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Six-time IRONMAN and Cancer Survivor Publishes New Book, Story of Hope and Resilience

by USA Triathlon

Paul Weigel

While training for Ironman Canada in 2013, Paul Weigel was diagnosed with stage III – c colorectal cancer with the tumor the size of a lemon in his abdomen when he was just 43 years old. He was forced to put his race goals on hold and immediately start treatment that included radiation, surgery, and chemotherapy.

Despite those tremendous obstacles, Paul chose hope. Facing his illness and treatment with courage, he completed Ironman Canada a year later within six months of finishing chemotherapy. His book, Iron Dad, available for presale on Amazon now, tells his inspiring story of him finishing Ironman Canada, while finding and clinging to the joy in life with his daughter, no matter the odds.

What inspired you to write Iron Dad?

I initially wrote a blog that explained all the ups and downs of going through cancer treatment. Once I had gotten through everything, I put that part of my life in a nice little box on a shelf and focused on being a father to my (at the time) 3-year-old daughter. Now that she’s a teenager, she’s asking more questions about what happened, what I faced, and how I got through it, so it was time to share my story with her. Iron Dad is a really a love story that shows how much her love helped save my life and now makes it better every day.

How did you find out you had cancer?

Being a triathlete literally saved my life. I had finished Ironman Arizona a few years before, and started training for Ironman Canada in Whistler. As I got more and more serious about training, I knew something was really, wrong with my gut and that I needed to be serious about finding out what was going on.

Like many, I had symptoms for years including blood in my stool, IBS, and then weight loss. I had spoken with my primary care physician several times, only to have them disregarded as hemorrhoids, lactose intolerance, and anything but cancer – especially since I was only 43 years old with no family history. As an athlete, I knew something was wrong with my body and should have been a stronger advocate in fighting for my health. I finally got in to see a GI specialist, who recommended a colonoscopy, and then we found a tumor the size of a lemon just below my belly button.

What did you think when the doctor told you that you had cancer?

It is overwhelming to think about your future with cancer, let alone with a 3-year-old at home. The doctor never said you have cancer. He never said those three key words. He said, “you have a growth; you have a mass.” Explosions ran through my head with so many questions I didn’t know where to begin.  I was overwhelmed by the thought of a million experiences I might never have with my daughter, Natalie, and how I would do everything, anything to be there for her as long as I could.

Paul Weigel

Why did you choose to complete an Ironman so soon after treatment?

To be honest, I thought my time was going to be cut short based on how advanced my cancer was. I was petrified of the thought my daughter wouldn’t know who I was after I passed away and I wanted her to know I wasn’t a quitter. It was incredibly important for me to hear them say, “Paul Weigel, you are an Ironman!” and have a finisher photo with her.  After all, the Ironman mantra is “Anything is possible!”

What does it mean to you to be a triathlete?

My triathlon journey has been a long one, starting with super sprint triathlons in Lake Sammamish, Washington. I couldn’t even swim the length of a pool when I first got into the water. As time has gone by, I have found that being a triathlete (and later an Ironman) has really defined me. I’ve learned to dig deeper and push myself to new levels in ways that I never thought possible, and have developed friendships that will last a lifetime. Now that I’m in my 50s, my times may have slowed down, but my determination is greater than ever as has my bike and t-shirt collection from all the different races. 

What did you learn about fatherhood through these experiences?

Love is the most important thing to keep you going. I had a challenging life before Natalie was born and didn’t feel I had a lot to live for. But from the moment she was born, all I could do was imagine hopeful dreams that I could not wait to see. She’s been more than I ever possibly could have imagined, and I learn more and more from her every day. I’ve taken in every moment I could with her, the dad walking her to the school door rather than dropping her off from the car, volunteering every moment I could possibly get, the dad you see at volleyball and soccer games, regardless of the weather or quality of the game. Being a dad is all that’s mattered.

What do you hope your daughter has learned from watching you battle cancer and complete the Ironman races?

What has mattered most is that Natalie has grown into an amazing young woman.  I’m sure she’s learned key lessons about competition and resiliency (she did win her age group at the Sedona 5k in 2023). But she also has a keen sense of what really matters every day.  I can only hope that I’ve captured a little bit about how much she amazes me in the memoir.

What words of advice about colon cancer do you have for fellow triathletes and family members?

Get screened!

Colon cancer is common and deadly.  It’s now the No. 1 leading cancer cause of death for men and No. 2 leading cause of death for women. And it’s the most preventable!  Ninety-one % of all colon cancer can be prevented with proper screenings. If you’re 45 or older, or have a family history of colorectal cancer, talk with your doctor and get screened! Getting screened does not mean you have to have a colonoscopy, so put that fear factor out of your mind.

We, as triathletes are incredibly attuned to our bodies. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t be afraid to have difficult conversations with your doctor. I almost waited until it was too late.  Don’t be like me.

You can learn more at www.getscreened.org or at www.irondadbook.com

(Photo by Paul Weigel)

Paul’s book, Iron Dad: A Cancer Survivor’s Story of Discovering Strength, Life, and Love through Fatherhood, is available for presale on Amazon and out just in time for Father's Day.