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Athlete Profile: Sean Swarner

11/6/17 by Abbie Mood

Sean Swarner is attempting something that very few other humans will ever do in their entire lives: successfully summiting the highest peak on each continent, plus reaching both the North and South Poles. No small feat in and of itself, Swarner has an extra challenge to overcome—he only has one functioning lung. You see, Sean Swarner has had cancer not once, but twice. The first time was Hodgkin's disease when he was 13, and just three years later, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Askin's sarcoma. At one point, he was given 14 days to live. The odds were definitely not in his favor.

But yet, he’s still here.

When asked about what happened and how he survived Swarner simply says, "it was a combination of so many things—it was like the Perfect Storm, but in reverse. Everything came together in the right time and the right place, and it just worked."

Celebrating arriving at the South Pole.
Celebrating arriving at the South Pole. Photo courtesy of Sean Swarner

Today, Swarner is 42 years old and is just days away from heading to the North Pole and completing the Explorer’s Grand Slam—climbing the highest summits on the seven continents, plus getting to both the North and South Poles.

"I have always enjoyed spending time outside and outdoors," Swarner says. “When I was in high school, and it carried over into college even though no one from college knew me in high school, they called me ‘Nature Boy’ sometimes. I love being outside. It was kind of like my sanctuary: even when I was sick, I’d get outside and go hike or run or something.”

For most people, summiting the highest mountains on each continent and traveling to both the North and South Poles goes above and beyond "enjoying spending time outside and outdoors." This is a huge undertaking and a serious accomplishment for any mountaineer. But for Swarner, it’s mostly about inspiring others. “I wanted to use Mt. Everest, as the highest platform in the world, to give people hope,” he explained. “To try to accomplish something that no one had ever done before and use that to help other people. After doing some research, I found out that no cancer survivor had ever done it before. I figured why not me? Why not for the right reasons? And it’s continued to be a platform for hope and helping other people [that’s the number one reason] but recently I’ve been thinking maybe it’s to prove that I’m still alive.”

Reaching the peak of Vinson Massif in Antarctica.
Reaching the peak of Vinson Massif in Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Sean Swarner

The journey has not been easy—Swarner is constantly pushing his own boundaries and fighting a psychological battle. "Just like cold, pain is a relative term. I’ve been in a tent before in Antarctica where it was -60 degrees F *inside *the tent, which is really freakin’ cold. I didn’t even leave my sleeping bag that day," he laughs. “It’s a relative term, and I know what true pain feels like. I know the mind gives up long before the body should. The body can handle so much more than the mind lets it. And I think that’s where the disconnect is for most people—they don’t believe things are possible.”

That why Swarner visits cancer patients whenever he travels. He wants to show people that they can not just come out on the other side, but live their lives and accomplish their goals. "I start at the end and I focus on the end and attach huge emotions to that," Swarner shares. “The more emotionally attached I am to the end result, the more real it’s going to become. I start living my future goal as if it’s already happened.”

As Swarner prepares to head out to the North Pole for his last adventure (for now), he’s feeling excited, but also nervous about what the future holds. "I’ve kind of thought about it," he says. “It’s a lot like when I was in treatment, and all of sudden the doctor said ‘hey you’re in remission’ when my future before those words was really, oftentimes, the next morning or the next day because I didn’t know if I was going to wake up when I went to bed. Now the doctor says ‘you have your entire future ahead of you’ and I think ‘okay, well what the hell am I going to do now?’ Same thing for this—I’ve been working on it for years, and I’m excited, but I’m also a little apprehensive.”

Swarner also credits his partnership with Marmot as a factor in his success over the years. "I’ve been really fortunate ever since I’ve been working with them [Marmot]. Marmot has been a supporter of mine for the past 10 years or so. We’ve had an amazing relationship, and it just wouldn’t be possible without their support. It’s not just the gear, but the people make that company. They’re genuine and care about making quality product. It’s for the weekend warrior and for literally climbing the highest mountains in the world. I’ve been fortunate to have them as a supporter and sponsor and I couldn’t even picture myself with another company."

Swarner and his crew on the summit of Denali, North America’s highest peak.
Swarner and his crew on the summit of Denali, North America’s highest peak. Photo courtesy of Sean Swarner

But the one thing that Swarner worries about the most isn’t his gear or his fitness, it’s disappointing people. When he goes to the North Pole, Swarner will carry a flag with the names of both cancer survivors and those who have passed away (for a donation of $5 or more, you can add a name to the flag until March 31st by visiting this website).

"My biggest fear is to let people down and not get all the names on the flag to the North Pole," Swarner says.

He knows that it won’t be easy. But when the going gets tough, Swarner will stay focused on "all the people who are battling their cancers, and the people who are pushing me forward. I can call on my sat phone and get evacuated out, but people who are fighting for their lives don’t have the option to say ‘hey, get me out of this situation.’"

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.