Running past the tests, trials of life
KidSpirit director Karen Swanger overcame cancer, continues to motivate kids
Published: Thursday, May 24, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, July 24, 2012 20:07
Most people scheduled for a lumpectomy a mere month after a breast cancer diagnosis would be inclined to have a spouse or loved one drive them to the hospital.
Not Karen Swanger. She ran.
“It was really, really important to me that I ran to the hospital that day. I had to,” Swanger said. “And that hill going up to Samaritan is kind of a big hill!”
Swanger is an instructor at Oregon State University and teaches physical activity courses in running. She is also the program director of both KidSpirit and Girls on the Run, youth programs that focus on physical activity.
In Dec. 2005, at age 45, Swanger was diagnosed with breast cancer. That news “changed it all” for a woman who had spent nearly her entire life running.
“I stopped whining about the rain,” Swanger said about her return to running after battling cancer. “I have a motivation for nobody but myself just to run.”
Although getting her speed back has been challenging, times were not always a huge priority for Swanger. Her sense of competitiveness was dramatically different from that of most athletes.
“I was a weird competitor,” Swanger said. “I never really cared about winning.”
At one of her early Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) track meets, Swanger worked to get one of every color ribbon.
“I remember going up to my dad afterward like, ‘Look, I’ve got them all!’” Swanger said. “I think I was annoying to my coaches because I had more talent than I ever appreciated.”
As a child, Swanger would run around her block every night in order to “escape” the chaos of her big family. In her hometown of Kennewick, Wash., Swanger was competing in track meets as early as second grade.
It was Swanger’s participation in track that led her to volunteering at the Special Olympics. At 16, Swanger had no desire to attend, but was forced to when her high school coach gave the team an ultimatum: volunteer for the Special Olympics or do not participate in the district meet.
“I had such a bad attitude,” Swanger said. But when she got there, her perspective on running, and life in general, changed.
“It was the most amazing feat of athletic performance I’d ever seen,” Swanger said. “It really shaped how I understand and how I ran and how I approached almost everything in life.”
After moving to Maui, Hawaii, from her home state of Washington, years later, Swanger became the regional director of the Special Olympics. Her passion for volunteering and nonprofits led her to her current positions at OSU.
KidSpirit is entirely run by college students, and Swanger’s role is to guide them in running the program. She explains that KidSpirit is valuable because it gives students work experience in a safe environment.
“Karen is passionate about what she does and it comes across in every moment,” said Tiffany Walter, the assistant director of programs at KidSpirit.
Girls on the Run is an international program dedicated to promoting self-respect in elementary school girls. In the next four years, Swanger estimates that 3,500 girls, grades three to five, will have been served by the program.
“We are helping girls become stronger and we’re running,” Swanger said. “It helps coaches as much as it does the girls.”
Swanger also teaches a half-marathon training class, which she has been doing since fall 2010. She claims that students’ attitudes are what make teaching running courses so enjoyable.
“I love what I do. I have the best of everything,” Swanger said. “I work with college students who care about people, and I get to help them grow as people, and then I get to watch them impact little people who are better because of it.”
It was during her time in Maui that Swanger decided to go back to school to finish her undergraduate degree, which is what brought her to Corvallis.
It took Swanger 17 years to finish her degree.
“At one point, my daughter and I were in the same math,” Swanger said with a laugh. “But it was the greatest, most empowering thing I ever did because I started from the beginning and worked all the way through.”
After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Human Performance, Swanger earned a Master of Science in Exercise Sport and Psychology with a minor in Conflict and Negotiations at OSU.
Swanger’s motivation for running and her work for the Special Olympics, KidSpirit and Girls on the Run is her passion for helping people.
“What motivated me when I ran was people not taking care of people,” Swanger said. “Some of my best times were because I didn’t think the person at the starting line was nice and I just wasn’t going to let that person beat me.”
Mackenzie Swan, news reporter