Adriane Wilson was a 23-year-old college student, fighting for a spot on the Olympic track and field team, when she started having trouble breathing.
It wasn’t allergies. It wasn’t asthma.
It was cancer, Hodgkins lymphoma, a mass covering two-thirds of her chest cavity.
“Everything changed in an instant,” she said.
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Wilson never made it to Athens in 2004, but she’s still an elite athlete.
Instead of throwing shot put, she competes in the Scottish Highland games, an ancient demonstration of battle skill that involves throwing poles, stones, hammers and sheafs – all while wearing the tartan of one’s clan.
Wilson, a four-time world champion who lives in Irmo, will compete Saturday at Tartan Day South, the third annual celebration of all things Celtic. It’s held at the Historic Columbia Speedway.
This is the first year for women to compete here, and Wilson is ready.
Competing with cancer
Growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, Adriane Blewitt – that was her name then – played softball and golf.
In seventh grade, she followed her older sister onto the track and found her sport, throwing shot put and discus.
Blewitt went off to a small college in Ohio to study physical education and health, intending to teach. But training alongside an Olympian, her dream was to make the Olympic team.
She could have done it, too: She’s one of the most decorated female athletes in track and field in NCAA history. Among her honors, she’s a 13-time All American, with seven national titles. She was twice named NCAA athlete of the year.
With one semester of college to go, Blewitt quit school to train full-time for the 2004 games.
“That would have been her Olympics to make it,” said Bert Sorin, who trained with her then.
Instead came the diagnosis that changed her life.
“When the doctor told her she’s got cancer, the first thing she asked was, ‘When can I start training again?’” her mother, Rae Blewitt, recalled.
“She knew that would make her feel better.”
She had a biopsy, six months of chemotherapy. Still, the athlete pushed herself. She got into prime shape for the trials, coming in fifth place for the 2004 team.
“They took the top three, so – not too shabby,” she said with a smile.
Sorin, who owns an exercise equipment company in Irmo, agrees it was an “awesome” showing.
“But also a kick in the gut,” he said, “knowing if she had been healthy at the time, she would have been an Olympian.”
Hooked on competition
Adriane Wilson loves to train and compete. She likes feeling that she’s becoming stronger all the time.
“You know you’re doing the work,” she said. “You don’t have to depend on anyone else.”
She spent the next nine years as a professional shot putter, hoping to make the Olympic team in 2008 and again in 2012. It didn’t happen. She took a coaching job at a college in Ohio for a couple of years.
Meanwhile, Sorin was cajoling her to try the Highland games. It’s fun, he said; it’ll give you a goal for training.
“I was kind of a snob,” she recalled. “I was a shot putter.”
But the technique used to throw shot put is similar to that used in throwing a 12-pound “stone” in the Highland games.
She relented, agreeing to go to a competition with Sorin.
That day, she retrieved weights from the field, throwing them back to the competitors as they warmed up for the games – and, often, throwing them farther than anyone else, Sorin said.
She entered her first competition in 2008. The next year, she finished third in the world games.
“I was hooked,” she said.
Granted, it’s a “fringe” sport; there are fewer than 300 women who compete in the United States and Canada, and perhaps 50 opportunities a year to compete.
But there’s something very different from traditional sports: The Scottish games provide camraderie among competitors.
Rae Blewitt has watched her daughter at both track and field events and at Highland games. They couldn’t be more different.
At one, the competitors are introverts listening to iPods, trying to focus.
At the other, they razz each other and cheer each other, too. They’re usually at a festival, equal parts athlete and entertainer.
“They all look like they’re having a blast.”
So much fun
A year and a half ago, Adriane and Joe Wilson were married. He owns the Irish bar Delaney’s in Five Points.
She took a job as a personal coach at Athlete’s Arena, inside the Irmo Plex. She’s also a Pilates instructor and yoga instructor.
Joe said his wife has a powerful presence but an almost innocent quality, too, the way she expects the best in people.
“She knows and understands what’s important in life and, messing around with petty stuff, she doesn’t make time for that,” he said.
She and Joe lift weights four times a week. They throw twice a week. That means they have one day a week when they don’t work out.
When they practice throwing, Joe Wilson said, they take folding chairs to a field where they can watch the sun go down together.
Adriane Wilson said she has discovered how to stay competitive while opening herself to a new direction and style: “I found my niche.”