Getting back on his feet

A cancer survivor, bodybuilder and former Olympic alternate competes in the Senior Games.
Sunday, June 10, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 1:14 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008
Howard Wilson shows his wife, Donna, his medal after winning his age group in the 1,500-meter race walk.

While shaving, Howard Wilson, 58, of O’Fallon, noticed a small bump the size of a golf ball on his throat. On Oct. 31, 2006, Wilson found out that he had a life-threatening form of lymph node cancer. Less than two weeks later, Wilson underwent a 61/2-hour surgery to remove the growth.

While undergoing radiation therapy, Wilson lost more than 55 pounds and was too weak to make the short walk from the car to his bed after each session. Wilson credits the support of his family, along with members and staff of the O’Fallon YMCA for getting him through.


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“They’re a great inspiration to me,” said Wilson of the YMCA members and staff. “They’re like my second family.”

Only nine months since his diagnosis, Wilson returned to the track to compete in the 1,500-meter race walk at the 13th annual Senior State Games, which finish today after four days. He placed first in his age group with a time of 10 minutes, 43 seconds, beating his goal of 11:00.

“It’s been really tough. It’s still tough,” Wilson said. “You got to try and beat this. Otherwise, it’ll beat you.”

Wilson is not considered cancer-free and will continue to undergo routine scans for the next five years to make sure there isn’t a recurrence.

Strong swimmer: Even though he has suffered a double hernia, two hip replacements and a fractured neck and back, Mike Sappington, 55, of Normandy, does not feel that the injuries slow him down.

“I’ve always been an athlete and a jock,” Sappington said.

Sappington competed in a variety of swimming races this weekend at Hickman High School.

“When I get into the pool, I’m in there to beat everyone,” Sappington said.

He has also competed in 26 drug-free bodybuilding competitions in the past nine years.

Sappington prefers competing in the pool.

“It’s about the first person that touches the wall at the end of the finish line,” he said.

After placing second a few times, Sappington kept the ribbons as a reminder to work harder.

The only sign that his injuries affect him at all are his turns. His hips prevent him from doing tighter and faster turns during races.

He credits muscle strengthening and physical therapy as reasons for his ability to carry on.

“I have limitations, but hey, you go on,” Sappington said.

Running around the world: Most athletes who want to compete in high school track try out their freshman year. But Jerry Smartt didn’t try out until his senior year.

So it was a surprise that only a few years later, in 1956, Smartt, 75, of Warsaw, tried out for the U.S. Olympic track team.

With little formal training in track, Smartt qualified as an alternate. In 1957, Smartt ran the 10,000 meters outdoors in 29:43.3, setting an American record in the event.

It’s interesting that Smartt questioned whether he had a shot at doing well in track at all. It was at a meet in Japan, while Smartt was serving in the Air Force, that he realized, “Maybe I’ve got a shot at the big time.”

Smartt continued to excel at track after getting a coach. He went on to compete for the U.S. in the Philippines, Finland, Russia and Africa.

He has also helped coach track teams from Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and Jordan and still keeps in contact with many of his former athletes.

Smartt competed in the 800 and 1,500 this weekend.

“I’m a racer, when the gun goes off, I’ll be going with it,” he said.

Record setter: Phil Brusca, 80, of Maryland Heights, set a new U.S. record for the 80-84 age group in the shot put throwing a distance of 35-61/2.

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