Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2009 | People

Talya Vexler

By IAM Staff
PHOTO: DARREN MILLER/ UI SPORTS INFORMATION Hawkeye assistant gymnastics coach Talya Vexler, a breast cancer survivor, shares her story of hope and courage at Iowa's Pink Meet.

Talya Vexler looked in the mirror and screamed. Days of chemotherapy had turned the lively young gymnast into a bald and weary cancer patient.

Now nearly six years removed from that nightmare, the UI assistant women's gymnastics coach took a moment at Iowa's Pink Meet this past February to celebrate her victory over breast cancer.

During her senior year at the University of Georgia in 2003, Vexler discovered a pea-sized lump underneath her arm. After monitoring the lump for a month, Vexler's doctor told her, "Don't worry, you're 23. It's probably not cancer."

Vexler could either simply take a wait-and-see approach or have the growth surgically removed. Though she had no family history of cancer and lived a healthy lifestyle as a three-time all-American gymnast, Vexler chose the operation.

To her alarm, the lump was cancerous. Vexler immediately underwent an aggressive treatment that included a double mastectomy, reconstruction, and 16 weeks of chemotherapy. "It was like months of the worst flu you could ever have," she says. "I couldn't even be a part of my body; I almost needed to detach myself from the pain."

Vexler refused to let cancer destroy her future. Though often too sick to walk, she graduated from college and began the search for a job in the sport she loves. When her hair started to fall out in clumps, she and her brother held a head shaving party. The nation's gymnastics teams also showed their support by filling her apartment with cards and flowers.

Though Vexler retired from competing in gymnastics in 2002, she remained close to her teammates. In fact, her team held the nation's first Pink Meet in her honor in 2003, decorating its arena pink to spread breast cancer awareness and raise $100,000 for the Athens Regional Breast Health Center. The Pink Meet has since expanded to every NCAA women's gymnastics program. At this February's Iowa event, the Hawkeyes swept their season series against Iowa State for the first time in 17 years.

During the past four seasons coaching at Iowa, Vexler has used her story to inspire the GymHawks. "She correlates her life experience with what we do in gymnastics," says Jenny Donar, a premed junior from Cuba City, Wisconsin. "When I'm having a hard day, I think of what she's gone through and know I can get through my struggles, too."

Vexler also shows she cares by placing upmost importance on her gymnasts' health. "My message is not one of gloom and doom," she says. "You need to be proactive about your health, because that will save your life."