EAGLE, Colorado - Cancer was just another bump in the road for Eagle resident and semiprofessional athlete John Klish.
After being born with profound bilateral hearing loss, the 30-year-old engineer is accustomed to overcoming challenges. If anything, growing up deaf has given him greater insight toward accomplishing goals.
"Mountain biking and competitions have helped shape my personality," Klish said. "I've learned to keep myself calm at all times, even when people are passing me or when things are not going well. Otherwise, I waste the energy and focus I need to complete my task. I apply this concept to my real life."
Klish currently works full time as an engineer for the Colorado Department of Transportation.
Part of his lifelong dream is to become a professional athlete. That's why he's been especially busy with competitions in 2011. He primarily competes in triathlons and biking and foot races, and many of those races are on consecutive days.
"This year, I've participated in 23 races since January with 16 podiums," Klish said on Aug. 2. On Aug. 6, he took second overall in the Xterra Indian Peaks Triathlon and seventh overall in the 10K @ 10,000 feet on Aug. 7. "By the end of the year, I plan to have completed between 50 to 60 races - trail running, mountain biking, road biking, swimming, triathlons, cyclocross, snowshoeing, rando-racing."
Klish said he trains between 15 and 25 hours per week, depending on the phase of his season. He took a weeklong break for recovery at the end of July.
"He has all the makings of a great athlete," said Greg Mueller, Klish's personal coach. "He recovers really well. He finishes a tough workout and wants more. Motivating him is never an issue. He has the suffer gene - he's a beast."
The other part of Klish's lifelong dream is to be someone who contributes to the community. That's why he volunteers for Aspen Camp of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, a program he enjoyed while growing up.
"I hope I can be a positive role model for other deaf people, to maybe inspire them to take on something that scares them," he said. "That's how we get stronger."
When Klish was born in Durango, it didn't take long for his mother, Karen Fehringer, to notice something was different about her baby.
"Because of my line of work as an occupational therapist, I identified very early that there was a problem," Fehringer said. "He had hearing aids by the time he was 3 months old."
As a result, Klish started speech therapy as a baby. He learned how to speak and read lips years before he learned sign language, which he did at age 14.
"The biggest influence in my life has been my mother," Klish said. "She strongly believed in my potential when I was born and refused to let the doctors define my life."
Fehringer described an early doctor visit that was discouraging but also pivotal.
"A young audiologist did a hearing test on him and said he was so deaf that there wasn't much hope," Fehringer said. "She recommended we put him in a state school for the deaf and blind where he would be raised. She was basically saying to give up and forget about him. My reaction was to walk out the door. It was a very defining moment - I knew he could learn."
When Klish was 4, his parents and older sister Megan moved with him to Massachusetts so that he could attend a Clarke School for Hearing and Speech.
"We just did it - sold the house and found new jobs," said Fehringer, who now lives in Denver. "I knew that learning how to read, write and speak would set him up for everything else."
The family moved back to Grand Junction when Klish was 11. He attended a private Catholic middle school and then finished at a public high school.
Klish went on to college at Colorado School of Mines and Colorado State University.
While finishing his education at CSU, Klish continued to make an impact on people with his brains and athletic ability. That's when he met one of his best friends, Jeremy Rietmann.
"(Klish) was a sophomore when I was a freshman and he was dating a girl in my dorm," Rietmann said. "I was like, 'Who is this deaf guy I'm always seeing in the
bathroom?' We got to talking and discovered we both had an interest in biking. We started hanging out and then joined the CSU cycling team together."
They've been good friends for nearly a decade.
"He's probably one of the most exuberant personalities I've ever met," Rietmann said. "The guy is ridiculously smart. You don't see many people taking a thermodynamics class with a sign-language interpreter."
By coincidence, Klish and Rietmann both live in Eagle County these days. Klish moved to Eagle about two and half years ago for his job with CDOT and Rietmann moved to Vail last January for his wife's job.
"We've been able to get out and ride together again," Rietmann said. "(Klish) is the best mountain biker I've ever biked with. We're both super competitive and we feed off each other's energy."
An active lifestyle is another thing Klish was born into.
"We were always bike riding or skiing. It was just who we were," Fehringer said. "He loved to be active and we'd go outside at least once if not twice a day. He took little-kid tennis lessons and had a high aptitude for it."
Klish was diagnosed with testicular cancer about six years ago. He was finishing college and saving for a trip to Australia.
"Sometime in June 2005, I found a sore lump on my testicle so I went to see a doctor," Klish said. "The doctor thought at first it was just a 'sore bump' - 95 percent of the testicular cancer cases do not hurt. He prescribed me some antibiotics, which helped temporarily, but the pain persisted. Three months down the road, we finally got an ultrasound and blood test ordered. We were able to confirm that I had cancer and I was hurriedly put into the operating room to remove the affected testicle in October 2005.
"We hoped we caught it in time, but the post-op blood work showed that the cancer cells had spread to the rest of my body. I was still in good shape since nothing had developed yet. I went through three rounds of chemotherapy, starting on the week of Thanksgiving 2005 and ending mid-January 2006.
"We waited until April and found a large tumor near my stomach, toward the back of my body, so I went through another surgery to remove it and the lymph nodes that were part of the testicular system. The tumor turned out to be benign, so I have been in remission since then," Klish said.
Fehringer said the family was in shock when the cancer was diagnosed.
"We didn't have any time for second breaths," she said.
Klish's family asked him how they could help and he said he wanted someone to be with him at every chemo treatment, which lasted four hours a day, five days a week.
Six weeks after his last surgery - the minimum healing time Klish's doctor prescribed before he could do anything rigorous - he did his first mountain bike race of the season and got fourth place in the expert category.
"I guess you could say I had fresh legs," he said.
He had done light training on a stationary bike in the months leading up to the race but there was an extra challenge.
"I felt a sore spot in my stomach where the tumor was removed," he said.
Klish now has a check-up every three months. After two years he'll have one every six months. The visits include CAT-scans and blood tests.
"It is scary sometimes," he said. "I wonder if I'm going to get cancer again. Then I remember that I have a great life and family. The reality is that you die at some point, so you might as well live every moment you have."
Klish met Mueller, his coach, in June 2010. Mueller quickly recognized Klish's potential.
"He is great to work with," Mueller said. "He's good about looking at the sport in terms of the big picture. He listens to directions and when he is tired is when he shines."
Mueller has been a personal coach since 2004 and never worked with a deaf athlete before.
"In some ways, I think being deaf gives him an advantage," Mueller said. "He is in tune and sensitive in other ways. He compensates for what he is missing. He says, 'This is an obstacle, how am I going to overcome it?' Then he overcomes it and asks, 'How can I do it better?'"
There are competitive disadvantages to being deaf, of course. Klish said he has to look over his shoulder in races more often to make sure he doesn't run into anyone. For him, that's just how he has to run his race.
"I like to think that you can do anything you want to, that there's no limitation, except yourself," he said.