A little more than a year after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, 20-year-old Connor O'Leary is set to return to top-level cycling with the Bontrager-Livestrong development team. But it hasn't been an easy trip from the top of sport to the depths of life-changing illness and back.
As one might expect with a group of rowdy teenage athletes, the specter of cancer is a galaxy away from their everyday thoughts. So in the spring of 2010 when O'Leary started experiencing pain and swelling in one of his testicles while on a trip to Belgium with the US U23 national team, the then 19-year-old's discomfort was dismissed as a result of too much time in the saddle and quickly became the brunt of some not-so-subtle jokes.
One of O'Leary's teammates at the time, Ian Boswell, remembers a particularly laugh-inducing incident that involved a graphic demonstration with some fruit.
"At one point during the ongoing joke about Connor's jewels, I remember someone setting out a banana with a grape as one testicle and an apple as the other," Boswell recently recalled. "At the time it was hilarious."
But that laughter turned to shock two months later when O'Leary was diagnosed with cancer just days before he was scheduled to leave for the national championships.
"I was getting pretty fatigued, and I had a mass on my left testicle," O'Leary said. "Cancer was in the back of my mind, but I never thought it could be anything that serious, really. But then I thought I needed to get checked, and within about two seconds of the doctor looking at it he said he was 90 percent sure it was cancer."
Tests proved the doctor right, and so instead of heading off to fight for a stars-and-stripes jersey, O'Leary set his cycling goals aside and started four months of chemotherapy in his battle against cancer.
"It was kind of like an out-of-body experience," he said of hearing the diagnosis. "It didn't even hit for a couple of days, even after going into my first treatment. The time that it really hit me was when I woke up one morning and scratched my head and hair started falling out."
The treatments that claimed his hair also laid waste to his physical fitness, something that became painfully obvious to O'Leary when the treatments ended and he went for a workout at a local pool.
"There was this wave thing where you walk against the current," he said. "I remember hopping in there and just getting lapped by these 80-year-old men. I just kind of broke down thinking to myself that six, seven months ago I was racing at the top level in Europe, and now I'm getting lapped by an 80-year-old man. It was tough on me."
But eventually there was light at the end of the tunnel. The treatments succeeded and O'Leary's cancer is currently in remission. He started racing again last April, although getting quickly shelled out of local races tested his mettle at first. But he says that after months and months of hard training, his fitness is back at a high level, and he's looking forward to being back at full strength for his first year with Bontrager-Livestrong, a team that now hits much closer to home.
"Livestrong was a huge resource for my family," he said. "The only thing I knew about testicular cancer is that Lance [Armstrong] had it. So my family turned to the Livestrong Foundation and they gave us awesome resources, and Lance actually e-mailed me and put me in touch with the doctor in Indiana who cured him."
O'Leary, who said he's excited for the chance to give back, aspires to ride at the WorldTour level, where he hopes to continue getting motivation from the same fellow cancer survivors and patients he wants to inspire.
"I know so many people that have been through it and so many people fighting right now that I want to race for them," he said. "So that really is a big motivator for me. If they can do that then the least I can do is try and race my bike fast."