In 2010, Tatiana Suarez spent time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. Suarez had been a “generational wrestler” her entire life and a four-time national champion in high school, according to her high school coach Bobby Bellamy. She had her sights set on an Olympic medal, and spent time training in Colorado ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
It was somewhere she always knew she would be. Suarez told her brother that she would win an Olympic medal for wrestling when she was 12 years old, two years before women’s wrestling even became an Olympic sport. She had been wrestling since she was three years old, and dropped out of college after one year to live and train at the Olympic Training Center full time.
But in 2011, Suarez’s Olympic future was jeopardized after an MRI revealed a node on her thyroid.
“I didn’t think it was going to be anything,” Suarez told ESPN. “I’m 19 years old. I’m healthy. All I do is train. How could this happen? Well, it ended up being cancer. So it happened.”
Her cancer would prove to be treatable, but doing so required doctors to use radioactive iodine. The radiation in the iodine meant that during treatment, Suarez must be completely isolated from other people.
“I couldn’t be around people at all,” Suarez said in an interview with Bleacher Report.. “I had to stay there for like a week. Imagine going through a treatment for cancer and you can’t be around people to comfort you. To me, that sucked.”
As the 21-year-old sat in her plastic-covered room in isolation, she was not only forced to cope with her new reality, but also the loss of her Olympic dream. She tried desperately to get the iodine out of her system so she could reconvene with the world, chugging gallons of water and obsessively drilling wrestling workouts.
Over the next 18 months, Suarez would fight to become cancer-free. Unfortunately, her spot at the 2012 Summer Games was lost in the process. The Olympics were too emotionally difficult for Suarez to follow closely that year.
Life moved slowly for Suarez the year following her cancer treatment until she found her love for competition again in 2013. She received an offer to train at a nearby jiu-jitsu gym, where her years of wrestling experience made her a natural. The following year, she made her mixed martial arts debut.
In 2016, Suarez won the 23rd season of the UFC’s competition show, The Ultimate Fighter, immediately placing her in the midst of the UFC strawweight division. She didn’t consider trying out for the 2016 Olympics, despite most likely being a shoo-in, as she had a newfound passion for MMA.
“I think missing the Olympics will always be part of her,” Lisa Suarez, Tatiana’s mother, said in an interview with ESPN. “But I think she also understands that losing that saved her life and allowed her to find a new sport that she loves.”
Suarez has already beaten her toughest opponent, and can face whatever comes at her next.
“People don’t realize the impact it had on me,” Suarez said to Sports Illustrated. “I don’t have my thyroid any longer. My metabolism is in the form of a pill, so if thyroid levels aren’t right, I have low energy and gain weight. But I’ve done my best to turn the experience into an advantage.”
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