Fighting Melanoma – Smythe Tackles Sun Awareness

In Loving Memory of Terry Smythe. May 5, 1957 – November 27, 2018


The summer of 1976 was a year of firsts for Terry Smythe. It was the first year women’s rowing was a part of the Olympic Games, the first year she had ever seen women rowing at all, and the first year she sat down in a racing single, an experience which promptly ended with her fully submerged in the water.

As a tennis and basketball player at the University of Central Florida, Smythe never considered attempting a third sport until the rowing coach approached her at tennis practice during her freshman year.

“He kept coming to the matches telling me I should row, and I was like, ‘Well, that’s nice, I play tennis,’” Smythe said.

The coach challenged Smythe to watch women’s rowing that summer, which was a no brainer for the sports fan.

“He said, ‘I want you to watch women’s rowing. This is the first year it’s an Olympic sport, and then I want you to come back and tell me you don’t at least want to try it.,’” Smythe said.

He was right, and Smythe showed up for practice in the fall.

“He threw me out in a single, and he gave me a few pointers. I eventually flipped, which made me very mad, so the gauntlet had been thrown.” 

Smythe was hooked. The next task was figuring out how to balance three sports and “not flunk out of school.” Her schedule was stacked: 5:30 a.m. rowing practice, tennis from 1-3 p.m., a brief nap, and then a second crew practice in the afternoon — something had to give.

In the end, Smythe’s tennis coach helped her make a tough choice. Smythe was a huge contributor to the tennis team in singles and doubles, so it was difficult advice for a coach to give.

Her coach told her, “I don’t want to lose a player like you. I know tennis will always be a part of your life, but I really like what rowing is doing for you as a person. I think you should take the challenge and let’s see what happens.”

Thirty-six years later, Smythe is still rowing. The judgement call from her tennis coach proved correct. In a 10-year pursuit of national team goals, becoming a head coach, and starting her own rowing focused company, Smythe owes a lot to that piece of advice. Most importantly, she’s found solace in rowing during her ongoing battle with cancer.

“The erg, to me, is the fountain of youth,” said Smythe. “That thing has kept me alive. It’s kept me fit in my healthy life, and it’s kept me driving to stay fit in my sick life. It’s frustrating to be humbled by cancer, to watch those splits drop and you can’t…” Smythe paused to collect herself.

As an athlete who has stared down defeat many times, she is facing one last battle.

After being hooked that first day, Smythe dove into her new sport, competing in the women’s four and picking up gold medals at the 1977 and 1978 Dad Vail Regatta. As she remembered it, her crew snagged first “by the curvature of the earth” and, naturally, those battle-tested boatmates would become lifelong friends. Her teammate, Mary Ann Welsh, became her pair partner in 1977. The duo, coached by Ted Nash, competed at the U.S. Women’s National Championships, placing third and clinching a women’s national team camp invitation. Smythe admits to making “the worst decision of (her) life” by turning down the invite to return home.

“I was a tennis player,” she said. “Rowing was all new to me, and I was just kind of burned out. There was a lot that had happened that year. I stuck with the sport close to 10 years and every time I got close to a national team, s*** happened.”

Following the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games, Smythe moved to Norway where she learned how to scull. As a dual citizen, she looked forward to trialing the double. However, right before the world championship trials in Norway, she tore a muscle in her back forcing her to withdraw from competition.

Recovering from her injury, Smythe moved back to the U.S. and recommitted to training in the double. In the heat of racing at the 1982 U.S. National Championships, she was again blindsided by what she felt was a torn intercostal.

“At about 750 meters to go, [I felt it go.] I hung on because we were winning, and I was not losing this race. We got to the finish, and I couldn’t catch my breath. My chest was crushing.”

After a couple hours with no relief from the pain, a quick diagnosis from a doctor revealed something much worse. She was rushed to the emergency room with a 90 percent collapsed lung.

“I had my invitation to all the camps, everything was great, and in one split second, everything disappeared,” said Smythe. Recovery was quick, so Smythe jumped back into training, but just six months later, it happened again and surgery was required. “Came back from that and continued to train for ’84,” Smythe said, nonchalantly.

Smythe fell short at the 1984 Olympic Trials, facing some “intimidating” competition in the likes of Joan Lind Van Blom. Following a disappointing finish, she decided to take a break from racing. Following the birth of her daughter in 1985, Smythe raced at the 1986 trials one last time before hanging up her elite rowing oars.  

The challenges Smythe experienced throughout her rowing career were difficult. Elite rowing is no cake walk, not today and not in the 1970s or 1980s. Measured against a gold standard of toughness and grit, Smythe has stood out. The challenges she overcame during her career were extraordinary. Every athlete suffers injury and faces setbacks — that’s a fact of life. From torn muscles to collapsed lungs and disappointing finishes, Smythe was no stranger to heartbreak. But in the face of failure, that is where character is most fully realized. How does one deal with the uncontrollable, with defeat? For Smythe, the answer was always to adapt and keep going — never give up.

Smythe has approached her diagnosis of mucosal melanoma the same way. It’s been five years since the news, and she is spending every moment of her life fighting it. She’s fighting to raise awareness and fighting for the future of melanoma treatment.

In between frequent visits to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Smythe has continued to coach at Michigan Technological University, a program she founded in 1995. She has continued to bring rowing to people of all ages and abilities with her company UCanRow2 and as a master trainer for Concept2.

Founded in 2008, UCanRow2 has allowed Smythe and her partner, Sarah Fuhrmann, to bring indoor rowing to people all over the United States. Smythe and Fuhrmann established “Meters for Melanoma,” a indoor rowing challenge held on Smythe’s birthday, May 5, which Smythe hopes will be around long after she is gone. In its inaugural two years, the event has raised more than $150,000 dollars for research through the Midwest Melanoma Partnership.

In her rowing career, Smythe was nothing short of a force of nature and that force has proven no less powerful in her life after elite rowing. Now, she directs that passion towards raising awareness and impacting generations of rowers.

“On this road, I came to learn that there were ways that I could help spread the word on melanoma, and I thought about our sport of rowing where we are so exposed to the sun,” said Smythe. With the same intensity it took to push through the finish line with a collapsed lung, she is pleading for us to listen.

“I want this to wake people up. I want this to shake people,” she said.

Smythe believes that the rower’s risky relationship with UV damage needs to be exposed.

“We need to get education out there because kids do not respect the sun,” she said.

In addition to educating people about its dangers, Smythe implores athletes and spectators alike to find shade whenever possible. Smythe was key in creating the collaboration with USRowing and the Midwest Melanoma Partnership to provide free sunscreen at races for athletes and spectators.

In addition to mucosal melanoma, rowers are at high risk of developing one of the other two types of melanoma — ocular and cutaneous. In a sport like rowing, elite athletes can spend upwards of four hours every day on the water, and at a regatta, that time is much longer for athletes and spectators. Rowers launch early to warm up, race, cool down, and put the boat away, during which time they are exposed directly to the sun’s damaging UV rays.

“We don’t know why people get this cancer; I want to know,” Smythe said. “Everything I’ve done has gone to research, and I know I’m helping other people. The chess game my doctor has been playing with my cancer is helping somebody else, who is hopefully going to get more time than I do, which would be awesome.”

Both a rower and competitor, Smythe is waging war on this cancer. She has been fighting for five years against a type of cancer that’s predicted to be deadly in one. She’s taking inches and squeezing out every minute that she can. Smythe is winning this war with every person who recognizes their own power to reduce risk. No one can control it all, but everyone can reduce the risk of certain types of melanoma by slathering on sunscreen and seeking out shade between races. If these seemingly simple habits could add even one more precious minute to our lives, how could we not?  

One can’t say for certain what Smythe’s tennis coach meant when he said, “I really like what rowing is doing for you as a person,” but it’s undeniable that it predicted the evolution of a gifted young athlete into an unrelenting competitor. From that first flare of rage at having flipped the single to a 10-year journey on the elite rowing circuit and beyond, Smythe continues to stare challenges in the face and says, “We’re going out with skid marks; hell yes we are. We’re taking it right to the end.”

To make a donation to the Midwest Melanoma Partnership in Terry’s honor, click here.

Photos courtesy of Sarah Fuhrmann, UCanRow2

Article co-authored by Molly Bruggeman and Erin Boxberger.

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