Melanoma Caught Me By Surprise — Don’t Let It Happen To You

At long last, the East has (mostly?) defrosted. Despite a scary lack of precipitation, the West already has been unseasonably warm. The sun is shining, and winter’s harshness means that each of us has earned the right to sit outside and soak up the warmth. I am no different, but over the course of the last year, I have been forced to look very differently at how I spend my time outdoors. And now that the change in seasons feels just as real as the calendar suggested it was weeks ago, this is the perfect time for me to tell my story.

I grew up in Northern California in a town called Roseville, where I spent every waking moment in our backyard pool. My parents started me in swimming lessons at just 18 months old, but what might surprise you is that I initially took to the water like a cat takes to a bath. I would hang onto the side of the pool for dear life … using my fingers to inch my way around the kidney-bean shape all day long. Finally, at age three, I went for it, and something just clicked. I was able to swim full laps even back then. The rest is history, of course; youth summer swim team and, eventually, year-round competitive swimming; just missing the Olympics at age 15, winning eight National Championship titles at Stanford University; the four Olympic medals (two gold) at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.

The memories take on a completely different significance now, but I distinctly recollect suffering extremely bad sunburns on several occasions when I was still a young girl. They happened, almost always, during long swim meets, and even now, I remember not only how painful it was, but also how badly I felt about allowing it to happen. Hours and hours spent face down, for the most part, in an outdoor pool — you simply don’t realize that you are getting roasted. I never trained indoors, and I couldn’t really understand how many of the other kids I competed against managed to do it. You could always tell who the “indoor kids” were when we got to Nationals. Their pasty skin tones said it all.

First published here: Melanoma Caught Me By Surprise — Don’t Let It Happen To You