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Tapped Into Winner Strength

Evan Simon relied on his training to overcome thyroid cancer

By Evan Simon as told to Amy Wimmer Schwarb

As a youngster, strength and conditioning coach Evan Simon competed in wrestling, basketball, soccer and other sports – but found his calling in the weight room. KARL MAASDAM / OREGON STATE

ROLE: Football strength and conditioning coach at Oregon State University. His STORY: Always more at home in the weight room than on the athletic field, Evan Simon, 37, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in February and relied on his training to overcome the disease and get through treatment. LESSONS LEARNED: Conditioning means preparing your body and mind for when you need them most.
I was an average athlete, but the one place I always excelled – the place I could push multiple teammates to get better – was the weight room.

As a kid, I was always involved in sports – basketball, wrestling, track, softball, baseball, soccer. But as I got older, I faced some vertical challenges. I’m 5-foot-6 and change. In middle school, I started lifting weights and doing exercises, and I continued to develop, develop, develop.

My parents are divorced, so on Friday nights, I would go spend time with my uncle. He was part of a big group of guys who were strong and lifting. My dad enjoyed working out, too, and I started being able to go to the gym with him and lift weights. There was always a deep enjoyment for me in terms of weights and lifting – you need to do something positive for your body.

Life brings you a series of obstacles – fatigue, physical challenges. A great place to develop your reaction to those is in the weight room with your strength and conditioning preparation. You are asked to learn new tasks and new skills, and if you’re able to repetitively carry out those skills, you develop, and your strength and conditioning has prepared you.

When you put yourself in a challenge to lift or move something, it brings out a lot of inner strength. It starts pushing your body and challenges your body to work hard. The weight room can teach you a lot about yourself. It can teach you a lot about others. It can teach you what you need. To me it gives me the instructional points – not just on the field, but in life, to handle stress and adapt and keep moving forward through that.

I had this lump in my throat. It was marble-sized. I had it even back in 2013-14. I keep a beard but shave along the neckline, and when I was shaving one day in February, I noticed the marble had transformed to the size of a golf ball. I happened to have a meeting with the team doctor the next day, so on the way out of his office I casually asked him, “What do you think of this?” He scheduled an ultrasound. I got the ultrasound and came back to work. Literally an hour after I got back, the team doctor called me and said, “Hey, come over to my office.”

The diagnosis surprised me because, personally, I was never thinking cancer. Then, I had a biopsy – the ultimate confirmation – and it finally seemed real. I shed some tears for five minutes, because instantly, I thought of the moments I would miss with my wife and my two kids – I have a 7-year-old girl and a 2-year-old girl. But really, after I got through that five-to 10-minute window, it was, “OK, hey, it’s time to go to work.” I told myself, “Let’s get through this and, a year from now, make it seem like nothing happened at all.”

The surgeon took out the thyroid, parathyroid glands, 48 lymph nodes, cancerous cells outside the nodes in the neck and chest. The surgeon cut through so much muscle tissue, he said it would shut me down to below 30 percent function. He said it would take about a year for all my nerves to get back to where they could function.

I was in the hospital for five days. When I left the hospital, because of my profession, they didn’t give me any set physical therapy. They said: “Make sure you’re working your shoulders actively and passively. You move them; have someone else move them. Progress your exercises as you can.”

I made sure I did different types of therapy every day on my own. The whole goal is, by one year after the surgery, on March 4, 2017, other than parts of the scar, you wouldn’t know anything had happened to me.

The fastest my surgeon has seen a patient be able to bring their arms over their head again was three months after surgery. I saw him 3½ weeks after, and the first thing I did when he walked in the door is move my arms laterally above my head. He said, “Yeah, I thought you’d break my record.”

What this experience has done is it makes me appreciate the challenges I see on a daily basis and the successes I experience. The grass looks a little greener, the sky looks a little bluer. You value each day more because you realize it all could potentially be taken away from you before you want.

The day I could pick up my 7-year-old again – that was the final signal to her that, hey, Dad’s back.

I tell athletes, hey, no one’s going to care about you more than you. Eat healthier, drink healthier, make sure you get enough water and enough sleep. If you want to do something, you’ve got to set a goal and know what steps you’ve got to take to get to that goal. And then the goal is to keep pushing the goal.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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