Breast Cancer Survivor Hopes to Compete in the Olympics, Article date: 2001/10/12
Cancer can change your life, but you can’t let it change you. Don’t be afraid to dream, and to dream big. If I can do it, so can you.
“Sled Full of Hope” is the name of her bobsled and the positive life journey Ildiko Strehli has chosen to drive. Her journey started in a coal-mining town near Budapest, Hungary, in 1965. By the time Strehli was eight years old, she was already competing in sports and had dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete.
Strehli thrived on speed, challenge, and daring. She excelled as a gymnast, track star in hurdles, marathoner, skier, swimmer, sky diver, and in judo. Strehli missed competing in the Seoul Summer Olympic Games in 1988 in judo when her knee was injured in a motorcycle accident.
In Hungary she was a sports director, managing and teaching every sport from elementary through high school. Strehli’s journey then took her to America in 1993 to learn English.
In Manassas, Va., she participated in co-ed volleyball games where she met her future husband, Bob Shell. Strehli went back to Hungary after five months, but that didn’t deter their growing relationship. Strehli and Shell got married in the fall of 1994, celebrating in both Hungary and Virginia.
After they married, the couple moved to Pennsylvania where Strehli started teaching Alpine skiing.
Breast Self Examination Discovers a Lump
Still a newly-wed seven months later, she found a lump the size of a pea in her breast through self examination. Doctors determined the lump was cancerous. There was no history of breast cancer in her family, and with a healthy and active lifestyle, this came as a terrible shock. Despite a lumpectomy, and the weakness and loss of hair from radiation and chemotherapy, she continued to teach skiing and she competed in a marathon.
Fighting cancer was to be the hardest challenge of her life. But the determination and strong will that helped her excel in sports would serve her well. “Cancer scares you, if you let it scare you,” Strehli tells ACS News Today. “I get stubborn, I won’t give up. I’m going to make it, no matter what.”
Her husband admiringly concurs, “Her treatment was tough, but she’s tougher. And through it all, she continued to teach skiing. Her sheer determination is the kind that makes an Olympic champion.”
Strehli read a lot to learn about her disease and she looked for people who had survived it. The American Cancer Society (ACS) was the first place she called for help.
“You don’t plan catastrophic incidences,” she says, “so I was at a loss — what do I do now? I had to find out.” She focused on the positive, winning side — kept her humor, her appetite, and her work. With her husband by her side she continues to thrive and work toward her dreams.
Strehli has helped others in the process. Organized by the ACS, the Snow Shine Festival in Pennsylvania is a day where cancer survivors learn how to ski, and she was one of the instructors.
In 1997, her journey took her to Utah where another opportunity beckoned. She was hired by the Park City Mountain Resort to teach skiing. And in 1998, a whole new challenge lay before her.
Strehli Builds a Team and a Dream
Women’s bobsled racing was not yet an Olympic sport. In order to get more nations involved to ensure the sports’ acceptance into the Olympic games, a women’s bobsled driving school was formed in Utah in 1998. Strehli was invited to participate and from the start she was hooked. Luckily she lived in the city that is the home of the world’s fastest bobsled track.
Within three weeks of driving school, Strehli recruited and organized an Hungarian team to compete in the World Cup. From nothing, she built a team. She needed athletes with power and speed. One, Eva Barati, is a sprinter who participated in the Barcelona Olympics for Hungary; and the other, Eva Kurti, is a national champion in shot put and discus. They alternate as the brakeswoman. There are three on the team, but only two participate at a time. Strehli is the driver of the “Sled Full of Hope.”
Strehli and Shell found a bobsled in someone’s backyard in Utah, all beat up that needed fixing. Training, competing in games, and maintaining equipment take financial resources — resources they didn’t have except through the support of family and friends. They are still in need of funds.
In 1999, the Olympic Committee announced the acceptance of women’s bobsledding for the first time in Olympic history as part of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
Just at the time of this announcement, Strehli, through another self exam, discovered a second lump. She then had a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) in the summer. The Olympic games gave her a cause to live for. By October she was competing in the 1999 World Cup in Calgary.
Vigorous Training Continues
Shell, the team manager, describes the training and the sport. They train six days a week for at least three hours. Three days are spent lifting weights and three days on the track sprinting. They also push a sled on wheels and take two to three sled runs a day on the ice track.
“The most important part of bobsledding is the push start. It’s an explosive sport requiring fast acceleration and lots of physical power, so the team practices ‘the Hit,’” Shell says.
He describes bobsledding as a team sport; both members push, the driver and the brakewoman. The brakewoman pushes from the back and the driver from the side. The sport is physically demanding. Even though it takes about 60 seconds to go down the track, the team zooms 80 miles per hour with 4gs of force in some of the turns. Going down the track is bumpy and physically hard to take.
“It’s all in the initial running speed, explosion of the hit start, and the timing. One minute on the track takes at least one hour of training,” explains Shell.
On Dec. 16, 2001, the date of the last of the World Cup events, Strehli will know whether she is in position to compete in the Olympic Winter Games in February 2002.
The Challenge of Cancer Takes Team Effort
Strehli still finds time to volunteer. She organizes hikes for survivors at the ACS-sponsored Cancer Wellness House in Salt Lake City. She also gives speeches to survivors and volunteers at appreciation luncheons.
Her life team partner reminds caregivers that their work is more than bringing their loved ones a bowl of soup. “Bring them a bowl of encouragement; encourage them to dream… And the caregivers have to take care of themselves as well; it’s a team effort,” says Shell.
In this journey towards her dream, Strehli wants to use her “Sled Full of Hope” to help and show people by example how they can have a life after cancer.
“Cancer can change your life, but you can’t let it change you,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to dream, and to dream big. If I can do it, so can you.”