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Sean English’s Cancer Battle Comes To Kona

In July of 2016, triathlon announcer Sean English was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 cancer.

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It wasn’t so long ago that Sean English was living his perfect version of The Triathlon Dream. A competitive skier when he was younger, English found triathlon 17 years ago, and it quickly changed everything. He quit his job, reshuffled the cards in his life and decided to find a way to live within the multisport world. Though he had been a modest age-group athlete, a coach, a massage therapist and a bike fitter at various times since then, everything clicked when someone finally put a mic in his hand.

When English was first approached by Julie and Lloyd Talbert to announce their Calabasas 5K and 10K in 2003, his only experience had been speaking at Team In Training events. Though he resisted at first, they told him he was perfect for the job because he knew everyone, knew the sport and had a big mouth.

Since then, his big mouth has been the first thing that athletes have heard as they run down the homestretch at events all over the world. If Ironman’s Mike Reilly is triathlon’s Fab Four, Sean English is its Rolling Stones. English’s realm tends to be the alternative events, the second-wave races—the ones looking to make a big, loud splash to breathe some life into their little corner of the sport. English’s voice was a familiar sound around Rev3 Events, the Wildflower Triathlon, Challenge Events and the Escape from Alcatraz. With his easily recognizable shoulder-length hair and animated attitude, English was also a perfect fit for color runs, Tough Mudders and even the U.S. Open of Surfing. He was known for hanging out post-race with the pros over a cold beer and some friendly banter—just like one of the gang.

This was English’s Triathlon Life, and it was a very good one. He had carved out a spot for himself in the sport he loved so very much, and he had done it in a way that only he could: Sean English was oversized sunglasses, a leather bracelet, all-black clothes and high-fives. Even when announcing he couldn’t be contained by the booth.

As it often does, it was the usual stuff that set off a big chain of events. English was training like he always had when a little bout of plantar fasciitis began to flare up. Like any triathlete, English brushed it off, refocused on something that didn’t affect his injury and began to increase his cycling mileage accordingly. It was mid-summer of this year, and English supplemented his running with a big 300-mile week of cycling. Days later, at an event in Maine, his back began to act up. He finally went to his doctor, expecting news of—at worst—a herniated disc probably due to cycling. Maybe he needed his bike fit checked out; maybe he was just getting old. Of course in things like this, it’s never what you expect, and after getting a hurried MRI, the panicked tech gave him the news: In July of 2016, Sean English was diagnosed with metastatic stage 4 cancer.

Doctors told English that his L3 vertebra was basically 60 percent tumor, and he was to be admitted to the hospital immediately. He underwent two surgeries totaling 17 hours. The first one removed his L3 vertebra and did anterior and posterior reconstruction of his spine; the second removed his right kidney—the source of the cancer—and placed a filter in his heart. English’s last surgery was on Aug. 22. In typical form, he didn’t tell anyone that it was also his birthday, knowing that the procedure involved the intricately woven schedules of three separate surgeons.

Worse yet, English’s diagnosis also occurred during the peak of his working calendar—the end of the triathlon season. This left English with little or no income to pay for treatment, let alone live and thrive. It would be the very same people—Julie and Lloyd Talbert—along with a host of friends and supporters that would come together when his voice could no longer reach the crowd.

They scrambled to provide funds for English. His extensive work with charitable organizations came full circle as the man who had helped do so much now needed help of his own. Through a combination of many individuals and groups—particularly the Talbert Family Foundation—English’s needs were met, plus more.

Which finally brings us to the Big Island of Hawai’i.

Among the throngs of the super fit wandering down Ali’i Drive on race week in Kona, there cuts an unusual figure gliding smoothly across the sidewalk. Gone is the long hair that used to sprout out beneath Sean English’s ever-present flat-billed ball cap, but the mind—and the mouth—is still exactly the same. Instead of bopping around nonstop like he used to, he stays seated in his new-looking, red electric scooter as he rides along. The psychic energy hasn’t left him; it has just become contained and focused within the confines of his new conveyance.

English’s body is weak from the procedures, so he lacks the stamina to maneuver from person to person like he wants, but that doesn’t stop him from saying hi to every familiar face he sees (it comes with the territory, he knows a lot of faces). With the help of the foundation and his friends from Wattie Ink, enough money was raised to send English to Kona. The miles were donated. Somebody sent funds for a place to stay. Everyone knew that English’s best chance of recovery was to be around the people he loved, and all of those people are here in Hawaii right now.

Some might think that it’s English’s last chance to come to Kona (his first radiation treatment begins only five hours after his plane returns to the mainland), but he doesn’t see it that way. He sees it as a return to the primordial ooze of the sport that gave him a new life the first time around. He can’t imagine himself giving up; he can’t imagine just curling up and dying. It’s more likely that Kona will be his Lourdes, his holy place of healing.

Sean English doesn’t talk about survival rates or overplay the severity of his diagnosis—he quickly acknowledges that there are people with conditions worse than his. He came to the island to be lifted up, not as a last hurrah. English talks quickly and easily about getting back to the work he loves, as soon as he possibly can. He dreams of the one still thing missing from his resume—announcing an Ironman event one day—and he smiles widely at the thought of it. The corners of his eyes tighten when he imagines what it’ll feel like to have that mic in his hand again, bringing home all of the same people that brought him all the way here.