By the time Eric Shanteau first put on a Cub Scout uniform, he had already been swimming for five years.
As he got older, Shanteau, who learned to swim at age 3, found a way to keep both of these parallel lives afloat.
He balanced a successful Scouting career that culminated in the Eagle Scout award (in 1999) with an elite swimming career that has led him to spots on the 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic Swimming team.
On top of all that, Shanteau is a cancer survivor. A week before the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Thankfully, he’s now in remission and works with the Lance Armstrong Foundation to promote cancer awareness.
Before Shanteau left for London to compete in the 100-meter breaststroke and 4×100-meter medley relay (details below), I chatted with him by phone.
In our conversation, Shanteau reveals how he balanced Scouting and swimming; shares tips for Scouts getting over a fear of swimming, especially in lakes; explains how to encourage Scouts to get across the finish line and earn Eagle; and more.
BRYAN: You started swimming at age 3, but when did you start competing?
ERIC: When I was 5 [my parents] put me in lessons with the local team in Atlanta. By the time I was 10, I was pretty serious.
BRYAN: Once you realized you had swimming talent, how did you keep active in Scouting?
ERIC: It did get more difficult as I went through. When you’re in Cub Scouts, you can do 20 different things. But as I got into high school and training got more intense, it was much more of a balancing act for me. But the Scouts was always something that I enjoyed. By the time I made Life, I knew I wanted to achieve Eagle, and so I thought I’ve come this far I might as well do it. My brother had gone through the process, so I was able to look up to him.
BRYAN: Were you able to attend Scouting events during swimming season?
ERIC: I had to miss a lot of Scouting trips because I was going to swim meets, and swimming did take priority. Our troop met at 7 or 7:30 on Monday nights. I had already gone to school all day then went to two-hour swim practice. So going to Scouting was difficult. Whether it be having to miss out on trips or not getting to go to summer camp (I only went to summer camp once) or just getting to the meetings in general, it just got to be more difficult.
BRYAN: Did you get behind then?
ERIC: My Scoutmaster kept me up-to-date. He knew I wanted to keep going. He saw that it wasn’t too much for me, just as long as he didn’t push it too much. More than anything, he knew that it was something that I enjoyed, so he was going to do everything in his power to make it work for me.
BRYAN: What was your Eagle project?
ERIC: I did a project for my church in Georgia — a Catholic church. For my church rectory, where the priest lives, I got all my troopmates together, and we built a prayer garden. His house backed up into a very large woodsy area by the church. We cleared out a circular path throughout the woods, and we built park benches to sit on at different points throughout the path. At the end, we circled back around, and there was a little prayer garden. It’s just a peaceful place in nature for reflection and relaxation.
BRYAN: Sounds like a lot of work!
ERIC: It may sound extensive, but it wasn’t to me. I actually thought it worked out really well. When I first started thinking about Eagle projects, I had no clue what I wanted to do. I had no clue what I would be capable of doing and where I would go. But I found this, and thought it was perfect.
BRYAN: Who helped you most along your path to Eagle?
ERIC: Jimmy Moore, my Scoutmaster. He got a hold of me way back in Cub Scouts and brought me into Boy Scouts. He really stayed with me. He was just a great man and really helped me through the process. I don’t know if I would’ve made it to Eagle without him.
BRYAN: We’ve discussed balancing swimming and Scouting. Let’s talk about swimming in Scouting. Did you do much?
ERIC: I went to summer camp one year, and I wanted to do Lifesaving merit badge and the Mile Swim. The first day we get there, you had to go through two “practices” for Mile Swim, and then at the end of the week, you had your Mile Swim.
Well, the first practice you get partnered up with the swim buddy to keep you safe. The instructors didn’t make it clear, but you actually had to stay next to your swim buddy. They told me you couldn’t do freestyle because it was considered a power stroke. They didn’t want people getting tired doing freestyle (that didn’t make sense to me). So I’m just doing breaststroke, and the instructor calls me out.
“Hey speed demon, what are you doing out there? Where’s your swim buddy?” [My buddy] raises his hand 50 yards behind me. I was totally embarrassed! The same instructors ended up running the Lifesaving merit badge course. After a couple days of me going after the Lifesaving course, they realized I was above average. It was funny how that all worked out.
BRYAN: And this was in Georgia?
ERIC: Yes, on a lake.
BRYAN: A lot of Scouts are apprehensive about swimming in lakes. Any advice?
ERIC: Open-water swimming to this day is very different, even for me. It’s difficult when you don’t have a wall to rest on — or even the option to rest. It does present another element of difficulty. It’s something that you can’t force on the kid. If they really have a fear of the water, they need to get comfortable in a pool first There’s a balance there. You have to know when to push, and when to back off.
BRYAN: But you do push a little?
ERIC: A certain amount of push is needed. Kids need to be pushed past their limits — that’s how you test yourselves. That’s how you get better. It’s up to the instructors to feel our what each Scout’s limit is.
BRYAN: What about pushing Scouts toward getting Eagle?
ERIC: That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in swimming: How to work toward a long-term goal that’s years away. You train for four years for a two-minute race. It’s insanity when you put it like that! What the heck am I doing? But that’s worth it to me. Part of that process is learning who you are as a person throughout the training and the hard work.
The same thing applies for Boy Scouts. The Eagle process takes a long time. I’m going to go through this process step by step, but I know that the prize at the end of the tunnel is the rank of Eagle. It was a lot of fun, but I knew that the prize at the end was worth it.
When you achieve the rank of Eagle you are an Eagle Scout for life. When you make an Olympic team, you’re an Olympian for life.
BRYAN: I’ve read about your testicular cancer diagnosis and, thankfully, that you’re in remission. What advice would you give to the men in Scouting about this treatable type of cancer?
ERIC: Younger kids think, “Oh, it’s cancer, I don’t have to worry about it till later in life.” But the harsh reality is it’s most common in guys 15 to 35. When you look at that lower age bracket, that includes your Boy Scouts.
BRYAN: So what should Scoutmasters do?
ERIC: It’s not appropriate for them to talk about it, really, but they could say, hey guys, if you think you have a problem please go to your dad or your mom. It’s OK; don’t be embarrassed. It’s OK to ask for help.
BRYAN: Finally, where should people go to learn more about testicular cancer?
ERIC: Start at Livestrong.org. More than anything else, I would encourage people not to Google a type of cancer. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. When you’re talking about getting info about cancer, talk to your doctor and go to reliable sources.
BRYAN: Thanks, Eric, and good luck in London and in your swimming career!
Eric at the 2012 Olympics
Eric made it to the semifinals of the 100-meter breaststroke, but he didn’t make the finals.
Next up is the 4×100-meter medley relay. Heats begin on Friday, Aug. 3, at 6:49 a.m. Eastern. Click here to watch or follow live.
If he makes the finals of that event, that race is Saturday, Aug. 4, at 3:27 p.m. Eastern.
Interviews with other Eagle Scout Olympians
Read my interview with Grant and Ross James, members of the Team USA eight-man rowing team.
And meet Merrill Moses, goalkeeper of the Team USA Water Polo team, who credits Scouting with helping him on his quest for gold.