Estimated read time: 7-8 minutes
SALT LAKE CITY — On Nov. 7, millions including a large number of individuals right here in Utah watched and waited as Tommy Rivers Puzey of Flagstaff, Arizona, crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon.
His 9 hours and 19 minutes for the 26.2-mile distance was a far cry from this elite athlete's personal best of 2 hours 18 minutes but, according to Puzey, completing the New York Marathon was "the single most difficult athletic achievement" that he has ever accomplished. Because just one year ago, the professional elite athlete was not only learning how to walk again but how to swallow and hold a single utensil.
From on top of the athletic world to bleak cancer diagnosis
In July of 2020, just a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Puzey found himself having what he believed to be symptoms of the novel coronavirus, including coughing and shortness of breath. A trip to the emergency room did not confirm his suspicions but instead delivered perhaps a person's worst fear: cancer.
The cancer Puzey was diagnosed with was a rare and aggressive form called primary pulmonary NK/T-cell lymphoma. The prognosis was bleak, and Puzey would find himself fighting for his life with the world fighting with him.
One person who found himself holding on to every update of Puzey's condition was Logan resident Zac Marion, who knows Puzey both from the running and professional worlds as they are both athletic trainers for Utah-based fitness company iFit. Marion said that when the news of Puzey's condition came, it was as if a superhero had been struck down.
"I met Tommy in 2014 when we were both running a race called Run Rabbit Run, and we have shared a few trail miles since then," Marion said. "One of the beauties of Tommy is that he is very unsuspecting. He is quiet, reserved and humble. He is a phenomenal athlete but is not someone who likes to speak of himself. His character is much larger than his presence, and he really has gained a following just doing what he loves.
"We all look up to Tommy because of not only the athlete he is, but because of his larger-than-life character. And when news came out that he had been diagnosed with this type of cancer, it was unbelievable because we all saw him as invincible."
We all look up to Tommy because of not only the athlete he is, but because of his larger-than-life character. And when news came out that he had been diagnosed with this type of cancer, it was unbelievable because we all saw him as invincible.
–Zac Marion, Tommy Puzey's friend
Unlike a lot of the friends the two of them share, Marion, who has a doctorate degree in physical therapy, knew that the prognosis for his friend was extremely bleak.
"NKT cell cancer in the lungs is devastating," Marion said. "Knowing what I know, when someone has this type of cancer it is more than likely going to end devastatingly. But Tommy has proven time and time again, just as an athlete, that he is tough and knows just how to endure pain and suffering. I knew if anyone would make it, Tommy would."
If there is one person who agrees with Marion, it is Tommy Puzey's dad, Kim Puzey, who lived in the Salt Lake Valley until the early 1980s. Kim Puzey took time to talk to KSL.com about his son, who he says is both humbled and very overwhelmed by the attention.
Kim Puzey expressed his understanding that people are rightfully inspired by his son's story, while also noting that the attention at times can be hard. Keeping that in mind, he shared some thoughts in an effort to help to paint a complete picture of his son who the world has come to know, love and be inspired by.
"When I got word of Tommy's condition, I felt an anvil settle on my chest," the father said. "But I believed that the outcome would be good."
Kim Puzey said this despite seeing his son hooked up to tubes and a ventilator to keep him alive. He said that the feeling that his son would make it through came from several different reasons that he couldn't pinpoint, but he made note of his son's character and will to overcome adversity.
"We have a strong household," Kim Puzey said, speaking of his entire family. "I don't know how to describe it. Maybe it's in our blood, or maybe it's learned. Whatever it is, we don't look for excuses. Once we set our course, it is what it is. Tommy is very physically and mentally strong, as well as extremely bright. He has a wife and three children who need him, and I know he was pushing to be here for them."
Tommy Puzey, who many refer to as "Rivs" had hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of people charging forward with him along with the hashtag #runwithrivs. A GoFundMe account* dedicated to his treatment has reached nearly $1 million, showing how much his story has pulled on the heartstrings of people everywhere.
Over the course of treatment, he would undergo a medically induced coma, rounds of chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant — all of which would weaken and wither his 175-pound body down to 98 pounds.
As the months went on, Tommy's wife, Steph Catudal, kept their hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers updated on Tommy's condition, often drawing on her own experience having lost her father to cancer. Her poetic words caused readers to simultaneously suffer with her while at the same time having hope. It was the dark and hopeful aspects that Kim Puzey said were critical, particularly as his son's condition began to improve.
From death's door to the New York City Marathon
"What is important to note is that Tommy couldn't even get out of bed on his own a year ago," Kim Puzey said. "He first started with 10 steps with his walker, then 10 became 12, then 12 became 20, then 100, 500 and 1,000 steps. What many people don't know is that Tommy is a private guy who has spent two decades out on the trail. Nobody intended for this to happen, but here Tommy is in the public eye just because he was doing what he loved, and at times the attention can be quite overwhelming."
And while Kim Puzey wanted to make note of the challenge that comes from being in the spotlight, he did say that what his son is experiencing is universal, which is something that draws people to Tommy's story.
"There is something about suffering that brings us together," Kim said. "Suffering is universal, but even in the midst of the suffering, you can find things to celebrate. You can suffer and celebrate simultaneously. This is something I have come to realize, and Tommy's finish at the New York City Marathon is evidence of that."
Marion agreed that seeing that his friend had crossed the finish line with a smile on his face — knowing full well that the smile on Tommy's face was not devoid of pain — was indeed inspiring.
"Tommy is a huge inspiration to me because not only has he been able to conquer the unconquerable, but that he is doing it with such grace and humility," Marion said. "Tommy is the type of person who will always see things as an opportunity to make the world a better place to live in; and even in his time of need, he is doing just that."
As far as the prognosis for Tommy Puzey moving forward, his father said that it is currently classified as unknown. But if there is one thing that history has shown, moving forward is what "Rivs" does best.
For those who would like to continue to follow along with Tommy Rivers "Rivs" Puzey, he can be found on Instagram @tommy_rivs.
*KSL.com does not assure that the money deposited to the account will be applied for the benefit of the persons named as beneficiaries. If you are considering a deposit to the account, you should consult your own advisors and otherwise proceed at your own risk.