[This article originally published in June, 2007.]
COLORADO SPRINGS -- In 2002, Andy Potts was a salesman for a payroll company in Chicago, doing nothing more for exercise than playing in occasional pickup basketball and flag football games. Two years later, Potts, a former University of Michigan swimmer, was at the starting line of the Olympic men's triathlon in Athens. Making the Olympic team, in addition to his wedding in January 2004, was the high point of his year.
The low point came when his wife, Lisa, a former Michigan gymnast and Cirque du Soleil performer, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in November 2004.
"We went from the ultimate high to 'We didn't get enough time with each other,'" Potts says. Husband and wife started calling themselves "Team Potts."
"We decided when it's rough going for him, I'm going to pick him up," Lisa says. "When it's rough for me, he's going to pick me up."
The diagnosis helped persuade Potts not to retire after finishing 22nd in Athens. Inspired by Lisa's strength during treatment, as the cancer spread from her thyroid to her lymph nodes to her lungs, Potts rose in the world rankings. He finished last season at No. 3.
New Addition to Team Potts
He was on top of the world in another sense: Lisa's health had improved enough that she was cleared to start a family, and she was pregnant. Now Boston Thomas Potts, born May 10, is in the cheering section and his dad is on a roll. Potts, 30, won the U.S. championships in May and the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon earlier this month.
"It's like I've got that much more to fight for," Potts says.
During the weekend, he finished second to 2000 Olympic champion Simon Whitfield at an International Triathlon Union World Cup in Vancouver. Potts will compete in the only ITU World Cup on U.S. soil this season, the Hy-Vee World Cup in Des Moines, on Sunday, June 17.
"He's got the most incredible drive of any athlete I've ever worked with," Potts' coach, Mike Doane, says. "On top of that, he has this enormous talent for this particular sport. More and more of that is coming out."
Short on Experience, Long on Determination
In June 2002, Potts had only his swimming qualifications--he finished fourth in the 400-meter individual medley at the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials--and his determination. With 220 pounds on his six-foot-two-inch frame (he's at 175 now) and his Olympic dream unfulfilled, he called it quits on his sales job. Then he called his family and Lisa to tell them he was buying a bicycle.
"I'm going to be an Olympic triathlete," he told them.
His cycling experience to that point entailed riding around campus between classes. He was a bit more accomplished as a runner: He walked on to the Michigan track and field team one season. Yet within five months of leaving his job, Potts had impressed U.S. triathlon officials enough to earn a spot on the resident team at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
He was so sure he would make the 2004 Olympic team that he asked Lisa if they could postpone their honeymoon until September 2004 and then celebrate on the Greek island of Santorini. Potts qualified for the Olympics in May 2004, four months after the wedding, finishing 11th at the triathlon world championships.
Lisa found a lump in her neck before leaving for Athens. She didn't tell Andy about it until they got to Santorini. She had a doctor's appointment the week after they returned.
"Every time we went to the doctor, we got worse and worse news," Potts says. "You go from feeling invincible to getting beaten down every day."
Now, although doctors have yet to declare Lisa cancer-free, Team Potts is feeling more unbeatable--especially since the arrival of the third team member, with his blue eyes and wisps of fine, brown hair.
"Andy and I will go to sleep at night and say, 'I hope there's so many other people going to sleep so happy tonight,'" Lisa says. "We just feel so fortunate that we have made it out of it."
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