Lauren Smith was born in Silver City, New Mexico, and from the beginning excelled in nearly everything she did. This was due in part to talent—she was precocious, confident and tremendously athletic—but it was her drive that set her apart. She simply would not allow herself to fail. As a young girl, she spent countless afternoons at the local outdoor swimming pool, tirelessly swimming laps, over and over, faster and faster. At the same time, she developed a love of running, at first tagging along with her mother, Judy, herself an accomplished runner, and later participating in competitive track meets, where she took to racing over land as easily as she raced on water.
People naturally were drawn to Lauren’s positive spirit and leadership, and throughout her life she was surrounded by wonderful friends. Lauren believed that being a good friend was one of the most important things in life. She constantly looked for opportunities to show her friends how much she cared about them and valued their friendship.
At age 11, Lauren and her family moved to Albany, Oregon. As she grew, Lauren continued to work tirelessly both in sports and in the classroom. She excelled in both, and following high school, decided to attend New York University, where she was recruited to join the swim team. She had a stellar swimming career at NYU, setting several school records and serving as team captain in her junior and senior season. Just for the fun of it, as a freshman, she also ran for the track team, setting records in the 800m, 1500m, and 4 x 800m. She graduated from NYU with honors in 1999.
A few years after graduating, she returned to NYU as an assistant swim coach and in 2004 was named head coach. From 2004-11, she led the NYU women’s swim team to a 60-6 record, including undefeated seasons in 2005-06 and 2007-08, and she was named conference coach of the year three times. More important than her record as a coach, however, was the impact she had on her swimmers, their parents and her colleagues. Lauren’s energy and enthusiasm were legendary and she touched the lives of countless people through her work at NYU.
Life away from work also was full of promise. Lauren continued to challenge herself athletically, competing in numerous races, marathons, triathlons and even the Ironman triathlon, where she finished the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run in an impressive 11 hours and 39 minutes. In 2005, she married her long-time boyfriend, Mike Beam, and for the next several years they enjoyed being young and married and living in New York City — evenings with friends, weekends away, active vacations where they squeezed in as much hiking and running and cycling and exploring as was humanly possible.
2009 was a wonderful and terrible year. In January, Lauren and Mike learned Lauren was pregnant with their first child. They had been trying for months and had experienced a devastating miscarriage in late 2008, so they were thrilled with the news. Only a couple months later, however, Lauren started to experience a strange cramping sensation in her upper back. She chalked it up to the pregnancy and the stress of coaching, but when the pain got worse, she had it checked out. The doctors’ investigation revealed the unthinkable. The pain in Lauren’s back was coming from her liver, which was covered with tumors. She had Stage IV colon cancer with metastases to the liver. The disease was so severe that there was no cure. She was 32 years old and 5 months pregnant.
The cancer was incredibly aggressive and growing fast. The only chance to save Lauren’s life was to give her massive doses of chemotherapy, starting immediately. No fetus could withstand that. The pregnancy had to be terminated. Lauren and Mike were crushed. Lauren battled through this and tried to keep her spirits up, as everyone told her she must. For the rest of her life, however, she was filled with tremendous sadness by the loss of her unborn child and her missed opportunity to become a mother.
Despite what the doctors told her, Lauren viewed cancer as a challenge that she could overcome. Digging deep into the same inner strength that got her through the Ironman and so many other challenges in her life, she battled. On days when she had chemo, she went to the gym in the morning so she would not miss working out. Until the very end, she used exercise as both a release and a way to maintain some small connection to her prior life. She also continued coaching, even though, at times, she was so tired and weak that she could hardly stand. She made time to see friends, always going out of her way to show them how much she cared, sitting for hours telling stories, trading gossip, helping them with their problems, talking about her own. Often, after a friend would leave, she would collapse from exhaustion. She simply refused to give in to the disease.
As she had done before cancer, Lauren lived life to the fullest during her 2 and 1/2 year battle. Two months before her death, she was surfing on the North Shore of Oahu and swimming with the sea turtles, a huge smile on her face. On the flight home, she talked excitedly and earnestly about whether she and Mike should move to Hawaii so they could surf and walk on the beach every day. Then, on a warm autumn afternoon at what was supposed to be a routine doctor’s appointment, she was told that the tumors were growing out of control, that there were no more drugs to try, that all hope was lost, that she should arrange for hospice care. Lauren and her family were stunned. How could this be? This was Lauren. She was a fighter. She did not know any way other than to battle. The end had always seemed inconceivable. In the waiting room, when the doctor left, Lauren turned to Mike and simply said: “I didn’t want our story to end like this.”
Only two days later, on September 10, 2011, Lauren died at home, surrounded by family. The outpouring of grief—from family, friends, the NYU community, Lauren’s coaching colleagues, even from people who had never met Lauren but had learned of her fight and been inspired by her—was nothing short of amazing.
Lauren Beam was special. Her story did not end that day in the waiting room. She will be missed always and she will remain in our hearts forever. Through The Lauren Beam Foundation, we hope to honor Lauren and keep her memory alive by helping people who are going through their own battle—people who, like Lauren, refuse to give in.