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Running Toward Greatness

Danielle McLaughlin of USC Dornsife is a cancer survivor, amputee and world champion athlete.

Danielle McLaughlin, a USC Dornsife staff member working in the School of International Relations, heads for the finish line during the International Triathlon Union Championship Series Beijing Grand Final in which she won a gold medal. Photo courtesy of the International Triathlon Union.
Danielle McLaughlin, a USC Dornsife staff member working in the School of International Relations, heads for the finish line during the International Triathlon Union Championship Series Beijing Grand Final in which she won a gold medal. Photo courtesy of the International Triathlon Union.

Let’s Talk About Cancer.

This is a recent post title from 25-year-old Danielle McLaughlin’s blog, Cancer Ate My Foot.

“Cancer put me through the ringer,” McLaughlin blogs. “I came out of it insecure, anxious and with a major attitude. I wondered, ‘why me?’ 10 out of 24 hours a day. And I will admit to being miserable to be around.”

McLaughlin had just celebrated her Sweet 16 birthday when she was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a rare cancer that usually occurs in the arm, neck or leg. McLaughlin had a marble-size tumor in the middle of her left foot — which was amputated a week before she started her senior year of high school.

“There is no generic time period that it takes for cancer patients and survivors to conquer their mental battles,” McLaughlin blogs. “It will happen when they are ready.”

McLaughlin was ready after she took up running. The San Diego native with long, straight hair the color of autumn and a warm California-girl smile tells her story inside her office at USC. Since graduating from the University of California, Davis with a bachelor’s in international relations in June 2009, McLaughlin has worked as assistant to John Odell, director of the School of International Relations in USC Dornsife, and Linda Cole, associate director of the school.

She was at work the day she got the call that the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) had granted her a $25,000 running prosthetic leg.

“I was hysterical,” she said of the day this past April. “I had to close my office door because I was crying. I cried because I knew at that moment my life would change forever.”

Those who work with McLaughlin consider themselves lucky.

“Danielle brings her dynamism to everything she does,” said Linda Cole, associate director of the School of International Relations. “She’s incredibly intelligent and capable. She has a collegial attitude; she volunteers to take on extra duties. I’m not surprised she would become a top-notch athlete. I think she would succeed in anything she did.”

 


Danielle McLaughlin, the directors' assistant at the School of International Relations in USC Dornsife, plans to obtain a master's degree in health care administration from USC. Photo by Pamela J. Johnson.

A soccer player growing up, McLaughlin always knew she was an athlete but was forced to bury those pursuits to undergo surgery to remove the tumor and radiation treatment.

“I was in remission for seven months when I started feeling this distinct pain in the middle of my left foot,” McLaughlin recalled. “I knew it was back.”

The doctor’s confirmation brought her no tears.

“I sucked it up and became an adult,” she said of that August 2004 day when she was 17. “That day I grew up. That’s what happens to young cancer survivors. They turn into old souls.”

McLaughlin started seriously thinking about sports again after moving to Los Angeles in September 2009. Her first step was going regularly to the gym, where she took spinning classes.

“I was scared to death, but I did it,” she said. “I was dripping sweat and looked at the girl next to me and thought, ‘I’m kicking her butt and I have one foot.’ It’s the first time I thought, ‘I can do this.’ ”

When she learned CAF was holding a 4 1/2-hour fundraising spin-a-thon, she decided to participate and if she succeeded, she would move on to competitive sports. She practiced six days a week and raised $1,500.

“I was really, really, really nervous,” McLaughlin said. “I almost threw up the morning of the spin-a-thon. I thought, ‘What if I fail?’ ”

Surrounded by her family and friends cheering her on, she completed the entire 4 1/2 hours.

“Afterward,” she said, “I got off the bike, looked at my family and said, ‘It’s time for me to do my first triathlon.’ ”

Besides her physical transformation, McLaughlin began changing internally. She began owning her identity as a cancer survivor and amputee. She had a gift that could help others. She became a member of the USC Cancer Survivorship Advisory Council, part of the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

She spoke to students at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She participated in a Keck Hospital of USC panel about the particular needs of young adult cancer survivors. She engaged with her community.

“I talked to two batches of first-year med students,” McLaughlin said. “That was amazing. I finally started to feel, ‘I’m a cancer survivor. That’s what makes me unique.’ I embraced it and started thinking about my future career. I don’t want to be a doctor, but I’d like to work in a cancer hospital and become an advocate.”

Then, lacking the proper equipment, she used her old walking leg to run and rode a 1979 bicycle built for someone 5-foot-5. McLaughlin is 5-foot-1. Despite all this, she placed second in the April 2011 triathlon held in Loma Linda, Calif.

A week later, she received the call about the grant for the new running leg.

“Now I would have the equipment,” McLaughlin said. “I knew I had the willpower and the mental positivity.”

 


McLaughlin stands at the podium in Beijing and accepts her gold medal. Photo courtesy of the International Triathlon Union.

While waiting for her new prosthetic, she went to a CAF triathlon camp in Florida. There, she was inspired by Sarah Reinertsen, the first female, leg amputee to complete the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. The two had something else in common. Reinertsen, who set world records in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races in her division, is a USC alumna.

“The coaches told me, ‘You run like an able-bodied person. I can’t believe you’re wearing a non-running leg,’ ” McLaughlin recounted. “ ‘Wait until you get on your running leg. Just wait.’ I’m thinking, ‘It couldn’t be that great.’ ”

Returning home, her prosthetist had her new leg ready for her to test out.

“It will need a lot of adjustments but go take a jog,” he told her.

“I ran not even a block,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’m floating. I’m floating. How in the world did I ever run on a walking leg?’ ”

After her prosthetic was fitted, she started training for the USA Triathlon’s Accenture Paratriathlon National Championship in New York.

“I worked out 10 times a week,” McLaughlin said. “I had no social life. I ate, slept and dreamed ‘triathlon.’ ”

A Santa Monica store cut her a good deal on a new bicycle. She was ready, but slightly shaky. The morning of the triathlon it rained.

“I’m freaking out,” she recalled. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m going swimming in the Hudson River. That’s disgusting!’

“The gun goes off, I jump in and there’re waves because it’s rainy and windy. It was really tough to make it through that swim. But I knew that the swim was my weakness. The biking and running were definitely my strengths. I knew once I got out of the water, from there it would be golden.”

McLaughlin placed first in her division and a few hours later stood on a podium holding up her trophy.

“I couldn’t believe this was my life,” she said. “I never in a million years thought I would be here. Thirty minutes later, people started asking me, ‘So are you going to go to Beijing for the world championships in a month?’ I thought, ‘good god!’ ”

Once home, she began training and raising funds for the International Triathlon Union Championship Series Beijing Grand Final. Shortly before she was to leave, her beloved grandfather, John F. McLaughlin '48, became gravely ill. Before he died, he told his granddaughter how proud he was of her.

“I want you to go to China and race,” he told her.

The family held his funeral and McLaughlin was determined to go to Beijing and race for her grandfather.

At the Beijing triathlon in September, McLaughlin remembers riding past rows of tall trees on each side of her. She was low on her bike, hunched down on the handlebars, when everything became still.

“It was a very serene moment. I couldn’t help but think of him,” she said of her grandfather. “Like he was there and pushing me to do this — just like he had always done. I could hear his voice saying, ‘You can do this.’ ”

She won a gold medal.