By Lennard Zinn
A bright, vibrant light has gone out in the cycling community as well asin the community of cancer survivors.Karen Hornbostel, a four-time master’s national road champion and recipientof the 2003 Lance Armstrong Spirit of Survivorship award passed away peacefullyat home in Littleton, Colorado, surrounded by family and friends on Tuesday,October 24, eight days past her 54th birthday. She had battled metastaticbreast cancer for over 13 years. Hornbostel made a difference in the cyclingcommunity with her devotion to improving opportunities for women in cyclingas well as with her infectious wit and charm. But it is for her work makinga difference in the quality of the lives of thousands of cancer survivorsafter her own diagnosis of breast cancer at age 40 for which she will bemost remembered.
I first got to know Karen in 1984, when my wife and I were creatinga women’s cycling team. Seemingly everyone we talked with about the teamsaid that we simply had to invite Karen on board. An exercise physiologistwho loved to ride and to laugh, Karen immediately took charge of selectingand coaching the team. Her enthusiasm was infectious, and she was instrumentalin creating a nurturing and fun-loving environment on the team, one thatnot only produced breakthrough cycling results, but that also rippled outthrough the women on the team, inspiring and empowering them in whateverthey took on in life. I loved to just be around them, not only buildingtheir bikes, but also serving as driver, mechanic, soigneur and managerat hundreds of races.It was Karen who brought sprinting for every deer-crossing sign to theteam, including sprinting for the sites of where there had been deer-crossingsigns in the past that had been taken down! Driving to races, the “girls”even dove for the windshield at deer-crossing signs to “outsprint” eachother inside of the team van. Karen’s nickname of “Kellen” was the pronunciationof her name by the Japanese women who came over every summer to race onthe team.I believe that the Zinn-Alfalfa’s Market-Shimano Women’s Team helpedpave the way for many other women’s-only cycling teams, and Karen’s nurturingleadership was the glue that held it together as well as helped spawn manynational road and time trial champions. Among them was a top Universityof Colorado alpine ski racer named Juli Furtado. Furtado had endured toomany major knee reconstructions to tolerate a ski career any longer, andKaren identified Juli as a budding talent we simply had to sponsor. I admitto questioning the wisdom of this when Furtado’s custom bike I had onlycompleted a week or so prior blew off of the roof of her jeep on her wayto the airport for her first race, the Tour of Texas. The bike, in a box,flew over the Highway 36 divider in front of oncoming rush-hour traffic,and every part of it ended up completely flat. Karen laughed about it whilefeeling my pain and said I would not regret making Juli another one, eventhough she had no race results. She was right, of course. I built Julianother bike, and she went on to win the national road championship onit with a long, solo breakaway in Milwaukee in her first year of bike racing.She also won the collegiate nationals before departing the road for mountainbiking. Hornbostel herself won many national championships and broughtin several junior riders who did the same. She later became a certifiedUSCF junior coach.
The colors of the team, inspired by Karen, were pink and blue, and duringher final hours she was wearing blue flannel pajamas and was covered witha pink knit blanket. At her house on the eve of her passing, I discovereda treasure trove of pink and blue road, time trial, and mountain bikesin her basement that I had built for her and that she had saved despitebeing outdated in materials and components.Hornbostel was an athlete her entire life, always celebrating the sheerjoy of movement and competition and decorating her houses with medals andbanners of Olympic spirit. Her father, Charles Hornbostel, was a two-timeOlympian in track and field during the legendary 1932 and 1936 years. The1932 Olympics in Los Angeles during the Great Depression were the Gamesthat made Babe Didrickson a household name and which banned legendary Finnishdistance runner Paavo Nurmi from competing because he had received “excessive”expense money on a trip to Germany in 1929. The 1936 Berlin Olympics, wereAdolf Hitler’s attempt to prove Aryan racial superiority that was turnedon its head by Jesse Owens and his four gold medals.After two recurrences of her own cancer, Karen started the Summit CancerExercise Program for cancer survivors in 1999. She founded and directedSummitCancer Solutions, a program running in five locations around theDenver area that has inspired similar programs all over the country.Karen’s own path guided her work. After her original August 1993 diagnosis,surgery, and chemotherapy, she said, “In 20 years of bike racing I learnedwhat it was like to push my body. I told myself, okay, I can handle this.I won’t feel great, but I can get through it.”Two years later, Hornbostel was racing her bike again, now giving herwinnings to a cancer research fund. Other racers followed suit. The followingyear, Hornbostel was back to her old form, once again winning her age groupat the U.S. Road Nationals. But later that same year, in December 1997,Hornbostel’s cancer was back with a fury, this time in her bones. She choseto endure a stem-cell transplant, a procedure destructive to the immunesystem but which provided the best chances for long-term survival. In advanceof the procedure, Hornbostel trained hard on her bikes and cross-countryskis, and in the weight room. “I knew I needed to have my body in top shape.I needed to do everything I could to get strong and get my immune systemready,” she said at the time.Many of us in Hornbostel’s enormous group of friends worried that thisstem-cell procedure would be the end of her. But though weakened, she camethrough it even stronger in her convictions, devoting herself to workingwith other cancer survivors. She was determined not to see others set backby the lack of guidance available to her for integrating exercise intoher recovery program. “As an exercise physiologist, I was taught that exerciseis a very strong component of rehabilitation, yet it seemed that no onehad a clue about exercise for cancer rehab,” she recalled. She wanted othersto understand that, “those days where I just felt sort of bad were thedays when exercise was most important. Once I got out on my bike or myskis, I’d be energized.”Left with a paralyzed left shoulder after the stem-cell transplant,she began to swim and trained for a triathlon. “As my shoulder began tofunction again,” she said, “I knew I had to do something extra to get itback to 100 percent.” Starting in 1999, she participated in the DenverDanskin triathlon with Rocky Mountain Team Survivor, a group of women whohave survived cancer and on whose board of directors she served.Also in 1999, Hornbostel quit her regular exercise-physiology job infavor of a small cancer exercise program at the Foothills Parks and RecreationDistrict in Littleton. “I’d found my calling,” she said. She expanded theprogram and brought in new money. Funded by the Denver chapter of the SusanG. Komen Cancer Foundation, it has provided scholarships to fitness programsfor hundreds breast cancer survivors in the Denver area.
In 2000, Hornbostel found a new cancerous lump in her throat and wenton to spend most of this decade battling recurrences with a combinationof chemotherapy, exercise, a boundless determination, and a constant senseof humor. Even in the darkest moments, she kept her those around her institches. Even her AOL user name, KarHorn, was funny.From a man near and dear to both the cancer and cycling communities,Hornbostel received the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s 2003 Carpe Diem Spiritof Survivorship award for her groundbreaking work in integrating exerciseinto the cancer recovery process. Struggling through yet another roundof chemotherapy in her fifth bout with cancer at the time of the Live toRide Gala awards ceremony in Austin in February, 2003, Hornbostel drewon her vast inner reserves to make the trip. She brought the room downby yanking off her wig and joking and laughing throughout her acceptancespeech.Hornbostel has single-handedly defined the importance of integratingexercise into the cancer recovery process. In addition to the LAF award,she has been awarded the following:Ultimate Drive Award (from Susan G. Komen, BRC and MBMW of North America) for being an honorable supporter of breast cancer awareness, 20057 News Everyday Hero Award, 2005Jackie Madson award for The Race for Cure, 2004Jefferson Women’s Award (for community service) given by Jefferson County, 2004Susan Miller Award for Day of Caring Breast Cancer Awareness, May 11, 2002As relatives, Hornbostel leaves her older brother and two nieces from Connecticut, as well as her two 55-pound best friends, Amber, a 4-year-old lively female yellow lab, and Squirt, a 3-year-old male golden retriever mix who are currently seeking a home they can share together that has a large yardto romp in and loving people willing to do some training.
A memorial service and Celebration of Hornbostel’s life will be held this Friday, October 27th from 11:30 to 3:30 at the Mile Hi Church of Religious Services located at 9077 W Alameda in Lakewood, 80226.
Donations to Summit Cancer Solutions, Inc. are requested in lieu of flowers
Summit Cancer Solutions
6612 South Ward Street
Littleton, Colorado, 80127