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‘I’m going to kick butt’

On Sunday, Mary Peterson will lug her 20-year-old yellow Peugeot 10-speed bicycle to the hills above Nevada City.

It really won’t matter how fast she spins the wheels on a 12-mile ride from Scotts Flat Lake, or her time in a half-mile swim at the lake, or even how her running shoes hold up during a three-mile run, all of which together make up the Barbara Schmidt Millar Celebration of Life women’s triathlon this weekend.

The triathlon is named in memory of Barbara Schmidt Millar, who died of breast cancer in 1995 at age 42. The event raises money for Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital’s Breast Imaging Center and the Barbara Schmidt Millar Memorial Scholarship.



For anyone who knows Peterson’s story, just finishing the triathlon would be a near-mythical feat for the woman who was a competitive swimmer through most of her teen years. This time, Peterson will be racing for herself, simply because she can. Because now, she is a breast cancer survivor.

Peterson, 48, first competed in the event in 2004 and figured she’d always be a frequent competitor in the event created to fight the disease and raise awareness.




When she first tried the sport, the questions were simple.

“I considered myself really physically active. I was asking myself, ‘Could I really do this?'”

Then, in July 2005, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“The first thought that’s in your mind is, tears. And then, it’s ‘I’m going to die.’ Initially, there’s this huge fear.

“Three years ago, it was, wow, I thought I might not make it to (age) 90.”

Six months after her diagnosis, Peterson had her right breast removed. Six months after that operation, in July 2006, she found a lump in her lymph nodes.

“There was another (feeling) of, oh, shoot. I was done, in my mind. Except that I wasn’t.”

Peterson decided she’d continue to live, if only her mind would let her.

“I had moments of fear,” she said. “I knew what I had to do. It wasn’t about me. My cells just went crazy. I don’t know the answer.

“The hardest part for me was the thing that was going on between my two ears,” said Peterson, a licensed marriage and family therapist.

It was also hard to realize that she might not be there to see her son, Wes, 10, grow up.

If cancer was a boxing match, Peterson wasn’t about to let it knock her on the canvas.

She’s been training diligently for this weekend’s event, swimming in Scotts Flat Lake, biking three to four times a week and running around her Spenceville-area home.

She could have hung up her sneakers a few years ago. Or, she could have been one of the dozens of supporters along the route this year. But she’s got other ideas.

“I’m going to kick butt this time,” she said. “If you’re 10 feet in front of me, I’m going to pick it up and see if I can pass you.

“I want to own my body again. I don’t feel like it betrayed me. It’s like I’m telling my body now, ‘You’re still OK.'”

Peterson’s husband, John Hellwig, has marveled at his wife’s singular determination.

“She’s handled the whole cancer thing admirably,” he said, as she unloaded her careworn bicycle from the rear of the family car. He’s proud of her that she’s not only decided to race, but is pushing herself to do well.

“I think it’s a great sign,” he said.

Peterson wouldn’t have it any other way. She could feel sorry for herself, but she won’t allow it.

“It just doesn’t move us forward,” she said.

So if Peterson falls off her bicycle during this weekend’s events, it won’t be a big deal.

“I’ll just be cracking up and get right back on.”

Peterson will be competing this weekend in memory of a friend who died of cancer in June. She’ll be competing, she said, simply because she can.

“I feel really blessed to have my life to live,” she said, “that I get to live another day.”

To contact Staff Writer David Mirhadi, e-mail dmirhadi@theunion.com or call 477-4239.


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