Cancer Couldn’t Crush His Olympic Dream
by Jessica Webb Errickson
When professional beach volleyball champion Jake Gibb got a call from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency with the news that he had failed a routine drug test, he was taken aback. The USADA tester on the line explained to Jake that he would be suspended from his sport for a year and a half due to abnormally high levels of alpha-fetoprotein and human chorionic gonadotropin (beta-HGC) in his system, hormones that pointed to steroid use. Then he advised Jake to see a doctor.
“I was just absolutely thrown,” Jake says in an interview with Coping® magazine.
After reading up on the hormones that had prompted his doping ban, Jake discovered that they’re often found in pregnant women and steroid users. Jake was neither.
“At the very bottom of this article I read, there was one line that said, ‘Also found in men with testicular cancer …’” he explains, “and my heart just dropped.”
A visit to his doctor confirmed that testicular cancer was the cause of his false-positive drug test.
Though his doping suspension was lifted, the weight on his shoulders remained, as he was facing surgery to remove the cancer followed by three rounds of chemotherapy. Having competed in the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Jake was hoping to represent the United States once again in the 2012 London Games. But with the qualification period for the Olympics already in progress, he knew that if he took time off for chemotherapy, he and his partner, Sean Rosenthal, would have no chance of earning enough wins to qualify for the U.S. team.
“That’s when panic set in,” Jake recalls. “It squashed my Olympic dreams.”
To add to the stress, Jake found out that his wife, Jane, was pregnant – the night before his surgery.
“She told me, and there was a moment of ‘Let’s just get through tomorrow and we’ll celebrate this later.’ We’d been trying to get pregnant for a year, so that was a big deal. That was a big thing to celebrate,” he explains. “But it was a tremendous amount to come at me and my wife at one time.”
Testicular cancer was eye opening and life changing.
After Jake’s surgery, test results indicated that, remarkably, the cancer had not spread. The Olympic hopeful wouldn’t need further treatment after all. He was cancer-free.
“I didn’t have to go through chemotherapy. I didn’t have to go through radiation,” he says. “I can only imagine what the guys who have to go through that feel like.”
Four weeks post-surgery, Jake was back in the game. He and Sean went on to qualify for their second straight Olympics and made it all the way to the quarterfinals – an accomplishment that had seemed impossible just a year before.
“It was just a celebration to get there and to qualify,” Jake says. “It was really, really cool.”
This wasn’t Jake’s first encounter with cancer. In 2004, he had a melanoma removed from his right shoulder. “It changed the way I train at the beach,” Jake says, summarizing the minimal impact skin cancer had on his life. “I wear long-sleeved t-shirts and really heavy sunblock.” On the other hand, “Testicular cancer was eye opening and life changing,” he adds. “It felt scarier; it felt more real.”
Though cancer had threatened Jake’s Olympic return, he made it through what he calls the hardest year of his life and never lost sight of his dreams. In fact, he plans to vie for another opportunity to wear U.S.A. on his chest, this time in the upcoming 2016 Rio Olympics.
“Life can get back to normal,” the two-time cancer survivor and Olympian urges. “It’s even better after. That’s hard to see at the moment, but that’s how it was in my case.”
Hear Jake tell his story in his own words at JakeGibb.com.
Read more featured survivor profiles.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2013.