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Run For Your Life: A Cancer Patient’s Race to a Cure
By: Katie Hock
September 13, 2022
The word “cancer” had barely rolled off the doctor’s tongue when Mike Hoppel began plotting its defeat. After nearly 73 years with no health concerns, the Senior Olympic medalist used his affinity for physical fitness to condition his body to triumph over the disease.
“It took me a full 24 hours to process the news,” he shared, “you know, after nearly a lifetime of being healthy and active, I started to believe I would outlive the normal things that come with age…disease, illness, and chronic conditions.” Mike spent the first half of his life in the world of professional roller skating, first as a competitive skating instructor and later as a skating rink virtuoso, taking struggling rinks from the brink of closure and transforming them into thriving hot spots for locals and tourists. His active lifestyle didn’t come without costs, however. The strenuous aerobics involved with roller skating and overall wear and tear resulting from strict training regimens finally caught up with him. In 2019, Mike represented Tennessee in six events and won two bronze medals, one fourth-place, two fifth-place, and an eighth-place completion at the Senior Olympic National Games. Soon after returning home from nationals, the pain in his hip worsened, requiring the athlete to sit out a season to recover from hip replacement surgery.
Mike was just getting acquainted with his new hip when his track record of perfect health came to a screeching halt. “My numbers weren’t adding up; the doctors couldn’t figure out why my PSA was so elevated (12.63 ng/mL) and why my prostate was so enlarged,” he explained. “A couple of ER visits and some big scares caught the attention of my doctors, and we decided to dig in and get answers.” An unrelated issue that began once he was discharged from the hospital following surgery led the doctors to discover that Mike had prostate cancer. Intermediately aggressive. Without treatment, he was looking at a survival rate of five years.
“It’s not too often that you’re given the option to choose life over death, but at that moment, I only saw one option: fight as I’ve never fought before,” he shared, sitting taller in his chair as though he was gearing up for battle. Mike soon found himself caught in a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments, oncology consultations, and, the day before Thanksgiving, in the operating room for a Radical Prostatectomy. After the surgery and his oncologist’s hopeful prognosis that they were able to remove all of the cancer cells, life returned to a more normal pace. When the time came for follow-up tests, there was the usual amount of anxiety, but everyone felt optimistic that the cancer was gone. Following a Radical Prostatectomy, the ideal PSA level would be undetectable and, at the very most, .05, which would also fall within reasonable limits. Mike’s PSA level was .16, and with each re-check, the numbers rose. This could only mean one thing: his battle wasn’t over yet.
With tears in his eyes, he thought back to the magnitude of those test results: “hearing the news the second time was probably even harder than the first. I was disappointed, frustrated, and worried about what was to come. There was so much joy that my family experienced following my prostatectomy, anticipating all of the wonderful memories I would get to experience, and it felt like my second chance at life was taken away just as soon as it was placed in my arms.” In the middle of his darkest moments, Mike had a thought: he was going to run. “I had two goals when I found out I would be going through additional cancer treatments: 1) to not become a couch potato because the drugs used would deplete my muscle tone and bone density and 2) to use my very first run at the start of treatment as a control group of sorts, so I could track how the radiation and hormones were impacting my body,” said Mike. Sitting in the exam room, Mike was met with skepticism as he shared his goal of completing 100+ runs and 400 miles by the time he completed his radiation treatments. The oncologist in charge of Mike’s treatment assured him that he would “crash” at some point during treatment and that this beneficial (but aggressive) running schedule may have to be paused when the inevitable symptoms arrived and overpowered his drive and energy. His eyes twinkling, Mike chuckled: “he didn’t know who he was dealing with!”
Visibly cringing, Mike remembered that on his first run, “within 30 seconds, I said to myself out loud; ‘what were you thinking, Mike?!’ because it was so terrible. I felt awful!” Performance metrics were a big deal for the former Senior Olympian, “I tracked my weight and body fat, the distance of the run, the time I left the house, average pace and time to complete,” he shared. That first run lasted for two miles, and with each subsequent run, Mike’s distance grew, and the time to complete decreased.
Mike didn’t skip a single day in July and August, and some days warranted two separate runs. When the side effects of the hormone therapy became unbearable and sleep evaded him, Mike would lace up his shoes and hit the pavement in the middle of the night. When the skin burns from radiation made resting nearly impossible, the middle-of-the-night movement saved his sanity. Always grateful to be an inspiration to others, Mike recalls one moment, in particular, that gave him the motivation he needed to finish a challenging run: “I was running around the lake in my neighborhood at 2:00 AM when a car slowly drove past me. Ten minutes later, that same car pulled beside me, and a young gentleman rolled down his window and explained that he had seen me running previously and wanted me to know that I motivated him to go home, get dressed and go to his 24-hour gym for a workout.” On another early-morning run, Mike was pulled over by the Sheriff in his neighborhood at 4:00 AM, “I asked him if I was getting a ticket and his response was ‘no, I’ve been tracking your time, you’re doing great!’” Mike laughed, remembering his close run-in with the law.
As a longtime member of the Lowe’s team, both in the Lebanon and Spring Hill stores, many of Mike’s customers and coworkers have followed his journey and cheered him on every step of the way. Throughout his diagnosis and treatments, kind gestures, understanding leaders, and empathetic customers made all the difference in lifting his spirits and keeping Mike on track. “I regularly interact with customers while on the sales floor, but I also had to ensure I was taking care of my daily water intake before leaving for my radiation treatments. I would set my phone alarm for all the things I needed to do each day: drink water, leave for radiation, etc., and when I greeted new customers, I would let them know about the various alarms that may go off during our conversation so they would understand why I had to pause a moment to take a drink of water.” Mike’s treatments were done over his lunch hour, and he would need four full bottles of water in his system before leaving for radiation. “Customers would hear my alarm go off and jokingly say, ‘Mike! Drink your water!’” he laughed, clearly touched by the care and concern of the people rallying around him.
One particularly special moment, Mike recalls, is the day that a “customer came into the store and approached me with tears in her eyes. I asked if everything was alright, and she said, ‘yes, I came in to ask how you were doing and to let you know that your story encouraged me to get off the couch. I am on my way to the gym to quit complaining about my situation, be more active, and take control of my life.’” While his journey to beat cancer hasn’t been an easy one, with every stride, Mike envisioned himself outrunning the cancer and now, he shares, that “each step is used to inspire others to get active and live life to the fullest - while you still have a chance.”
On September 10th, Mike laced up his sneakers to once again participate in Sherry’s Run, a 5k Run/Walk in Lebanon, TN, that provides hope and support to families battling cancer in Wilson County and surrounding communities. In previous years, Mike and his family showed their support by walking, running, and cheering on the participants from the sidelines. “This year, everything looks different,” Mike’s wife, Debbie, shared. “This year, we’re celebrating the grit, strength, tenacity, and bravery of this husband, father, and grandfather who looked cancer square in the eye and told it he wasn’t going anywhere. This year, we’re celebrating our survivor.” As soon as his toes crossed that finish line, his goal of completing 100 runs was met, and he couldn't wait to tell his oncologist, “I told you so!” Instead of catching his breath and basking in the glow of his realized dream, however, he turned around and ran the 5k all over again! Mike’s eyes lit up when explained to onlookers that his 101st run was for “those who can’t.”
His advice to other cancer warriors? “I believe you beat cancer by how you show up to the battle. You beat it by how you press on, even when the days are challenging and the nights are unbearable. You beat cancer by how you live in victory, even if you aren’t yet victorious.” Only time will tell if the radiation and therapies fully cured Mike Hoppel’s cancer, but today and every day following, he is choosing to lean on his faith, his love for his family, and his passion for inspiring others.
“How do I do it? My desire to LIVE…to live a life that inspires others, to live long enough to see my grandchildren grow up, to live out my golden years that I have worked so tirelessly to reach…these deeply held desires fuel every step of my runs.”
It turns out that Mike Hoppel was never really running FOR his life. No…he was actually running TO his life.
Better TN article presented by BlueCrossBlueShield Karen Ribble - from Ping Pong to Pickleball http://bettertennessee.com/ping-pong-pickleball-senior-olympics/
Started running 4 years ago at 57 and a mere 3 years later holds mulitple TSO medals, 10 National Championships and a WORLD RECORD!
I started running 4 years ago at age 57. I was introduced to track through the TN SR OLYMPICS the following year and due the level of professionalism among the Staff and the incredible support from fellow athletes, lead me to 10 National Championships and a WORLD RECORD a mere three years later.
David Schmanski & 3 other World class Champions Just broke the American and World Records in the 4 x 800m World Record (23 year old record) at the USATF National Championships in Jacksonville, FL. David Schmanski's team included World Class Champions and World Record Holders: George Haywood, Horace Grant, & Steve Chantry. At this event, David Also won the 2015 National 800m title, and beat his teammate and current indoor World Record Holder, Horace Grant.
The Road to a World Record.
In a recent article by WR holder George Haywood titled "It is far harder to get to the starting line, than it is to the finish line", A reality check brought this into focus as David Schmanski, a twenty year Nashville native, boarded a plane to the Potomac Valley Track club in Alexandria, VA. in a bid to break the World Record for the 4-man 800 meter relay race, on June 27, 2015. The race hosted runners of all ages and included David and his three teammates who were competing in the 60-64 age group.
The nearly quarter of a century World Record Time of 9:33.95 has been held by the Netherlands since 1992. While breaking such a long- standing record seems astonishing, Schmanski may be the man to help his team do this, having recently broken a 28-year- old state record for his age group for the 400m at the KY Bluegrass State Games in Danville, KY. David dashed onto the track scene in his first ever National competition when he won the 2014 Outdoor Masters Championships in the 400m, 800m,1500m, 4 x 400m and 4 x 800m. He bested the Former World Champion and current World Record holder, Nolan Shaheed, in the 800m & 1500m . Schmanski is also a 13 time USATF All-American in the 50m,100m, 200m, 400m, 800m, 1500m and 1 mile. In 2014 he was also a 14 time State champion in those same events in KY, TN, and IN. In March of this year, Schmanski won the National Indoor Championship for the 800m.
Schmanski expressed confidence in the ability of his teammates, all World Class Masters' level competitors. Two of them George Haywood and Horace Grant, both race together and against one another with their team, Houston Elite. Haywood met Schmanski at the 2014 Nationals Masters' Championships in Winston-Salem NC, and asked him to join their team. Their fourth member, Steve Chantry, also pursued by Haywood, agreed, and the relay was in play.
The competition near Washington DC, since not a national competition, required a great deal of preparation for a World Record Attempt with proper accreditations and approvals to meet the USATF requirements.
The stage was set, the applications were in and approved and the plane tickets purchased. The rest is simple... just have four 60+ year olds, who are world class runners, show up at the same place, at the same time, and remain healthy until the gun goes off. Well, this may be why the record is 23+ years old. The morning of the race, while Schmanski was suiting up 23+ for the big event, reaching down to lace his racing spikes, his back gave out and he ending up on the floor moaning in pain. It was over, no amount of massaging, no amount of aspirin, no amount of pleading could make the race happen. His teammates being not only world class runners, but world class gentlemen as well, knew all too well, these things happen. Each of Davids'
teammates have been running for over 40 years. "The understanding and true genuine concern was overwhelming and incredibility motivating and inspiring," said David Schmanski who was determined not to let his teammates down a second time.
The next attempt would be at the Masters' National Championships in Jacksonville, FL July 23 -27. A much easier venue, since no additional paperwork, or authorizations would be necessary at a meet of this level.
Although getting back in shape to a World Class level in less than three weeks from a lower back disk injury seemed insurmountable, David was determined to give it his all. He consulted Nashville friend and National Champion, Daniel Smithhisler, and convinced him to help. David, who normally trains at the track 1 day a week, was pushed to 3 days a week and combined with physical therapy, chiropractic care, and TENS therapy, molded his running form back into shape.
The day of the meet arrived and David was questionable at best. Again two of his teammates were flying in solely for the 4 x 800m WR attempt. Sleeping with ice and a heating pad the night before the event did not leave one with great expectations. David gave up the 400M and 1500m events with the hopes his back could hold up for the WR attempt. He did want to test his ability and decided to attempt the individual 800m event, which was 3 full days before the 4 x 800m relay. Horace Grant, the current indoor World Record holder, and teammate would provide David with a great gauge as George was also running the 800m event. On that misty Thursday morning as the starting gun when off, David ran side by side with Horace the entire race, and opened up a 3 sec lead on the final 100m to win the National 800m Title with a time of 2:21 to Grant's 2:24.
Sunday Morning arrived. Schmanski, wearing his trademark knee braces and newly acquired back brace, lined up for the first leg of the four man relay.
Doubts arose when the event was greeted with 14MPH head winds on the back straight-away. Schmanski delivered a blistering 2:18, Haywood followed with a 2:26, Chantry also delivered a 2:25, and Horace Grant drove it home with a 2:21. eclipsing the old World Record by over 3 sec at 9:30.92.
Schmanski, born in 1954, started running in 2011 and began his track competition in 2013 with the TN Sr Olympics, which he often says was one of the best decisions he has ever made. When asked how he can compete on a National level with so little experience, he jokingly compares himself to a
1954 Chevy that has been garaged for 58 years. "All the other guys have a lot more wear and tear. I look forward to absorbing the wealth of experience that these great athletes are so generous to share. I cannot say enough great things about the USATF and the wonderful Men and Women who compete."
David Added, "If you want to really enjoy the competition, you should only compete against yourself. When you compare yourself to others, you are only bragging or complaining"
David has decided not to attend the World Masters competition in Lyon, France, which he was scheduled to compete in. He said there is always another day and always another race. He just needs to heal and enjoy his World Record and National Title.
David Schmanski - 3-year participant Submitted August 2015
I will be 70 in May and never dreamed I would be cycling in the Senior Olympics. I have been active most of my life but in 2001 my 30 year-old daughter was murdered by a perfect stranger. Life as I knew it came to a halt and I stopped doing much of anything but go to work. I put on weight and gave in to depression until 5 years ago. My son, who competes in cycling, invited me to ride with a group of scouts that he was helping get their cycling merit badge. That was the greatest gift he could have given his mom. That was 5 years ago and I now have 13,000 miles on my bike. When I rode with them it was the first time the depression lifted. I found a way to channel my attention that I had always given my daughter by giving it to me. Since then I have lost weight, met some amazing people and look forward to riding my bike as often as I can. Thank you to the Board and Staff of the TN Senior Olympics. What a challenge and what a wonderful thing you are doing. The TN Senior Olympics has given me a wonderful opportunity to fulfill a dream. For forty years I have been cheering my son and grandsons in competition. Last year hearing them yell, "Come on Mom." "Way to go Grandma." It was as precious as my medals. Janie Wells - submitted April 2015
I am 60 years old and have had diabetes for 15 years. I set a goal for myself to be able to play competitive golf again and the Sr. Olympics has helped me set the goal. I have reversed my diabetes and my story can be found at http://robertdant.blogspot.com. Thank you for giving us all this opportunity to feel young again. Bob Dant - First Year participant submitted October 2013
I was 52 and had not run track since 1975 at the Ohio High School state championships.
Four years ago the State Finals were held at Battle Ground Academy High School and I lived about 2 miles away. I was 52 and had not run track since 1975 at the Ohio High School state championships. I went to the event, took my stopwatch, and got an idea of what it would take to be competitive. I started that July and worked all winter and spring to get into shape and to develop some speed. I am a sprinter that does the 100, 200, 400 m races. I was ready to qualify at the regionals and the Nashville flood showed up and we were canceled and automatically qualified into the State Finals. That was great, but I had no times on the books. So, I went to a race in Kentucky on a lousy wet cold day and ran a couple of races to get a baseline. With that done, I could plan my training accordingly. I ran well at the first State Finals and have been in three. I have won 5 golds and 3 silvers in 3 years.
Jackie Allen submitted August 2012
FAITH! I really enjoyed the 2012 TN State Finals held in Franklin, TN this July.
The week of Finals I was not going to attend. I started asking friends and Family to pray for these legs. :) I finally decided to make the trip to Franklin and allow the legs to either tell or stop the story. On Friday I walked the track at Battle Ground praying and praising. On Saturday,. I found myself slightly intimidated as I observed the competitions long swift strides and unsure of how my hamstring would react. Well as I told everyone that would listen, I was going to give my hamstring all it could take and let what happens happen. The track events found my hamstring in God's hand as I managed to qualify for Nationals in all 5 events.
I was awarded 2 Silvers and 3 Bronze.
(TRY THESE 3 WORDS) FAITH, PRAYER AND WORK! GOD IS AWESOME!
Eleanor Pendergraft - Submitted July 20, 2011 - 3 year participant
Barbara D Wunner, 8 yr participant - Submitted July 2011
Ray Cherry, submitted September 2010
Now, at age 50, I finally get to participate in the swimming events!
I've been looking forward to the Senior Olympics for the past 5 years. Now, at age 50, I finally get to participate in the swimming events! I have had to train alone since no one in my county or district competes in swimming events. However, after all of those long and lonely hours in the pool, I will get to share my love of swimming with other lively seniors from across the state. I can't wait until the July competition!
Debbie Frey, Adamsville, TN - 1st year participant
Joyce G. Manis, Kingsport, TN - 16 year participant - Submitted July, 2008
A couple of years ago I was on the operating table with open heart surgery on the District qualifying date.
A couple of years ago I was on the operating table with open heart surgery on the District qualifying date. Naturally, I didn't get to qualify for the State Finals. So I just attended with my wife, Jane, who did qualify and participated. Some old Coots moving around getting ready. One said: "Hey, Wade, we missed you at District. Where ya been?" Well, I told them, "I had three bypasses with open heart surgery." Somebody in the group said, "Heck!I had 5 bypasses and a new hip put in, where's the discus?" I didn't even get to have a pity party. Go getum old Coots.
Wade Odom, Baxter, TN - 10 year participant - Submitted June, 2008