finally won that elusive gold medal Sunday night as part of the U.S. 400-meter medley relay team - with a world-record time, no less. "Obviously, Aaron and Michael have been around forever. I couldn't have asked for a better group of experienced guys to be on that relay with."

Shanteau, a former Auburn swimmer who grew up in metro Atlanta, completed a remarkable journey that began a little over a year ago when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, shortly before the U.S. Olympic trials.

Then he stunningly made the team for Beijing when overwhelming favorite Brendan Hanson flopped in the 200 breaststroke. Faced with a difficult decision, Shanteau decided to put off surgery until after his possibly once-in-a-lifetime chance. He also went public with his story, hoping to be an inspiration to others with the dreaded disease.

There was no Hollywood ending in China - Shanteau failed to advance to the final - but he's emerged from that ordeal a much stronger swimmer. He had surgery when he got back home, hopped in the water as soon as the doctors cleared him and is now swimming faster than ever.

He still worries about the cancer returning. That fear will likely be with him the rest of his life. But he also has a new perspective on what's really important, which seems to be paying off in the pool.

"I'm the most relaxed behind the blocks that I've ever been," Shanteau said. "It's not that I want to think about what I've been through, but it's sort of in the back of my head. I have that reassurance of knowing I've been through something way bigger than this."

Before cancer, Shanteau was known as one of those guys who always got tantalizingly close to the glory, but could never quite break through. At the 2004 Olympic trials, he finished third in both the 200 and 400 individual medleys, one spot off the team in both by a total of 1.33 seconds.

The following year, he finished third at both events again, this time competing for a spot on the world championship team. He finally made it to the worlds at Melbourne in 2007, but finished fifth in the 200 breast.

These championships started out with much the same theme for Shanteau. He was edged out for third in the 100 breast, missing a medal by three-hundredths of a second. He finally got a medal in the 200 individual medley, grabbing bronze, and focused on winning a world title in his best event, the 200 breast.

Another heartbreaker. Shanteau was ahead approaching the wall, but he glided a little too long after his final stroke and was edged out for gold by one-hundredth of a second, the smallest possible margin. He looked none too happy when that silver was draped around his neck, struggling to even muster a smile for the photographers.

Then he talked with his parents, girlfriend and other friends.

"Everybody told me, 'Think about where you were last summer. Most people don't even come back after that, let alone have the drops (in time) you just did,'" Shanteau said. "When you put it in that kind of perspective, it is pretty incredible."

Now, after adding gold to his silver and bronze, Shanteau is one of the bright spots coming out of a championships where the U.S. was held to its lowest medal total since 1994.

"He had a fabulous meet," said Mark Schubert, general manager of USA Swimming. "He's really broken through on the international scene. He's one of those guys three years from now we could be talking about who really busted out here. It couldn't happen to a greater guy who's had a much more difficult situation than he's had."

Shanteau isn't ready to commit to another three years. Not yet anyway.

"I don't think I want to know when my last meet is," he said. "I still love to do this. But at the same time, I do want to see what else is out there and move on. It sort of goes both ways. I want to end on a good note, but when you're on top, you want to stay there."

That's where he was Sunday, standing on top.