Good News: Father of three daughters beats cancer through triathlon

September 23, 2015
Choi Min-joon poses with his bicycle, Saturday, a day before the 2015 Ironman 70.3 Incheon Race was held at Songdo, Incheon, Sunday.  (Courtesy of Emerson K Partner)

Choi Min-joon poses with his bicycle, Saturday, a day before the 2015 Ironman 70.3 Incheon Race was held at Songdo, Incheon, Sunday.
(Courtesy of Emerson K Partner)

By Nam Hyun-woo

INCHEON — For Choi Min-joon, 41, the decision to participate in a triathlon came at a critical point in his life. The idea came to him while he dealt with the difficulties of cancer treatments.

Four years after he was diagnosed with bowel cancer, he’s back in tip-top shape, participating in one of the most physically grueling competitions. He hopes to inspire others who are suffering from cancer.

“After I was diagnosed with cancer, all the people around me, and even my family, thought of me as a sick person, and I hated that so much,” Choi told The Korea Times during an interview before participating in the 2015 Ironman 70.3 Incheon Race at Songdo, Incheon, Sunday. “I was eager to show everyone my progress,” Choi said.

The course requires athletes to finish 1.9 kilometers of swimming, 90 kilometers of cycling and 21.1 kilometers of running under eight hours. Though this race covers only half of a full Ironman course — 3.86 kilometers of running, 180.25 kilometers of cycling and 42.2 kilometers of running — it is grueling enough to test an athlete’s limits.

In October 2011, Choi, who is the father of three daughters, was diagnosed with stage 3 colorectal cancer which already spread to his lymph nodes. The devastating disease forced him to have a third of his colon surgically removed. He was forced to take an eight-month leave from work.

“I thought it was so unfair,” Choi recalled. “One day, I tried to eat and it was so painful. I just couldn’t stop crying because such a simple act caused so much pain.”

Following the surgery, he underwent painful cancer treatments for six months. Then, a TV show featuring celebrities attempting a triathlon caught his eye. He thought it could be something he could try.

“I thought, ‘This is it. I’d overcome the cancer surgery. There’s nothing I cannot do,’” Choi recalled.

In 2012, Choi first participated in a local triathlon, racing a “5150 course” — 1.5 kilometers swimming, 40 kilometers cycling and 10 kilometers running. Though the race was grueling and painful, the “ecstasy” of crossing the finish line exhilarated Choi.

“Initially, I set the goal of completing any kind of long-distance race on every anniversary of my surgery. However, I was excited by the sport and I had already participated in five triathlons,” Choi said.

As Choi gained more experience with the sport, he found out his weakness was cycling, so he registered at an academy run by legendary Ironman athlete, Park Byung-hoon, who set the Ironman Asian record of 8:28:51 in 2008 and now mentors Choi.

“He works hard,” Park said. “When I see Choi training, I can sense how strong his mental strength is.” After learning that Choi had been treated for cancer, Park, who is also the Ironman Korea organizing committee vice chairman, told Choi, “You have chosen the right sport.”

At Park’s academy, Choi is pushed to the point of “passing out,” which includes interval training to improve muscular endurance. “When I race or train, swear words come out of my mouth unconsciously, because it’s so hard.” Choi said. “However, when I finish a training session or a race, I feel elated and always say, ‘I did it’ to myself, and start looking forward to the next race.”

After going through a number of competitions, Choi now finishes races within the top-10 of his age group.

“I saw a man without arms competing at a triathlon. After that, I started to think that what I have suffered is almost nothing and gained a lot of confidence at that race,” he said. “Now I’m looking forward to the 5150 course race at Tongyeong (South Gyeongsang Province) on Oct. 25. I am confident I will do well there.”

Recently, Choi shared his story and triathlon experience for an online community of people who have suffered, or are suffering, from cancer.

“As the proverb goes, many people who were diagnosed with cancer are clutching at straws,” he wrote. “Many say a tough sport will make your condition worse, but what I believe is that it’s completely okay if you have enough preparation. I just want to let others know who are having a hard time hear my story. I have regained my health through this sport.”

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