Pioneering Olympian and community leader Silvia Ruegger, faces cancer with grace, running and an unrelenting faith
by Tania Haas for iRun Magazine
It was September 15, 2017 when doctors told Silvia Ruegger she couldn’t run for the next three months. It was the minimum time advised for her body to recover after her surgery. A thoracic surgeon had spent seven and a half hours in the operating theatre removing the cancer cells that lined the inside of her throat. A tumor, shrunk in recent months by radiation and chemotherapy, was taken out, as was her esophagus, the surgical treatment for esophageal cancer. In its place was her stomach. The expandable organ has the magical ability to take over the role and real estate of the esophagus. Understandably, she needed to rest to stave off infection, and heal.
So Ruegger, then 56, Olympian, retired long-distance runner and former Canadian marathon record-holder followed the doctor’s orders. Doing so had helped her manage injuries in college and competition years ago. She was not new to the long game. At age of 14 she pledged to compete in the Olympics. In 1984, she did; competing in the first women’s marathon in Los Angeles. And then, in 1985 at the age of 24, she ran the Houston Marathon in 2:28:36, shattering the previous record and holding the Canadian record for 28 years. Instead, she waited, rested and prayed.
But three months and a day later, Silvia pulled on her layers, strapped on her Adrenaline sneakers, rolled a balaclava gently over her face and went for a run. On that day in midtown Toronto it was negative six degrees Celsius.
“It was excruciating due to the impact of the surgery (and anatomical changes),” recalls Ruegger nearly 16 months later. “I had to walk-run for a while but it reminded me of my days as a young athlete when I would interval train between telephone poles. And I was running again, which was a blessing.”
Today she runs eight to 10 kilometers; five times a week; outside; without music and solo. But she’s never truly alone. As Ruegger says, she’s with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
“Running is my faith walk with God,” she explains. “My relationship with God influences every moment of my life. In seasons of uncertainty, it has always anchored me. Through my running journey, it was what undergirded me and gave me strength — it has been the same through this health journey.”
Silvia says she found salvation in the conviction that a benevolent and compassionate God would guide and protect her when she was a young girl growing up on a farm in Newtonville, Ontario. As a strong-willed child, her drive would manifest in ‘doing whatever it took’ to get what she wanted. At the age 14 an incident at grade school caused her to realize that she was acting like a bully. That sudden awareness left her reeling with guilt and shame.
“I was devastated by the impact my behaviour had on others,” recalls Silvia. “I recognized the need of being saved from myself and I remembered the wonderful invitation to receive the unconditional love and forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. “In His great love, God heard me, forgave me and invited me into a wonderful relationship with Him that changed me.”
It was around that same time that Silvia’s dream to become an Olympian was seeded. She credits her God for ensuring the right support systems — like her family and coaches — were around to support her audacious dream.
“My relationship with God was what gave me the courage to begin, and keep going.”
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
After her eighth-place finish at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the year the women’s marathon debuted, and winning the 1985 Houston Marathon, Silvia officially retired from long-distance running in 1996. In addition to a full-time job at Brooks, she turned her energies toward children from low-resource neighbourhoods by creating literacy and running programs in Ontario and then across the country. “Physical activity enhances learning, memory and clarity of thought,” Ruegger told the National Post in 2012. “It’s a pathway of hope. Let’s tell these children that we believe in them, and that they’ve got what it takes.”
Her interest in helping children marginalized by poverty started early. Luciano Del Monte, a runner and a former pastor at the University of Guelph, developed a friendship with the young varsity runner when she joined his non-denominational faith congregation on campus. Over the years, Del Monte observed Ruegger’s faith in action both on the track and in the community, including her devoting years to the mentorship and sponsorship of young athletes and students, including Del Monte’s three sons, who refer to her as Aunt Silvia.
“Although Silvia has lived as a single person her whole adult life, she is a person who is a close friend to many. And even though she can appear to be a lone ranger, she actually works hard at being interdependent with people,” adds Del Monte, who along with his wife, thinks of Ruegger as the protestant version of Mother Teresa.
As Ruegger navigates life after a cancer diagnosis, Del Monte sees the same grace and discipline she exhibited all through her running and charity.
“Silvia availed herself of everything medicine had to provide, but she also knew that her faith would be what would carry her through, and although she did her part, she also had an unshakable trust that her God would heal her. At times we found her faith overwhelming because it caused us to wonder about our own lack of it,” says Del Monte.
Nancy Ralph, a friend for over 30 years, has also witnessed Ruegger’s unrelenting faith.
“All of the disciplines she developed as a runner serve her as a cancer survivor. Everything in her life before that diagnosis prepared her for the battle that she has waged against this cancer,” says Ralph. “She has been utterly convinced that God would eradicate cancer from her body and she was equally determined to do her part in the marathon of recovery. Hand in hand with Silvia and her medical team, God has been enthroned above this furious flood.”
SURVIVING THE TIMES
“Navigating angry waters” is a poetic way to describe Ruegger’s recovery after surgery. With a six-inch scar on her throat and a 16-inch scar on her side body, Ruegger spent 10 days in hospital with her three siblings, close family and friends by her side. She then moved into the family home of another life long friend, Linda Gamble, for six weeks until she could live on her own.
Linda remembers Silvia then, in so much pain. She could not lie down flat, and had tubes to help her eat and drink. She barely slept more than one hour at a time.
“Though I have always known how important Silvia’s ‘quiet’ worship time with Jesus is each morning, nothing prepared me for the fact that she set her alarm for 3:30 a.m. to not miss an extended period of singing hymns, reading her well-worn Bible. She would sit facing the window looking outside for the first ray of morning light,” says Gamble who recalls Ruegger’s recovery period in her home as some of the richest times her family experienced.
“Silvia has taught me volumes during her cancer journey. Along with my family, she is the one I want to turn to with pain, or delightful news, we end up laughing, crying, and praying through all of these.”
WE CARRY ON
When Ruegger’s cancer cells reappeared late last year and she returned to the hospital for radiation; her faith never wavered. Ruegger’s inner scrappy 14 year old lives on today with her fierceness guided by faith. She says her cancer has brought her closer to God than ever before.
“I know I am loved. I trust him and his perfect love. There is no room for fear,” Ruegger shared recently at a Toronto cafe, decked out in a black leather jacket, her dark hair pulled back, the scar on her throat barely visible. Ruegger spoke at length of her joy of worship and the importance of prayer. Dozens of her friends — “men and women of great faith” — joined her in prayer vigils before and after her surgery, and continue to pray for Silvia every day, which means so much to her.
Ruegger’s large green eyes tear up as she shared one of her favorite Bible verses.
“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (World English Bible, Philippians 3:14.)
“ ‘I press on,’ says Ruegger, as she emulates running, her arms swinging at her side. “Those words take me back to the Los Angeles Olympics in ’84. We were still ways away from the final miles, but we could see the stadium in the distance. I fixed my eyes on it and kept on pressing.
“And it’s the same today. I have fixed my eyes on Jesus Christ, and because of that, I won’t be deterred by any obstacle or hindrance. I’m not alone. There’s only love.”
To which, we can all say, Amen.