Posted July 25, 2013 by the San Jose Mercury News.

By Mark Emmons

CAMPBELL — After undergoing surgery for cervical cancer nearly 16 months ago, Ashley Carriveau couldn’t walk a mile without tiring and doubling over in pain. It was a shock for an ultracompetitive woman who had broken San Jose State swimming records and continued to train sometimes twice a day in an austere gym.

“At first I thought, ‘Oh my god, my body is never going to be what it once was,’ ” said Carriveau, 29.

But on a recent weekday morning, just as the sun was rising, Carriveau was swinging a 44-pound cast-iron kettlebell weight over and over until she was drenched with sweat.

Not content with just beating cancer, Carriveau has regained her health — and more. She qualified for the Reebok CrossFit Games, which began earlier this week and end Sunday, in Southern California where she is competing for “The Fittest on Earth” crown.

“The diagnosis was devastating, and my biggest thing was just for her to be cancer-free,” said her husband, Tom Carriveau. “But she worked her tail off to get where she is now. She’s stronger than ever.”

Carriveau admits to being uncomfortable with how her deeply private story became so public during the buildup to a grueling event that has grown in popularity and is being televised on ESPN networks. But she has shared her ordeal in hopes that others struggling with the disease might be able to gain something.

“I know people are fighting for their lives and going through this every day,” said Carriveau, an accountant. “I was so lucky because it could have been a lot worse for me. But going through something like that really puts life in perspective. I guess I hope to inspire people.”

Carriveau, whose maiden name is Vrieze, attended the University of Illinois on a swimming scholarship before transferring to SJSU. She stepped away from the sport briefly to focus on academics before returning to the pool and making a big splash her senior year. She eclipsed three school records in the backstroke and would qualify for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials.

 “What sets her apart is that she just has this all-consuming drive for excellence,” said Sage Hopkins, the SJSU swim coach. “She was never the best swimmer, but she definitely was the hardest worker. She will just outwork everybody else. Ashley rises to the occasion because she stays so calm under pressure.”

She needed that poise in the spring of 2012.

After retiring from swimming, she gravitated toward CrossFit competitions, which are an extension of a fitness company by the same name. It developed a training regimen designed to build fitness by emphasizing high-intensity repetitions of simple exercises using tools like free weights and jump rope instead of fancy equipment.

Carriveau, who had just gotten married the previous August, was ranked No. 1 in Northern California and training for the regional event. But then she was floored by a stunning medical diagnosis: cancer.

“After I met with the oncologist,” she said, “I felt like my world was ending.”

Added Tom Carriveau: “It was just the first year of our marriage. You know that you’re going to have ups and downs in life, but to have something like that happen so soon was a shock. There were a lot of tears.”

After a five-hour surgery to remove cancerous tissue and about 20 lymph nodes, Carriveau received the best-possible news: She would make a full recovery. Although she could barely walk their two dogs, she tried to return to the gym just one week later.

“It was stupid and I will never live that down with my husband,” she said. “But sometimes no one can tell me anything.”

Gradually, she molded her 5-foot-3, 135-pound body back into shape. Eventually she was training from three to five hours a day again as she recalibrated her goal to reaching this year’s CrossFit Games.

At the regionals in late May, where she finished second, Carriveau made a statement with a T-shirt that captured a defiant attitude: an adaptation of a four-letter word in front of “cancer.”

About 50 supporters there to cheer her on wore the same shirts. Carriveau did it in support of her mother, who is fighting cancer, and for a friend at her CrossFit San Jose gym whose mother died of the illness. But, yes, she was a little embarrassed by the implied profanity. Not her husband, though.

“There was some discussion about whether the shirt was appropriate,” said Tom Carriveau, a special-education teacher. “But when you lose someone or know someone fighting this terrible disease and see what they’re enduring, I think it’s entirely appropriate.”

Part of the CrossFit Games’ challenge is that athletes don’t know what the events are ahead of time. But Carriveau said before the competition, after everything she has been through, that she was ready for anything.

“I’ve learned that you have to keep fighting the good fight, stay positive and don’t let all the small things get to you,” she said. “Life is short. You have to appreciate what you have.”

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Follow him at

Ashley Carriveau

Age: 29
Who: Former San Jose State swimmer who set three school records in the backstroke event and qualified for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. The Campbell resident is one of three Northern California qualifiers to a worldwide fitness competition, the Reebok CrossFit Games.
When: Going on through Sunday
Where: StubHub Center, Carson
What: The CrossFit Games is a multi-event competition where athletes vie for a title of “The Fittest on Earth.” There are 44 athletes in the women’s category.
TV coverage: ESPN2 will air the finals Sunday. ESPN3 will have live coverage Friday through Sunday.

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