In August 2008, Dana Giordano was a 14-year-old Jersey girl who summered on the Cape. She was a thin, lanky kid who loved to play soccer and ice hockey.
“One day I couldn’t button my shorts, and I thought it was because I was finally gaining weight,” says Giordano, now a 27-year-old Boston Athletic Association High Performance athlete and an Olympic hopeful in the 5,000 meters. “I was so excited, because I didn’t want to be a skinny kid anymore.”
She was on a trip to Nantucket when she got a piercing bellyache that wouldn’t go away. After doctors took X-rays and blood tests, they rushed her to Children’s Hospital in Boston. She had no idea there was a 5½-pound cancerous tumor growing in her body.
“They told me that I had a large, melon-sized ovarian teratoma — like a little football or something,” she says.
Giordano was scared. Her grandmother had died from ovarian cancer eight years earlier.
Doctors performed emergency surgery to remove the tumor, which they took a photo of.
“It was disgusting,” she says. “I didn’t look at that picture again for 10 years.”
She was left with a 9-inch vertical scar from above her belly button down. It was a difficult recovery, but it became motivation to make every day count.
“I understood that my life had changed forever,” she says. “Every time you get a CAT scan or MRI or ultrasound, you’re nervous that you’re going to have another reoccurrence of something.”
She started high school in Bernardsville, N.J., the girl who couldn’t carry her books because of weight restrictions. (“I had to leave a separate textbook in every classroom,” she says.) The freshman soccer coach didn’t want to play her in her weakened condition. She was benched.
“I just sat at home alone and watched YouTube videos by myself every Friday night,” she says.
She had run track in middle school, but it was underwhelming and “nothing serious.” But she decided to focus her energy on running because she always felt it came to her naturally.
“It just clicked,” she says. “I made the state meet my first season, and from then on, it just progressed.”
At Bernards High School, she became an All-American in the 2-mile and 3,200 meters.
In 2009, she planned to run the Falmouth Road Race to raise money for Children’s Hospital, but weeks before the race, doctors found and removed a cyst on her remaining ovary. Although she couldn’t run, Giordano insisted on walking and jogging the 7-mile course and raised more than $10,000 for cancer research.
She enrolled at Dartmouth and became a three-time All-American and seven-time Ivy League champion. But when she missed an invitation to the 2016 US Olympic Trials by one spot, it gnawed at her, even after she graduated and landed a job at Reebok.
For the next 2½ years, she couldn’t stop thinking about the Olympics, so she decided to quit her job and turn professional.
Last year, Giordano set personal bests in the 5,000 meters (outdoors) and 1,500 meters (indoors). At The Track Meet in California in December, she finished fourth in the 5,000 meters, running a personal-best 15:18.06, which qualifies her for the Olympic Trials this year.
She knows that making the US team is a long shot.
“I’m betting on myself above all else,” she says. “I’ve always dreamt of representing my country at the highest level.”
She’s volunteered at Children’s Hospital since 2019, and helped coach cross-country runners at Buckingham Browne & Nichols. Last year, Giordano also started a podcast called “More Than Running,” which gives voice to underappreciated female athletes.
She says she wants to inspire others.
“When I used to look at my scar and talk about my story, I couldn’t do it without choking up and crying and being very emotional,” she says. “And now I’ve really found my voice and I just own it.”
Her coach loves her work ethic.
“She’s got a lot of heart and a lot of fight in the latter stages of races,” says Mark Carroll, BAA High Performance head coach. “Dana is rapidly improving over the last year, so I’d like to believe anything’s possible.”
BAA runner Erika Kemp, the 2019 US 15K national champion, says her teammate is a strong woman.
“To have something like that when you’re 14 and insecure is the worst possible timing,” says Kemp. “To come out of that and have all this confidence and end up as a professional athlete, it’s amazing.”
Giordano says the scar gives her strength.
“I definitely feel inspired by it,” she says. “I’ve developed a certain level of confidence from knowing that I’ve come out stronger. I want people to own their scars and their flaws and become who they want to be.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.