It was just back pain. That’s what Boston Red Sox pitcher Jon
Lester kept telling himself. When you throw 25-year-old left-hander does, muscles get what he did, the pain wouldn’t
Lester went to see doctors and heard words he never expected: He had
cancer. It wasn’t just any form of the disease, but the extraordinarily rare blood
cancer known as anaplastic large cell lymphoma. To beat back the cancer’s
spread, Lester would require intensive chemotherapy.
“I didn’t once ask why,” Lester tells SUCCESS. “Instead, I asked how we get rid
of this. I wanted to think positively and look forward.”
With that approach, Jon Lester became a hero to many. From that diagnosis
in August 2006, Lester went through treatment, worked his way back
into the major leagues, pitched—and won—a World Series game
and then, in May 2008, became only the 18th pitcher in the history
of the storied Red Sox organization to throw a perfect game.
And Jon Lester is cancer-free.
“I don’t think I had any idea what it would mean to others
when I made it back,” Lester says. “I was just trying to win each
day, to make sure I was doing whatever it took to be as disciplined
and successful in treatment as I was in baseball.”
By doing so, Lester earned a legion of new fans, many
of them cancer survivors. Web sites were loaded with
letters of thanks, with words of encouragement. Many
of those writing wanted Lester to know his top-flight
accomplishment gave them reason to believe. “I was
surprised, honestly,” he says. “There were so many
things said that were wonderful, but all I was trying to
do was make my way back.”
Lester is one of many athletes who have handled adversity on
a grand stage and have used the same strengths that made them
champions to get them through tough times. The stories of those
athletes and their successes have long proven inspirational.
Reclaiming His Mastery
Famous for his stringent discipline in practice, Ben Hogan
was one of the premier golfers of the 1940s when his career—
and his life—nearly ended in a head-on collision with a
Greyhound bus. The 1949 accident left him with a fractured
collarbone and ankle, a double-fractured pelvis, blood clots and a
cracked rib. It also left him with the burning desire to fight back.
Less than a year after doctors told him he’d never walk again,
Hogan placed second in the 1950 Los Angeles Open tournament,
losing to Sam Snead in a tightly fought playoff round. Six months
after that, he clinched the U.S. Open title for the second time in his
career. In 1951, he won the U.S. Open—for the third time—and the
Masters. In 1953, he won both again, adding the British Open and
Pan American Open titles to his record, as well.
Widely regarded as one of the greatest golfers of all time, Hogan
won a total of 71 professional tournaments over his 21-year career.
By refusing to allow the tragedy of his accident to define him, Hogan
instead invested himself in chasing his dream. His rigorous and
dedicated practice habits were no longer just about honing a skill.
They became focused on reclaiming a part of himself. Despite the
odds against him, Hogan never turned down an opportunity to
study his game. “Every day you miss practicing,” he said, “will take
you one day longer to get good.”
Fastest Woman on Earth
Hogan’s example was cited several times by a 20-year-old
American track sensation, Wilma Rudolph, who captured the title
of “the fastest woman on earth” at the 1960 Olympics. Rudolph
could hardly have had a less promising start. Born prematurely and
struck by polio as an infant, tiny Wilma Rudolph limped through
a childhood marred by measles, scarlet fever, whooping cough and
a twisted left leg that
required a brace. But
none of that could
contain her spirit.
Fascinated by her
older sister’s basketball
games, Rudolph was
determined to take to
the court herself and
fought her way through
and physical therapy.
As a high-school player,
she caught the eye of the
Tennessee State track
and field coach, who
recognized her tremendous
ability and began
training her as a runner.
At 16, she made the
U.S. Olympic team in
1956, winning bronze
in the 4×100 relay.
Four years later, she truly made her mark, winning gold in the
100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and as part of the 400-meter
relay team. Her performance in the 200-meter had set a new
Olympic record and her relay team had set a
new world record—and this from a woman
who wasn’t able to walk normally until she
was nearly 12.
For Rudolph, the goal was everything.
Any obstacles on the way were part of the
journey toward greatness. Challenges,
restraints, setbacks—these were all things to
push against to grow stronger. Her winning
mindset was simple: “The triumph can’t be
had without the struggle.”
Seeing Beyond Limitations
And as proof that athletes often find
inspiration from each other, Jon Lester, after
working his way back into the major leagues,
regularly mentioned another pitcher, Jim
Abbott, when he described where he looked
for inspiration. Abbott didn’t suffer disease,
but what he did amazed millions. “I’ve
learned that it’s not the disability that defines
you,” Abbott explains. “It’s how you deal
with the challenges the disability presents
Abbott is no stranger to challenges. The 10-season major
league pitcher was born without a right hand. Never one to let
a perceived disability stand in the way of his goals, he pursued
athletics with his heart and soul, as a high-school quarterback
leading his football team to a Michigan state championship and
developing a distinct pitching and fielding style that made him
a highly sought-after baseball recruit.
Despite being drafted out of high school,
however, Abbott decided instead to attend
the University of Michigan, where he led the
Wolverines’ baseball program to two Big Ten
championships and became the first pitcher to
earn the James E. Sullivan Award for the best
amateur athlete in the country. In 1988, he
earned a gold medal, pitching the final game at
the Seoul Olympics.
From there, he was drafted, eighth overall,
by the Angels. In 1993, playing for the Yankees,
he pitched a 4-0 no-hitter against the Cleveland
Indians. Abbott’s story quickly became one of the
most inspiring in professional athletics, encouraging
children to look past their limitations and
keep their eyes on their dreams.
‘Be Everything You Want to Be’
Natalie du Toit would have been a perfect candidate
for Abbott’s mentoring. Already an internationally
ranked swimmer in her native South
Africa by the age of 14, du Toit seemed to be a
rising star in international athletics. But, just three
years later, in 2001, she was struck by a car on her way back to
school from swim practice, and lost her left leg at the knee.
The very next year, she took to the pool at the 2002
Commonwealth Games and won not only two events for
athletes with physical challenges, but also became the fi rst
physically challenged athlete to qualify for the final of a
regular event when she swam the 800-meter freestyle. In 2003,
again swimming the 800-meter freestyle, she won gold at the
She continued to wow the swimming world, winning or
placing in nearly every international competition she entered,
including winning five golds and one silver in the Paralympics,
and winning two golds again in the 2006 Commonwealth
Games—and all without the aid of a prosthetic leg.
When she qualified for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, du Toit
was honored in another way: She became the first physically
challenged athlete to carry a country’s fl ag in the opening ceremony.
Her 16th-place finish in the 10-kilometer open-water
swim was not as strong a finish as she had hoped, but in a field
of 23 other athletes, all able-bodied, it was a triumph indeed.
“Be everything you want to be,” du Toit regularly reminds
her fans during interviews. Clearly, she is a tremendous
reminder that no obstacle is too great that it cannot be challenged—