Until 1997, Karen Smyers led a charmed career in the sport of triathlon. Her achievements included World Championships titles in 1990, 1995, and 1996, the Professional National Champion title for six consecutive years, a gold medal at the 1995 Pan Am Games, the Triathlon Pro Tour in 1993 and 1994, the World Cup Series in 1991, and a dramatic come-from-behind victory over 7-time champion Paula Newby-Fraser in the Hawaiian Ironman World Championships in 1995.
Karen Smyers ’83
Her victory at the short course World Championship just 5 weeks later earned her the distinction of being the only woman ever to win triathlon’s two most prestigious races in the same year. Little did she know she would eventually be named by Sports Illustrated as the Triathlete Most Likely to Be Eaten By a Shark at the Sydney Olympics!
After an auspicious start to the 1997 season with a couple of early victories, Karen had a freak accident with a storm window. A shard of glass sliced through her hamstring and she was laid up for the season. Not one to miss an opportunity, she and husband Michael executed Plan B and Karen gave birth to a baby girl in May of 1998.
She was well on her way to a comeback for the end of the 1998 season when tragedy struck again; she was hit by an 18-wheel truck while training for the Ironman. With no permanent injuries, Karen remained undaunted and set her sights on returning to Ironman in 1999 and on becoming eligible for the U.S. Olympic Trials which would determine the team to be sent to triathlon’s debut at the Olympics in 2000.
She began the 1999 season with a bang by winning the season opening Pan Am Games qualifier at the St. Anthony’s Triathlon in Florida and the St. Croix International the following weekend. By the end of the season, she had worked her way back to the podium on the World Cup circuit and was rewarded as the U.S. Olympic Committee’s Triathlete of the Year. To cap off her comeback, she led the Hawaiian Ironman for much of the day before succumbing to a record -setting run by Lori Bowden to finish a satisfying second. One of the highlights of her season was being selected flagbearer to lead the entire USA Team into the Opening Ceremonies of the Pan Am Games voted by captains from every sport to lead the U.S. delegation of 704 into Winnipeg Stadium.
But Karen’s challenges were not over.
Three weeks after her Ironman finish was under her belt, she caught the brunt of a competitor’s fluke mechanical failure during the last race of the season. The resulting flip off her bike broke her collarbone and prevented her from finishing a race for the first time in her seventeen-year career. Days later, a biopsy of suspicious-looking nodules on her thyroid came back positive. She set about tackling the scariest hurdle of all: thyroid cancer. Karen had her thyroid removed in a six-hour surgery in December 1999. After a gallant but unsuccessful bid to make the Olympic Team in 2000, she had another surgery to remove cancerous lymph nodes in her neck and underwent radioactive-iodine treatment.
She returned to the racecourse in 2001 in impressive fashion: she won five races including her seventh National Champion title.The 40-year-old Mom’s comeback was complete when she returned to the 2001 Hawaiian Ironman to take 5th place—finishing ahead of not only all the females over 40 but the males, too.
After a second maternity leave, she returned to the 2005 Hawaiian Ironman and, embracing her 44 years of age, amazed onlookers with yet another Top 10 performance. Karen was honored in 2009 to have been inducted into USA Triathlon’s Hall of Fame in its inaugural year. She plans to continue pursuing her passion for racing while widening the horizon of what is possible.
Karen graduated from Princeton University in 1983. She lives in Lincoln, MA with her daughter Jenna, son Casey, and her husband and occasional training partner Michael King. She coaches triathletes and runners, and also does numerous speaking engagements and clinics each year, addressing groups ranging from elementary schools to corporations.