Water Warrior: La Jolla triathlete and coach beats skin cancer, urges others to enjoy sun safely


By Pat Sherman

Tom Atwell is the epitome of tough. He runs 100-mile ultra-marathons and competes in grueling Ironman competitions, many days waking before 3 a.m. to run 15 miles or more.

After that, he’ll get on his bicycle or swim 45 minutes at Coggan Family Aquatic Center, where he coaches water polo and swimming for La Jolla High School. Then it’s off to his job teaching AP European history at La Jolla High.

It’s this indomitable spirit that doctors say helped him take on cancer twice, and live to serve as an inspiration to others.

In 1997 Atwell was diagnosed with a rare sarcoma known as a malignant fibrous histiocytoma. Doctors gave him a 25 percent chance of survival. A softball-sized tumor on his hip required the removal of the top of one leg and a portion of his glutes.

“I had been racing in triathlons. I surfed a lot, trained a lot. I had 4 percent body fat and was just charging pretty hard,” recalled Atwell, 47, noting that his three brothers — who he said have all made less healthy life choices — have never had a serious illness.

“It’s like, how can I get cancer? I’m a healthy guy, I’m training, I’m working out. I think I’ve done all this stuff right. How am I getting sick? I had a lot of questions for myself. It was pretty devastating.”

Due to his otherwise peak physical condition, doctors were able to put Atwell on an atypically aggressive chemotherapy regimen. “Normally, you go in and you do three hours in the chemo lounge and then leave … but I was hospitalized for five days straight and they would do a drip around the clock and it would just wreck me,” he recalled.

By the time his body would regain strength, it was time to repeat the process.

He survived and again thrived.

Then, early last year, cancer struck again — this time melanoma cells started appearing on Atwell’s shoulders head, ear and lip.

This time, he didn’t take the diagnosis lying down, continuing to train through chemotherapy, skin creams and subcutaneous hormone injections.

“I didn’t make it a topic of conversation (with my doctors) because they probably would have said I should hold off and not do it,” Atwell said of his modified training. “It was much more subdued than normal, but if I couldn’t get out and run I’d at least get on my bike and pedal. I tried constantly to at least do something.”

As a way to shake the dark cloud of cancer (as he put it), Atwell ran the American Cancer Society’s 100-mile Relay For Life at La Jolla High — just one week after completing his last treatment in June 2013.

“Ever since, I’ve had it in the back of my mind that the reason I survived was because I was in good shape and I was healthy and fit,” he said. “That’s what gets me up in middle of the night … and makes me want to get out and go after it. I just always want to make sure I’m as fit as I can possibly be, should I ever have a recurrence.”

Today, Atwell, as well as his wife Utahna (a breast cancer survivor) are grateful and happily in remission. Atwell gets check-ups every three months.

“Everything looks good,” he said. “Hopefully, pretty soon (the check-ups) will go to every six months and then once a year,” he said.

La Jollan Joan Henderson Brown is a regular fixture at the Coggan pool, and one of Atwell’s No. 1 fans. She noted how, just one month after completing his last round of treatment, Atwell accompanied the La Jolla High boys’ water polo team on a trip to Hungary to compete with some of the world’s top teams and young athletes.

Brown says Atwell’s intense dryland exercises are what makes his swimmers and water pool players some of the strongest around. “He’s always on the deck working,” she said. “He just never stops. He’s an inspiration for everybody here … besides being just a tremendously nice guy to everyone.”

La Jolla High swimming teacher Mike Francis said Atwell helped him hone his swim technique and is one of the reasons he teaches swimming. “He is, in my opinion, one of the best coaches I’ve ever met and one of the best role models I’ve ever met,” Francis said. “He’s absolutely unwavering. He doesn’t cut corners in his life, and he models that to the kids.”

Next month, Atwell will run in a rim-to-rim marathon at the Grand Canyon (alongside his primary care physician), and is working toward competing in the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley and the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

In the meantime, he continues his involvement in events benefitting the American Cancer Society and the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Each year, Atwell and his water polo players volunteer to carry disabled athletes participating in the La Jolla Challenged Athletes race up the stairs at La Jolla Cove so they can continue in the bike portion of the race.

Equally important to Atwell these days is demonstrating the importance of armoring one’s skin from the sun’s intense rays.

As a young surfer, Atwell said getting his first sunburn of the year was a ritual and a badge of honor. Before he developed skin cancer, he could be found running with his shirt off. These days, he rarely hits the pavement without a hat, sunscreen and long-sleeve shirt.

“It freaks me out sometimes. You go running on the beach and you see these people that are still out there laying out with baby oil on,” he said.

Not only should a 30 SPF or higher sunscreen be applied generously, but reapplied every two hours — even when it’s cloudy and cool outside. “The sun’s still hitting you and it’s just as powerful as any other time. You can’t go by whether there’s clouds in the sky,” said Atwell, who reminds his swimmers to coat their skin with liquid armor before every practice.

“I think he’s really influential with everyone,” said his 15-year-old daughter, Lexi, a La Jolla High sophomore and lifeguard who plays on the girls’ water polo team. “It’s definitely much stricter in our household now. We’re all about that.”