Eric Shanteau (1 October, 1983) is an American breaststroke and IM swimmer who has consistently challenged for top honours in the world’s premier swim meets.
Having followed his brother into the pool as a three-year-old, Eric started showing promise as an age-group swimmer, breaking numerous state records and leading his high school team to three consecutive state titles. In 2002, he became the first male in the history of the USA Swimming Scholastic All-American Program to graduate with a 4.0 GPA and a national title.
At Auburn University he completed his four years of eligibility undefeated in team competitions, winning 4 NCAA titles. After graduating he moved to Austin, Texas to swim for Longhorn Aquatics under the coaching of Eddie Reese and Kris Kubik. As a student he competed in two World University Games, in which he won a 400m IM silver medal in Daegu, South Korea in 2003, and became the first American to sweep the individual medley events at the 2005 Games in İzmir, Turkey, setting a new Universiade record in the 200m IM.
Eric started appearing on the podium at the world’s leading international meets in 2004, picking up a bronze medal in the 400m IM at the World Short Course Championships in Indianapolis. He narrowly missed making the 2004 US Olympic team, coming third in the two IM events, but subsequently made the 2007 World Championships team, swimming to fifth place in the 200m breaststroke final in Melbourne.
In the summer of 2008, Eric received some life-changing news when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer just a week before the US Olympic trials. He was, however, cleared to compete, and qualified for the Olympic team in the 200m breaststroke. After deciding to delay treatment and stay on the team in order to fulfill his dream of competing in Beijing, he swam a lifetime best at the Olympics, advancing to the semi-finals, where he finished tenth.
After successful treatment for the cancer after the Olympics, Eric returned to the pool stronger than ever in 2009. At the US Nationals, he won the 200m breast, setting an American record in the process, and placed second in the 200m IM to Ryan Lochte with a time of 1:56.00, making him the third fastest performer ever in the event. At the World Championships in Rome, he won silver in the 200m breaststroke (losing to Daniel Gyurta by one-hundredth of a second), bronze in the 200m IM, and placed fourth in the 100m breast. In his two breaststroke events, he became the first (and only) American to break 59s in the 100 and 2min 8s in the 200. He was also a member of the 4x100m medley relay team that won the gold medal in a new world record.
After another solid year in 2010, in which he successfully defended his US National 200m breaststroke title and won bronze in the event at the Pan Pacific Championships in Irvine, California, he left Longhorn Aquatics for Dave Salo’s world-class breaststroke stable at the Trojan Swim Club in Southern California. He has subsequently seen notable improvement in his starts, with a number of good results in 2011 leading into the World Championships in Shanghai, where he will compete in 200m breaststroke.
For most people, an Olympic experience would be a defining moment in their lives. For Eric Shanteau, it went a step further. The testicular cancer that changed his life was diagnosed a week before the US Olympic trials, throwing the whole possibility of his Olympic participation into question, and even threatening to distract his performance at the trials. But Shanteau showed his character and won his event to qualify for the team, all the while keeping his condition under wraps. Afterwards he had to break the news to the team in what was for him a very difficult experience, one that left the entire team shell-shocked. In Beijing, while Michael Phelps garnered all the attention, Eric was constantly monitoring his situation, ready to jet back to the US for the operation that had been postponed to allow him to compete. Thankfully, he didn’t have to.
Ultimately, two things helped him through. First, being able to focus on the business of competing – in the US trials and subsequently at the Olympics – distracted him from the cancer and allowed him to get away from the world of concern that dogged him when he wasn’t swimming. Second, father Rick, himself diagnosed with lung cancer the year before, gave him a slogan that helped his mindset in dealing with it: “I have cancer, cancer doesn’t have me”. Thankfully, Rick was able to share Eric’s Olympic experience before he succumbed to the disease in August, 2010.
There was also plenty of support from those close to him, some of whom had the courage and caring to deliver difficult messages. Longhorn Aquatics and national coach Eddie Reese responded to Eric’s frustration that he was “ready for all this cancer stuff to be over" by saying "It doesn't get over. Roll up your sleeves and get into it.” So he did.
That Eric has been able to rebound from such an experience and produce the performances that he has since then – not least in the lead-up to and in the 2009 World Championships themselves – is testament to his strength of character. He attributes much of it to the competitive and combative spirit that swimming has imbued him with. But he’s taken it a step further, thanks to the support and pro-active attitude of one Lance Armstrong, seven-time Tour de France winner and himself a survivor of testicular cancer. Eric has become an active member of the Lance Armstrong Foundation (Livestrong), and takes time out on his swimming travels to visit young cancer patients whenever he can. As much as his visits are a bright note in the days of those he visits, he acknowledges that through their smiles he gets as much out of the experience as they do, and is further spurred on to do more. He’s also launched a Livestrong fundraiser event, Swim For Your Life, a day of open water races, clinics and entertainment where participants can meet Olympians and help contribute to a worthy cause.
Eric’s life has come a long way since 19th June, 2008, when he was ready to launch himself at the diagnosing doctor in anger and frustration. Cancer has, in a strange and perverse way, given him a new lease, a new perspective on life. The support of many, not least among them the Lance Armstrong Foundation, along with his own fighting spirit, have contrived to make his life more meaningful, more valuable.
And perhaps more than anyone else in the world, Eric is able to say, with a gravity that many in the world don’t understand: “I wake up every morning and do what I love to do. It’s kind of like living my own dream.“