SUWANEE - Thrust into the spotlight by cancer at age 25, Eric Shanteau's once quiet life is now filled with motivational speeches and public appearances in between his frequent swimming practices.
The Parkview grad shares his inspiring story with swim teams, cancer organizations and youth groups, but as he took the stage Wednesday night at Peachtree Ridge High School, Shanteau felt different emotions from his normal engagements.
He spoke to Gwinnett County's top high school swimmers and divers at their season-ending banquet, addressing youngsters who share the same background as him.
Sure he's a 2008 Olympian. But he was once a Gwinnett high school swimmer, too.
"Obviously it was a lot of fun to get a standing ovation like that," said Shanteau, not long after he was showered with lengthy applause. "It meant a lot, especially coming from kids who are in the position I was in a few years ago. It's something special to come back home."
Shanteau spoke to the 300-plus athletes, parents and coaches about overcoming obstacles, dating back to a pair of third-place finishes at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials. Only the top two in each event qualify for the Olympics, so he missed by 7/10 and 2/10 of a second in his races.
That impediment proved to be minor last summer when Shanteau was diagnosed with testicular cancer just a week for Olympic Trials. He qualified before the U.S. team, then his fight became very public when he delayed treatment to swim in the Olympics, where he finished 10th in the 200 breaststroke with a personal-best time.
News organizations worldwide flocked to tell his story, garnering him more attention in the early U.S. swimming practices than Michael Phelps.
"You guys are going to get knocked down," Shanteau, cancer-free since Sept. 15, told the teenagers. "You guys are going to have disappointments and failures in your life. It's how you pick yourself up that defines you as a person and as an athlete."
Shanteau hasn't shied away from the glut of attention that came with his public cancer battle. He trains in Austin, Texas, where he is a member of Lance Armstrong's Young Leaders Cancer Council.
The now-26-year-old also looks stronger than ever in the pool, shining at a recent meet that pushed him to the world's No. 1 spot in both breaststroke events.
"I don't think anybody here's ever gone through what he's gone through," said Parkview senior swimmer Andrew Ruffing, moments after posing for a photo with the Olympian. "It's outstanding that he's been able to go through that and come back to do so well."
Shanteau said it was rewarding to see the future stars of Gwinnett, a county widely considered the state's best in swimming and diving. Mill Creek coach Rick Creed, who coached the Olympian at Parkview, said it was even more important for the current high schoolers to hear Shanteau's message.
"I'm glad these kids had a chance to hear him speak," Creed said. "He does things the right way and he's a man of character. A man of integrity. He's someone for these kids to look up to."