Naomi Cermak Refuses to Let Cancer Come Between Her and Kona

By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)

As athletes, we know what it is like to set that big goal: a goal that often takes more than a decade to achieve. We work hard, we sacrifice, and we do everything else we can think of to make our dream a reality. But sometimes, factors completely out of our control get in the way and do not simply take us off the road, they throw us so far from the road that we are lying on our backs in the trees. That is what happened to Naomi Cermak.

Naomi Cermak is 30 years old and has Stage Four Melanoma.

This is not Cermak's first battle with cancer. When she was 19 years old, she was an undergraduate student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Cermak was swimming for the varsity team, the McMaster Mauraders, and her PhD in muscular physiology was but a lofty goal. This was the year she was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. She was treated and declared cancer free.

Cermak continued to work towards her goals: academic, athletic, and life. She wanted to earn a PhD. She dreamt, like many young 20-somethings, about getting married and having children. She also had started cycling, and combined this with her swimming experience and set her sights on the sport of triathlon.

No stranger to big goals, Cermak set her eyes on KONA: the prestigious world championship race in Hawaii. In 2010, she went to Hawaii to cheer on some friends and got to see the race first hand.

“It was inspiring to see people from all abilities and ages compete,” recalls Cermak. “I saw people cross the finish line with two prosthetic legs, with no legs using arm propulsion only, people in their seventies, people with various disabilities, and finally, people battling cancer in an effort to prove to themselves that anything is possible.”

This experience from the sidelines stayed with Cermak, and only multiplied her motivation.

Two years later, her training was derailed in a major way. On Nov. 13, 2012, after months of swelling and pain in her groin that she chalked up to a tight muscle, Cermak was diagnosed with Stage Four Melanoma. Since then, she has undergone TIL (Tumor Infiltrating Lymphocyte) therapy and chemotherapy, which put her fit athletic body through the wringer. Nonetheless, Cermak still wanted to train, even though she could hardly walk after the aggressive treatment.

Thanks to her extensive knowledge of exercise science, Cermak knew a lot about the importance of exercise, not just for athletes, but for patients battling cancer: “There are days that you feel terrible and your body is being pummeled with all the cancer treatment, and that definitely requires a different type of inspiration.”

Cermak says that since the first day of her treatment, she has lost 14 pounds, which included both her stereotypical “swimmer shoulders” and large quads from cycling.

“I know it is important for me to keep exercising, to fight against the cancer that is trying to debilitate my body.” Her dream of ever competing at KONA seemed to be slipping away, until she found KONA Inspired.

KONA Inspired allots seven slots to deserving race hopefuls: the athletes upload their videos explaining why they would like to participate in KONA, and the general public can then vote. Cermak has made it to the final round of voting, which ends Saturday at midnight. For Cermak, being selected as one of the seven would be a light at the end of a dark tunnel.

“I don't know if I'm ever going to hear the words cancer free, but I will hear Naomi Cermak, you are an Ironman! To cross that finish line for all my family, friends and supporters would be such an amazing feeling.”

Watch her video, it will inspire you, and probably make you cry. Then take some time to vote for this swimmer-turned triathlete-turned cancer warrior. Because she hasn't stopped fighting, not for her life and not for her chance to make her dream of participating in KONA come true.

When I asked her what it would mean to her if she were selected, she said, “Put it this way. It would mean so much to me that I don't even have words to describe it.”

The voting closes this Saturday, June 15 at midnight.

Video link to vote!

Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M's first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.

Follow her on twitter @juliah2o