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New York Times on Andy Potts

Andy Potts has had a very exciting last 18 months and I have posted a bunch on him. Here is the New York Times writing on Team Potts!

* Andy did not win a slot in Alabama as Matt Reed came out on top over Andy and Hunter Kemper.

Two Challenges for Team Potts
By JOHN BRANCH

COLORADO SPRINGS — On his belated honeymoon to the Greek island of Santorini after the 2004 Athens Olympics, Andy Potts debated whether he could become even better as a triathlete or if it was time to get a sensible job. His wife, Lisa, asked him to feel the lump in her neck.

I think I can improve, he thought. It is probably just a cyst, she thought.

And just like that, their greatest hopes and fears were entwined. It has been a four-year tangle of success and heartache, optimism and illness. So far, success and optimism are winning, going away.

“After the Olympics, our relationship was galvanized because we needed to support each other,” Andy said recently while standing in the family’s kitchen. “We came up with a goofy Team Potts moniker. But we believed in it. We believed in supporting each other.”

His hair was still wet from the shower he took after his daily four-hour bike-and-run workout. He nibbled on a cheese sandwich and cheerfully detailed his life while scrubbing the highchair used by the couple’s 11-month-old son, Boston.

Andy Potts, 31, is one of the top triathletes in the world. He is a favorite to win Saturday’s United States Olympic triathlon trials in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which automatically send the men’s and women’s winners to the Beijing Games in August.

Jarrod Shoemaker and Laura Bennett made the United States team with their performances at an event in Beijing last September. Final positions for the team will be determined by a points system after a June race in Des Moines.

For Team Potts, this year’s Olympics had its origins on Santorini in 2004, in the glow of Andy’s meteoric rise in the sport and his 22nd-place finish in Athens, and in the innocence of mild concern about what was silently growing in Lisa’s neck.

Neither knew that he had a top-three world ranking in him.

“I just wanted to the go to the Games,” he said, smiling. “That’s all I wanted.”

Neither knew that Lisa had thyroid cancer.

“I was pretty cavalier about it,” she said, shrugging.

Andy Potts, from Princeton, N.J., had been an all-American swimmer at the University of Michigan, where Lisa Simes was a gymnast. He won a national championship in the 800-meter freestyle and finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley at the 1996 Olympic trials. But when his swimming career ended, he bobbed aimlessly.

He helped a friend build a house in Colorado. He took a job as an assistant swim coach at Nevada-Las Vegas, which got him close to Lisa, who worked several years as a trapeze artist for Cirque du Soleil’s “O” show. (“She was the sugar mama, and I was the struggling coach,” Potts said.) He took a sales job with a payroll company in Chicago. He drove a U-Haul across the country for his uncle.

People had always told him that he was built like a triathlete, long and lean and strong. Then the triathlon made its Olympic debut at the 2000 Sydney Games.

“That kind of sparked something in me,” Potts said. “Oh, maybe I can go to the Olympics as a triathlete.”

He was so moved, he said, that “it took me two and a half years to do something about it.”

To start training seriously?

“No, to buy a bike,” Potts said.

But he entered a triathlon after three weeks of training. He finished 28th among about 250 racers. Finishing near the top 10 percent would seem pretty good for a first race.

“No, no, it’s terrible,” Potts said with his usual grin. “If you want to make the Olympics in two years?”

A couple of months later, he finished third in the elite amateur division of a triathlon. Then he won a 10-kilometer race in Boston in 32 minutes 18 seconds. That blistering time for 6.2 miles — he can run, too? — got the attention of national-team triathlon officials, who offered a six-week tryout. Potts soon moved into the dorms of the training center in Colorado Springs, part of the resident team.

Andy and Lisa married in January 2004. That spring, about 18 months after deciding to become a triathlete, he finished 11th in the world championships. He qualified for the Olympics, where his swimming prowess gave him the lead coming out of the water. Andy was eventually swallowed by other competitors.

That is how Andy and Lisa Potts ended up in Santorini, deciding that life is short, that they should see how far he could take his new career. That is where Lisa Potts mentioned the lump she discovered just before the Olympics, and the doctor’s appointment she had when they returned home.

“It was like, holy moly,” Andy Potts said. “We were 27, we’ve been successful at everything we’ve done. We’re those people. But I don’t think cancer really cares.”

Lisa’s thyroid cancer had been spreading, probably for years.

“The doctor said it was a blessing that your neck was thin so we could feel it,” Lisa said. “They said it was actually pretty small, what I felt, but it was enough to warrant me to warn them.”

She had the lump removed in November 2004, and it was found to be cancerous. Two months later, she had surgery to remove her thyroid, a gland that produces hormones and acts as a regulator for the body; five surrounding lymph nodes; and a couple of parathyroid glands. And doctors found that the cancer had metastasized in her lungs.

“Every time they dug a little bit deeper, there’s a little bit more here, a little more there,” Lisa said. “It got to the point where we have walked in to the doctor’s office and said, I could have cancer in my bones right now, and I don’t know.”

That is their major fear.

“The way the thyroid cancer goes is thyroid, lymph nodes, lungs, bones,” Andy said. “Bones is bad. We stopped it at the lungs.”

In the spring of 2005, doctors used ablation therapy — basically, a radioactive pill — to fight four tumors in Lisa’s lungs.

It seems to have worked. After months of struggling to find the right dose of Synthroid, Lisa said she felt like herself again. She has tests every few months. Her body, so far, has shown no further signs of cancer. But her mind holds perspective.

“We’re human,” Lisa said. “And we have to appreciate what we have.”

Doctors eventually gave the couple the O.K. to conceive a child. Team Potts grew. Boston — named not for the city, but so his father can call him Boss — was born in May.

Now Lisa and Boston serve as Andy’s motivation, and Coach Mike Doane oversees his mechanics. Doane, who had been a swimming specialist for the American triathletes, began working exclusively with Andy after the 2004 Olympics. Like Andy, Doane knew little about cycling and running, but he devised a regimen based largely on monitoring Potts’s heartbeat, not his race times.

“We’re building, in essence, a 400-horsepower engine that gets 45 miles to the gallon,” Doane said as Potts churned through the Colorado College pool for a couple of hours. “Powerful and efficient.”

Among Potts’s victories last year were at the Ironman World Championship 70.3 and the Pan American Games.

Saturday’s race in Alabama, however, is the one that can ensure a return trip to the Games, completing the loop of the Olympic cycle.

If all goes as planned, Team Potts will again spend time after the Olympics on an island beach. Maybe, this time, Andy and Lisa will worry less about what the future holds and revel more in what the past has brought. They have won, going away.

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April 21, 2008 at 10:08 pm
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