She has beaten invasive cancer, broken world records and overcome emotional and physical challenges. Karen Newman doesn’t just chase her dreams, she catches them
Karen Newman sprinted from the water ahead of the pack, peeled off her wetsuit and made for her bike at the World Triathlon Championships in London last summer. When she grabbed it, the USA team member discovered that her bike had been tampered with and the bolts on the handlebars had been loosened. As she watched her fellow competitors speed away, along with her gold-medal dreams, Karen made a split-second decision. She would ride the treacherous, rain-slicked course with no hands. “I was the top American. I was in first place. I was not going to be defeated,” she says.
Pedaling as fast as she dared, and tapping the handlebars to keep the front wheel straight, Karen did finish the 40-kilometer course that day. “It took me a long time,” she says. “That hurt.” As a consolation prize, she bought a blue leather jacket at a chic London boutique. But she also made a promise to herself. Instead of letting the loss get her down, she would use it to spur herself on. Four weeks later, Karen went on to win four gold medals at the Huntsman World Senior Games in St. George, Utah, setting a new world triathlon record in the process.
Wife, mother, athlete, cancer survivor—Karen Newman knows a thing or two about resilience and perseverance, of never taking no for an answer, of turning challenges into opportunities and always holding fast to one’s dream.
“As bad as London was—and it was bad—everything was redeemed in Utah,” she says over tea in the living room of her Old Greenwich home one afternoon this past December. When Karen says everything, she’s not just talking about winning medals and setting records. She’s talking about the serendipitous moments, the people and the kindness she met along the way. Like her seatmate on the flight from JFK, which was delayed by several hours, who insisted on driving her straight to the stadium in St. George so she wouldn’t miss the opening ceremonies. She’s talking about getting to the packed stadium just minutes before the ceremonies started and having seats suddenly open up in the front row. And, finally, she’s talking about the inconvenience of having to ride her bike to the pool for a practice swim because there was no shuttle bus available. “I was cycling on a four-lane highway. It was terrible. But…” and here she grins. “I realized my cable was about to go. I needed a bike shop fast.” She got off the highway at the next exit and what did she see? The Red Rocks Bike Shop. “If that hadn’t happened, it would have ruined my race,” she says.
The Other Side of Darkness
Fit and lean in black running pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt, with a full head of thick, wavy hair cascading down her back, it’s hard to believe this is the same woman who appeared as part of a Today Show segment for its Breast Cancer Awareness Month in August of 2008. At the time, Karen—by then a five-time world triathlete competitor—was bald and weakened by chemo and radiation treatments she was receiving for her Stage 3 invasive ductal carcinoma. She had first discovered a small lump in her left breast in 2004, but every mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy had come back clean. It wasn’t until she experienced swollen lymph glands and lost feeling in the fingers of her left hand, that she underwent an MRI. When she got the results of five separate biopsies—all positive—the prognosis was grim.
“I still didn’t believe them,” she says. “It had been three years of saying everything is fine to all of sudden it doesn’t look good?”
Karen had already qualified for the World Triathlon Championships in Vancouver, B.C., and she was determined to go. When none of her doctors would support her decision, she found a doctor who would. “It was the hardest race; it was freezing. I couldn’t feel my fingers or my toes because of the chemo,” she says. As she entered the stadium, the coach handed her an American flag and she crossed the finish line with the world cheering her on. She finished next to last. “I was really racing for my children and anyone battling any disease,” she says.
A devout Christian and active member of her church, Karen’s faith was tested many times over the next three years. She endured four surgeries, including a mastectomy and a breast reconstruction gone awry. She developed lymphedema, as a result of her damaged lymph glands. To this day, her rib cage is permanently twisted as a result of the cording caused by the radiation treatments. There were days when she could barely force herself out of bed, much less into her running shoes. “One night I was so mad at God, I was so angry, ‘I can’t stand it anymore,’ I cried. I yelled at God. That was a transformative moment for me,” she says.
When Greenwich magazine first profiled Karen as part of its 2009 cover story, “The Ultimate Athletes,” about four local female triathletes, Karen had temporarily pulled back from the international racing scene and was focused on her recovery. She was named the DetermiNation Champion for the American Cancer Society, an experience that enabled her to put medals around cancer patients as they finished their chemo. She swam for the Alliance for Cancer Gene Therapy in the Swim Across America event. She modeled for the Breast Cancer Alliance just days after her mastectomy (“I still had drain tubes coming out of my arms,” she says). She was featured in the Faces of Light tour, shot by photographer Ben Larrabee. “It’s a big part of my life, trying to save others from what I went through,” Karen says. “The importance of getting second opinions, following your gut, pushing for answers. All the things I didn’t do.”
In 2011 Karen qualified for the Triathlon World Championship in Beijing, China, where she placed eleventh. The following year she placed third at the U.S. National Championships in Burlington, Vermont, once again qualifying for a World Championship event, this time in Auckland, New Zealand. She knew her chances of medaling were slim. But it had long been her dream to stand on a podium at the Worlds and she believed she owed it to herself and her family to try. “The stars aligned that day,” Karen recalls. She won the silver medal and was the top American in her division. “Every miracle that could happen to get me there got me there,” she says. “I was fifty-one years old and I had just set a new American world record.”
Going Public with a Private Struggle
Now cancer-free and with six gold medals to show for what she calls “the most extraordinary racing season of my life,” Karen is taking a break from competing, in part to spend more time with her husband and three boys, and in part to fulfill a dream of becoming an inspirational speaker. Having been through the wringer and back, she is eager to share her story with others, to help them know they are not alone. “It’s been such an amazing journey learning to love myself, and through that to really pour love into the world,” she says.
Even before her cancer diagnosis, Karen had been searching for ways to strengthen her spiritual life. She began attending a weekly Bible study offered through her church and then four years ago, she and her husband were moved to start a monthly prayer and support group called “Getting Over Disease (G.O.D.) for Good.” “We create a safe place for people to share their struggles, supporting one another through difficult times,” says Karen. “We’re like a family. I’ve seen miracles happen in that group.” At the same time, she has had opportunities to tell her story at community Bible studies throughout Fairfield County, with several more speaking engagements in the pipeline. Last July, she had the honor of giving the keynote address at the Frogs for the Cure luncheon benefitting the Susan G. Komen Cancer Foundation at Texas Christian University in Dallas. In May she will be the guest speaker at a wellness retreat for top executives at luxury skincare company La Mer and she was recently named an ambassador for the Huntsman World Senior Games. But the thing that she’s most excited about is the book she’s been working on since last summer, a memoir chronicling her experiences with cancer, Just Three Words.
Karen says she never planned to write a book; that she was encouraged by the thousands of people who follow her blog on her website, thekarennewman.com. “I’m no writer. So I asked God for a sign.” The next day she got a call from a cousin, inviting her to attend a writer’s conference in Los Angeles. It was there that she happened to meet one of the biggest agents in the business. He asked her what she was working on. When she finished telling him her story, he told her to hurry up and get started.
For Karen, writing her memoir has been an opportunity to come clean about a secret she’d been living with for years: Throughout her adult life she struggled with an eating disorder that first appeared when she was a teenager growing up outside of Syracuse. “People would see me and think, here is a cancer survivor. Isn’t she amazing? But the truth is, I was a broken woman.”
A perfectionist from a young age, Karen suffered from anorexia as a teenager; by the time she was fifteen she weighed 74 pounds. “I was quite literally starving myself to death,” she says. “I hated myself so much.” It wasn’t until the day she flipped open the pages of her high school yearbook that she really saw herself for the first time. “I was a skeleton. I realized if I didn’t stop I was going to die.” It was a moment of clarity, she says, a gift from God. She ran downstairs where her mother was in the kitchen making Rice Krispies treats. “I asked her if I could have one, and she started crying.”
Karen believes she was miraculously healed that day, and with a renewed commitment to her faith, she eventually went on to the University of Vermont where she studied nutrition. She started an eating disorder clinic. She joined the track team, whose membership included future Olympians. She met the man who would become her husband. Life got busy and full. Too busy, too full. At some point during her sophomore year she realized many of her friends were using bulimia (a cycle of binging and purging) to manage their weight. “I stepped off the ledge,” she said. “And invited the demon back into my life.”
Over the next twenty-odd years, Karen struggled to keep her disease under control. Running helped. So did raising a family. She launched a business, started competing again. She dabbled in races around town, but it wasn’t until the birth of her son Trent that she made a commitment to see how far she could go. In 2001, against all odds, Karen qualified for the Triathlon World Championships in Edmonton, Canada. It was the beginning of an incredible upward trajectory.
At the end of 2007, she was—on the surface at least—in the best shape of her life. Inside, though, she was a mess. “For some reason I started to feed all these old thoughts about my self-worth being tied to my weight.” She fell back into her eating disorder and it had her in a choke hold. “I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was too ashamed.” And then cancer stepped in.
“Believe it or not the cancer diagnosis was not the worst thing going on in my life,” she says. “It was the thing that saved me. It was a wake-up call. Just like when I was a little girl. I knew if I didn’t stop, I could die.”
Today, with cancer vanquished, her eating disorder under control, an enviable slate of medals and new career prospects unfolding in front of her, Karen finally feels like she’s found her way. “I had a goal this year of doing amazing,” she says. “But more important than all the medals is this extraordinary gift of getting to do my life’s passion, to help other people. And not because I’m this perfect person, thank goodness. I feel healed, and happy, and loved.”