Vail adaptive ski instructor to compete in Ironman World Championships
Scott Giffin hopes to compete alongside his wife, Shanon, a cancer survivor
Usually, “Stanford grad turned Navy pilot and current adaptive ski instructor to compete in Ironman World Championships,” is a sufficient lede.
If not, adding “former Leadville 100 race director who’s a published nature writer,” ought to do it.
While describing Leadville’s Scott Giffin, 60, makes for an intriguing narrative in and of itself, it’s not the real story. Shanon, his cancer-surviving wife, is the true heartbeat behind the couple’s participation in the May 7 St. George Ironman Triathlon, host of the first non-Kona Ironman World Championships in history.
“She totally pulled me into this,” he said. “She is the story.”
To explain Scott’s path to his current position as a Vail Resorts adaptive ski instructor and his present challenge — an Ironman — reveals just how true that statement is. Shanon’s journey through four surgeries and the ensuing recovery to reclaim her life has been the impetus behind a story of struggle, survival and true love.
The endurance gene
Even though Scott’s father, a Russian and Soviet history professor at Arizona State in Tempe — where Scott grew up — was a “physical fitness enthusiast” who would exercise up to four hours a day, he didn’t discover his endurance gene until Navy friends showed him triathlon and mountain biking. He did follow in his father’s academic footsteps, however, earning a history degree at Stanford.
“I thought I was going to be an aerospace engineer, and it wasn’t my thing,” he recalled. Fitted with passions for both learning and flying, he decided to go through Aviation Officer Candidate School. After earning his commission, he went to flight school and became a Navy helicopter pilot, which he did for eight years.
At Naval Air Station North Island, Scott tagged along with his comrades — whom he calls “good triathletes” (he humbly considers himself just a mid-pack, age-group guy) — for runs around the San Diego beach. One friend lured him into his first triathlon, the 25th annual SuperFrog in Coronado, and later got him into mountain biking.
“We heard about this crazy race called the Leadville 100,” Scott said.
“I was young and stupid and I was just like ‘OK, let’s do it.’”
10,000 vertical feet and 100 miles later, Scott looked at his friend and exclaimed, “I’m never doing that again!” to which he replied, “I’m never doing that again, either!”
“I was like, ‘OK, great. Well, we figured that out,”’ Scott remembered.
“Of course, all of us who do endurance sports — couple weeks later we were like, ‘Gosh that was kind of fun, I think we should do that again.’”
Scott started searching for the hardest challenges.
“As soon as I got into it, it was always like ‘well what’s the biggest thing I can do. How far can I go?’”
After Operation Desert Storm, Scott moved to Southern California, where he worked for his brother. During that time, he met his wife, who worked for an insurance brokerage. Scott’s brother’s company was a client, and the two offices occasionally did road races together.
“For two years, I kept waiting for him to ask me out because I liked him so much,” Shanon laughed.
After a work dinner, she wrote her number on his to-go box.
“And he finally called me after that.”
Shanon, an Orange County native, was ready for a change, and after multiple Leadville 100 trips, the couple knew where to start looking. Shanon fell in love with the first home they looked at in 2005 and they’ve been on Elm Street in America’s highest city ever since.
“And we love it,” he said.
Ironically, Scott became the race director for the world-famous event he said he’d “never do again.” When he first arrived in Leadville, though, he was volunteering for the race as well as search and rescue when another volunteer, Pat Kaynaroglu, a Lake County school district special education teacher, posed a question to Scott.
“Hey, would you like to do adaptive skiing?” Kaynaroglu asked.
“That sounds interesting, but I don’t know anything about that,” Scott replied.
“Don’t worry about it. You come down here — we’ll train you.”
After participating in Vail Resorts’ in-house training, Scott was hooked. He signed on part-time, working 60 days per season before transitioning to full-time, a post he’s held for 16 years and counting.
“I do it because I love the people I work with, and I love trying to make a difference,” he said.
“And just being able to get out there and show somebody this experience that is more than just skiing — because it’s always more than about skiing.”
His work with injured veterans has been particularly rewarding.
“You have an injured veteran who thought they may never have a chance to be active again and actually go out and do something with their family and you say, ‘No, this is possible, you can do this, and here’s how.’ And you get them out there and then suddenly they’re actually skiing with their family,” he described.
“The difference that makes to them and how emotional they get about that — that’s worth more than anything in the world.”
He’s watched many young children mentees mature into adulthood, too.
“I watch them go from 6 years old to 21 years old,” he said.
“To see them develop not just as skiers — because some of them are non-verbal autistic — but to see them really start to blossom as individuals and human beings and seeing how the skiing is more than skiing and how it impacts them in other ways in their life? That’s priceless.” He pauses.
“I think I’m the lucky one.”
‘She is the story’
As inspiring as Scott’s work is, it won’t be the theme of his self-talk at any point in the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run on May 7. His main mantra will be honoring those closest to him and their battles with cancer.
Last year, Shanon, 49, was battling colon cancer at the same time Scott’s dad was diagnosed with metastatic cancer. Scott traveled back and forth between Arizona and UCHealth at University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, trying to be with both as much as possible. Shanon told him to stay with his dad, but he persisted.
“You only have so much time with your parents and he had already lost his mom,” Shanon said, referring to Scott’s mom, who also died from cancer. On the day after her first surgery, with her husband at her side, Scott’s dad died.
“It was an impossible choice,” an emotional Shanon conveyed.
“It was kind of a year of cancer and trying to take care of family,” Scott said. Shanon’s father also died from brain cancer about six years ago. Even though she caught her own cancer early, the positive prognosis turned into an arduous battle when she returned to Leadville after that initial March operation.
Having refused narcotics, Shanon was having trouble managing her pain. Dr. Lisa Zwerdlinger, a Leadville-based physician, made a rare home visit, immediately sending Shanon to the emergency room. A staple had failed.
“That meant that all that waste was going into my abdominal cavity, so, huge risk of infection,” Shanon described. “I was really lucky; I was in bad shape.”
An ostomy allowed bodily waste to pass through a surgically created stoma on the abdomen into a prosthetic pouch, ensuring the connection could heal and the staples would work. Doctors then did an ileostomy. A fourth and final surgery was the takedown of that, resulting in 1.5 feet of colon removal altogether.
“I felt like every time I started feeling better, they wanted to do another surgery,” the normally active Shanon described of her rollercoaster recovery. During each surgery, which typically meant 10 days in the hospital, Scott never left her side.
“He was always there,” Shanon said of her soft-spoken partner whom she described as always choosing to express his affection through actions more than words.
“He steps up without being asked and goes above and beyond.”
The ordeal brought Shanon to a physical ground zero.
“When I had to go for my pre-op before my first surgery, I looked around me and there were all of these sick people. Older, overweight, on oxygen — everybody looked terribly ill,” she recounted.
“It was so shocking to me. I thought, ‘I don’t belong here. I’m not sick.’ I’d never been through anything like this before. I imagine everyone who gets cancer feels this way. It’s like, ‘I’m not a sick person.’”
After her final hospital stay, her body’s status left her in shock.
“I looked just like all of them, pushing around the I.V. pole and looking wasted away and barely being able to walk,” she remembered. “I think that was the hardest, especially when you’re so used to being physically active. You just keep looking backwards to where you were and asking, ‘how did this happen?’”
She lost significant weight and could barely manage a two-block walk.
“Walking down Elm Street, I felt like my body wasn’t my body anymore,” she said. “I had to start over.”
“She’s really big into big challenges, so she decided that the way she was going to get back to health was to do the biggest thing she could think of,” Scott said.
In the endurance world, few items trump an Ironman, and both Giffins registered for Ironman St. George, which was rewarded the delayed 2021 World Championships after this February’s Kona event was canceled for the second consecutive year because of COVID. The 2022 World Championship will return to Kona in October.
“I was like, ‘What can I do to get my body back and my life back?” Shanon said. The seed was planted after she woke up with an ostomy after that emergency second surgery. She panicked as doctors discussed its potential permanency. “I was adamant,” she said.
“Like, I am not a good candidate for not being put back together. Don’t you guys know I want to be out riding my mountain bike?”
Her surgeon, sensing a mounting frustration, recommended Paul Smith’s book “Dead Man to Iron Man: A Ten Month Journey from Dead Meat to Athlete,” chronicling the 43-year-old’s return from a sudden cancer diagnoses to eventual Ironman performance.
“It made me think, I feel this way right now, I know I can only walk a block or two and I know I have a lot of work to do to get back to where I was, but here is an example of someone who did it,” Shanon said. “So I know I can do it.”
She continued, “Everyone can do an Ironman, you just have to start where you’re at.”
Shanon completed Ironman Texas in 2011, a “life-changing” experience.
“It was transformative — I did something I didn’t know I could do and after it, when big things would come up in my life I’d be like, ‘Oh, I did that Ironman, I can do this,’” she stated.
“My purpose was to get my life back, to feel like my body was my own again, and to have that transformative experience of ‘I really can do this … still.’”
Ten minute walks with their two St. Bernards gradually grew in length. In October, Scott set up her bike trainer and she started with a humble 20-minute spin.
“Before, I’d be like, ‘if I can’t do an hour, it’s not worth it!’” she joked. Eventually, she got up to the 60-minute threshold, but her body’s intestinal healing process periodically forced her to take days off, crushing her spirit slightly in the process.
“Because I had a big goal, I stayed really motivated,” she said of navigating those setbacks. “I have a really big reason for it — to feel like I have my body back and my life back.”
Strengthening their bond
All of the St. George entrants were given the opportunity to bypass the usual Kona lottery, making them 2021 World Championship participants. While the thought of participating in a world title — Scott unsuccessfully went for the Kona lottery during a span in which he contested Ironmans in California, Austria and Arizona — would have at one point been Scott’s “dream-come-true” moment, this event carries a different sentiment entirely.
“This time it’s mostly about enjoying being alive and being together and then honoring people who aren’t here anymore,” he said.“That’s really the main thing.”
The story, it seems, really is about his bride.
The couple swims together in Salida when schedules allow, and Scott gets on the trainer at 4 a.m. on days when he works in Vail. Both took a week off to train together at a triathlon camp in St. George recently.
“Honestly, it’s not really about finishing the Ironman right now,” Scott admitted.
“It’s more about this journey together and spending the time together. Whatever the outcome — that’s fine.”
Shanon feels the hard hospital visits, and her husband’s loyal presence, have strengthened their bond.
“I think for us, it’s definitely brought us closer. I know there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for me,” she said.
“When you actually get to experience someone making the choice of being there for you, it’s not just words. It’s action.”
Sprouting from severe sickness, she’s savored the exponential growth in their love for one another.
“I’m lucky that I realize it now because I think sometimes people don’t figure it out. And I hope we have a lot of years together to live our relationship knowing that we’re this close,” she said.
Scott, who also earned his master’s in Science and Nature Writing from Johns Hopkins and recently published a piece for Humana Obscura — an independent literary magazine focused on nature-related poetry, prose and art by writers from around the globe — would probably appreciate ending a story drawing attention to what he sees as its heartbeat.
“It’s about this time spent together and how important that is,” he conveyed in his gentle, thoughtful tone.
“What I’d hope to get when I said I was going to this Ironman to get my body and my life back…” Shanon said, pausing.
“I feel like I’ve already got that now.”