TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent

This month I talked triathlon with TCSD member, DeeAnn Smith.  You will see that DeeAnn is a very special lady.  She is on the top step of the podium in more ways than one.   


Craig: What was your athletic background before triathlon?


DeeAnn: My family moved to Phoenix, AZ from rural Illinois when I was in 6th grade.  Before then I did not have many options.  I started with gymnastics and loved it.  In school I tried something different nearly every year.  First was soccer, then softball, then volleyball.  I got to high school and sadly, yes, sadly I did the cheerleader thing. Not sure what I was thinking but the gymnastics came in handy!


Craig: How did you get started in triathlon?


DeeAnn: NBC gets credit for getting me started.  It was a Saturday and I was cleaning my house and saw “Escape from Alcatraz” triathlon on the TV.  I was in awe.  I was young and cocky and said to myself “I will do that someday”.  Since I could not swim a stroke, nor did I own a bike, I got swim lessons and picked up a used Nishiki.  My first tri was Mountain Man Triathlon in Flagstaff, maybe 1997?  I was 5th to last coming out of the water and my Mom was standing outside transition screaming at me “Oh my God woman!  I thought you drowned!  Now get going, you're almost last!”  I remember seeing the results and thinking I was happy to be in the top 10 of my age group.   I think there were 10 in my age group.  My mom was my biggest fan.  I began doing well after a few seasons and would get on the age group podium and even had a few 2nd and 3rd overalls.  Mom would tease me, lovingly of course, “3rd again!  How about a first?!”  The summer she passed I went to Big Bear and did the Sprint Xterra there.  I finally won overall!  I know she would have been ecstatic.


Craig: You have had a great triathlon career that includes 4 Ironman finishes, the Xterra World Championships, ITU Long Course Triathlon Worlds and Boston Marathon. What are some of the race performances you are most proud of and why?


DeeAnn: These big races were great experiences.  I think the individual journeys to each of those races are what stick with me most.  In prepping for IM Lake Placid and IM Louisville in 2008 I was getting married.  Norm and I got married in June 2008 so that entire year was IM training and wedding planning!  As for Boston and ITU World's, I had what I feel is the “master” your tail off to qualify and then go enjoy!!  I did not train or race hard for either of those events, but I had a whole lot of fun!  I love mountain biking!  Convincing my husband to go off-road was the toughest part of Xterra World's!


Craig: What is your favorite race?


DeeAnn: Without a doubt, Escape from Alcatraz is my favorite.  This year was my 7th Escape and 2014 will be my 8th!  I love it because it is an intimidating course.  The water is cold and can be crazy plus jumping off the boat is chaos!  The bike is challenging.  It is hilly and technical.  The run is also technical and difficult with several stairs, sand and the legendary “sand stairs” are a killer.  It is different in some way every year, yet the course does not change.  I have never been on the podium at Escape. That is my dream!  I have been close, 4th a few times, including this year (2013). 


Craig: You are married to TCSD member Norm Smith.  I actually interviewed Norm back in 2006.  How did you meet Norm?


DeeAnn: We met on a flight to 70.3 World Championships in 2006.  I got on the flight to Tampa in Phoenix (where I lived at the time), the flight was coming from San Diego.  If he tells the story, it was me that did not stop talking and he just wanted to read his book.  I don't remember it quite that way!  We exchanged phone numbers and met up after the race with some other friends.  We kept in touch and began the dreaded “long distance relationship” in early 2007.  A lot of our “dates” were race weekends, which at the time was what we both did a lot of, so that was great. I moved to San Diego in September 2007. We got engaged on the same San Diego/Tampa flight, same seats, one year later...on our way to 70.3 World Championships.


Craig: I've had about a million phone conversations in my life, but one I'll always remember came from you.  You called to tell me you had breast cancer.  The breast cancer news was memorable enough, but what stood out most to me during that phone call was your concern for how Norm would handle the next few months.  You love one another so much.  So much!  And you were so selfless as to be worried about Norm.  I thought "What a beautiful, loving couple!  God, please let them make it through this."  Please tell us how serious it was for you.


DeeAnn: 2012 was a rough one for both of us.  I found a lump in my breast in December 2011.  I was worried, as anyone would be, but I really did not think I could have cancer.  Are you kidding me?  I am athletic, I eat right, etc. etc.  Just no way!  The breast surgeon, who does the biopsy, had time to get to know me a bit.  That along with what I was assured by her and my gynecologist were 3 characteristics of the tumor that did NOT point toward cancer, made for a big surprise when the phone rang on a Friday afternoon at 4!  I knew it could not be good.  I remember telling her “but I have a race tomorrow, what do I do?”  She said “go race, live your life!  This is just a speed bump!”  A “speed bump”!   I could not imagine it at the time, it looked to me like Mt. Everest.  Norm came home and we cried together.  I woke up the next morning and won a 5k in Temecula.  This was January 20th.  The next months looked like this:


February 2012 - Body and bone scans came back clear.  Decided against lumpectomy and unilateral mastectomy after countless hours of research on recurrence. 


February 22 Bilateral Mastectomy yielded results:  Stage 2b breast cancer, Grade 3, Estrogen and Progesterone Positive, HER2 Negative, 7 lymph nodes removed.  One node has a “micro-metastasis”.  This meant Chemotherapy was a definite.  This was an incredibly painful surgery, both physically and emotionally.  My surgery was on a Thursday.  I walked 1.5 miles to IHOP with my friends the following Tuesday.  I did as much as the doctors would allow as far as activity and the day I was “released” to run was March 23.


March 24, 2012 – Race for the Cure LA.  I won the 5k - - I entered the survivor division, I was 1st overall female.  The next day I ran a 10k.


April 2, 2012 – First day of chemotherapy.  Norm shows up at the Y to pick me up for my treatment with a Komen edition 2012 Fiat 500.  Silver with a pink stripe, of course!  OMG! Who gets a new car on their first day of cancer treatments?  Me, that's who!  16 weeks, 8 treatments done every other week.  This was no picnic.  I stayed as active as I could during chemo.  I had to keep some things “normal” with my routine, this helped me stay sane and remember that this would come to an end.  It did seem endless at the time.  So not only did I try to exercise (I gave up calling it “training”, because it wasn't), I would also brew coffee every morning, even though I could not drink it.  And I would set my alarm at 6am and get up. Because that is normally what I do!


The day of my treatments I would get up super early and run, knowing I would be down and out for at least 4-6 days.  Days 1-2 were never too bad which sometimes would lead to me overdoing it and paying a huge price the following days!  Days 3-4 were always the worst.  Nausea, fatigue, think of a bad flu.  Just yuck.  With bone and muscle pain (not from training!).  Day 5 could be hit or miss.  If I was feeling better, this was typically a Saturday and I would go ride with the B group.  Sundays I would run 5-9 miles.  Both of these were very, very hard and sometimes not the smartest choice for me to do.  I paid some consequences from time to time. 


I teach cycle at the Y in Oceanside and I did not miss one class while in chemotherapy.  Nor did I miss one session with my strength trainer, which is also on Mondays!  I am very proud of that.  Some of those workouts were not pretty, but that was never the point.


July 10, 2012 - Last day of Chemotherapy.


July 28, 2012 - Reconstruction Surgery.  I thought the surgery in February was bad.  This was worse.  February's surgery had 3 days of intense pain and then a steep recovery curve; I felt better by leaps and bounds after the first week and was running in 4 weeks.  The reconstruction surgery was not so much intense pain, but the recovery time for both running and swimming was weeks longer!


At the end of August 2012 I had a big “so long Cancer” party, it was awesome and I have not looked back since!


Norm never left my side.  Dr. appointments, treatment days, bad days, he was here.  Fixing me food, strange food that you crave during chemo!  Keeping the meds straight, running to the pharmacy.  Googling medical terminology, symptoms, drug side effects, you name it!  No way I could have made it through any of this without him.


Craig: Among many other things, I really admired how you held onto your exercise during your cancer treatments.  Please tell us how that helped you.  


DeeAnn: I was in the best physical condition I have ever been in January 2012.  This was a huge hit to my ego.  I was told, and knew that I could “weather the storm of treatments and surgeries better than most”, just because of my fitness.  Great, so I got in great fight cancer!?!?!  I did not want to come out of it with nothing, so I did what I could, when I could and accepted it...sometimes with grace and sometimes not so much.


Craig: So you got the clean bill of health in July 2012.  What challenges have you still had to deal with since then?

DeeAnn: You got me here because I just stated “I have not looked back.”  That is not true.  Actually it is impossible once you encounter something like cancer.  It changes you, changes your whole life.  As hard as I tried to resist that change, it happened.


When you start doing triathlons, who do you meet?  Triathletes, runners, etc.  When you have cancer you meet ... other cancer patients.  Same cancer, different cancer...scared but brave, tired but pressing on.  I have met so many others in similar situations to mine and some who, although the situation is similar, the outcome has been dramatically different.  I have become familiar with a term, “survivor's guilt”.  It is an emotion I deal with quite often.  When I got done with everything, I wanted it ALL to go away!  It doesn't and it can't.  It is part of who I am now.  This is something I am still working on accepting.  Part of me?  Yes, but NOT who I am.  I will not, just as in treatment, be defined by this. This is not to say I won't, at some point, enter the “survivor” division of a race!


Any ache, pain, bump, spot, anything...OMG, it's back?!?!?  It sounds nutty, but it goes through your mind.  I want so much to train and race as I did prior to 2012.  I can't.  I am on a medication called Tamoxifen for 5 years. Among other things it causes bone and muscle pain and muscle cramps. I am not happy about it, but I am happy to be alive.  I do what I can as far as training.  Structure and recovery, always huge components in any training plan, are key for me. 


Craig: Who have been the most influential people in your life?  


DeeAnn: My family (mom, dad, sister) and my husband, Norm.  My mother was born and raised in rural, farmland, Illinois.  She always urged me to get out and try new things, explore, travel, etc.  My dad was the conservative one which kept my life balanced.  My sister is nine years older than I am.  We are very close, but very, very, different.  She has had too much heartbreak in her life, losing both her children when they were young.  Shortly after which our mother passed away.  My sister is a pillar of unwavering faith and strength.  Norm is my best friend and my everything.  He has seen me at my best and my worst and everything in between.  He supports me in anything, no matter the craziness level.  Having Norm by my side I know everything is going to be great!


Craig: You were on the USA Triathlon Southwest Region Board from 2005 to 2011.  What were your responsibilities and what does that organization do?  

DeeAnn: The USAT Regions are parts of the whole.  USAT utilizes the regional boards to divvy up monies and responsibilities.  The individual regions have liberty, to some extent, to do what they wish with their share of funding.  I started out as Treasurer.  Honestly for the first 2 years, I sat back and attempted to get a handle on how things worked.  Politics are NOT my “thing”, and at the time a lot was going on with USAT.


I was in charge of writing the checks, balancing and creating the region's budget.  I ended up 2009-2011 as Vice President, which really is no more than a board member who can step in if the President is unable.  I did like the VP position, less paperwork!


Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you like to change?


DeeAnn: This is tough because I have several strong opinions about a lot of different things in our sport.  Bottom line is I love triathlon.  With that in mind I am going to stay off a soap box and hopefully not start a riot by simply stating:  I would love it to be mandatory for anyone who rides a bicycle to successfully complete a series of bike handling skills courses. 


Craig: What is the funniest thing you have seen during your triathlon years


DeeAnn: I love helmets on backwards coming out of T1 and helmets still on the head, in any fashion, coming out of T2 that is always good clean fun!  And on that topic, I work part time, very part time, at a bike shop.  In walks a guy about a year ago with his 2 pals.  They are in kits and on nice bikes so I make the assumption they have some experience and some knowledge.  By the way, that was not a good assumption to make.  One guy has his helmet on backwards!  I pull aside one of his pals and say “you should really let your friend know his helmet is on backwards.”  He says “Oh no. That's how he likes to wear it”, and walks away.  What?  Ok, so I go up to the guy, “Sir, you know your helmet is on backwards?” 


“Yes, I know, it feels better this way”, he says.  This guy is 50+ years old, he knows what he is doing, right?  Anyway, I proceed to tell him how the helmet cannot do its job (protect his head) if it is not worn properly.  No sale.  Wearing it backward, because it is more comfy that way!  What is that saying?  “You cannot fix stupid.”


Craig: What is your favorite benefit of membership in the TCSD?


DeeAnn: One? There are too many!  I do enjoy the club races even though I do not take advantage of them as often as I'd like.  The Yahoo group is a fabulous resource for me.  Access to our enormous and generous TCSD family can cover almost anything a person needs … advice, carpool (across town or across the country!), a teammate, a workout buddy, you name it!  


Craig: What are your future athletic goals?  

DeeAnn: 2013 was a wash for me.  It was my intention to take this year, have fun and do what I want, when I want.  I felt I deserved that after last year.  Now I feel I just threw myself a yearlong pity party.  So let's move on!

Athletically, I will be competing this year in triathlon but there are a couple other things I would like to do. One is do more OCR (obstacle course racing).  I just love it and I will do the Spartan Sprint in January.  I would like to do more mountain biking and do some CX races next season also.

My newest passion is black cats.  My mother never liked cats, another influence she had on me.  I never knew I liked cats at all until I got my husband a cat on his 40th birthday.  This was right in the middle of my chemo treatments.  This cat was my immediate pal.  Who knew?  Long story short, I soon realized that black cats are the least likely to be adopted (by over 50%) because of the myth that they are bad luck (and other reasons).  Anyway, we have 4 cats now, 3 are all black.  Two I rescued from Georgia - another long story.  I am currently volunteering at a local cat rescue and the Feral Cat Coalition.  I hope to spend more time volunteering this year to help all animals in our county.


Craig: You are also a triathlon coach.  How can people reach you if they would like to learn about your coaching services?

DeeAnn: Yes, I am a Level 2 USAT and Level 1 USA Cycling coach.  My company is Gorilla Multisport.  I have been coaching endurance athletes for over 10 years now.  My website is and my phone is (602)369-2575.

Craig: DeeAnn, thank you for sharing your story.  God obviously has a lot more planned for you and Norm.  We are lucky to have you both as TCSD members.  Good luck with all your future goals!


Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach.  Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or