I had a normal life. It basically consisted of eating, sleeping, going to school, studying, and training. Probably an agenda most student-athletes adhere to. But in August of 2016, my life was turned upside down. Nothing would ever be the same again.
For 12 months, I was staring death right in the face. A 20 percent survival rate. And even if I beat the odds, I’d likely never throw again. Leg reconstruction or amputation were the best-case scenarios.
But, here I am. Telling my story. A story of faith and perseverance, of beating impossible odds and finding inspiration in the most unlikely places.
This is the story of how Alabama saved my life.
I grew up in a family of throwers. My dad was a brilliant hammer thrower back in the 70s. My sister threw at the University of Kentucky. I was always familiar with the sport, but didn’t pick it up until my freshman year of high school.
I took to it almost immediately. The fact that it’s just you, the weight, and the circle just hit home with me. Everything rests on you. It’s a very personal sport. It’s you against the world.
That mentality would help me later on outside the throwing circle as well.
I had great success in my high school days. Whether it was indoor or outdoor, I was competing at the highest level. I won two national titles and even became the youngest US junior champion in the hammer throw. The greatest experiences though came from representing the U.S. internationally. What an honor!
My early success was such an incredible ride. The Olympics, my life-long dream, always inspired and motivated me.
Thanks to my success, I had plenty of options for college. After sifting through the offers, I settled on Alabama.
And as it’ll turn out, this decision would have a bigger impact than I could have ever guessed.
Since the summer between my junior and senior year of high school, I felt leg pain. It wasn’t the most excruciating pain, but I could feel something was off. I kind of just passed it off as tendinitis. After all, that’s what a variety of doctors suggested. And it made sense given my symptoms and stuff. So, I just gritted it out. I had to compete.
During my official visit to Alabama, it flared up terribly. It was some of the worst pain I had felt in my leg to that point. The pain would just throb, and I couldn’t do anything about it. I figured it was just because of the visit, considering the long walks and standing at the football game, so again, I tried not to think too hard about it.
The crazy part was, despite my injury, I competed my whole senior year. And I competed well. At one tournament, I even had my career-best throw at that weight.
Later on, doctors would even tell me that it “was a miracle” that I didn’t break my leg back then.
Don’t get me wrong, it hurt pretty frickin’ bad. I would sometimes even wake up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain.
It was baffling to me. How does a 245-pound kid suffer that much from tendinitis?
But luckily, Alabama happened.
It was almost as soon as I got to campus that the Alabama training staff wanted to look at what was going on.
At that point, the pain had climbed into my hip as well, which still made sense to me because if it was tendinitis, the added pressure I’d be putting on my leg would be in-turn affecting my hip.
The Alabama staff wanted to do imaging on the leg.
And to this day, I can’t really explain what happened next but… Dr. Robinson, my doctor at Alabama, and I think it was a sign from God.
We did another x-ray on my leg first. I had done plenty over the past two years.
But for some reason, Dr. Robinson saw something that looked suspicious. Just to put this into context. Later on, when doctors knew what I had and what to look for, they could still hardly see what Dr. Robinson saw without having any pointers. The fact that he noticed something was off an that x-ray is miraculous.
And after further investigating my leg, they found a tumor on my femur.
I was almost immediately whisked away to do a biopsy, trying to determine if it was benign or not.
The news only got worse from there. The tumor seemed malignant, and it was spreading. It had already spread to about three-quarters of my leg, my left hip, and they found multiple lesions throughout my body. Four in my lungs.
When we heard the news, my dad and I were speechless. Shock fell over the room. My jaw hit the floor. Even the Alabama athletic trainer who sat in the corner of the room looked like he saw a ghost. I just kept thinking over and over…
“Kids don’t get cancer. This just doesn’t make sense.”
I was immediately sent to another doctor. One that specializes in cancer in children. Fortunately, one of the best in the country was located close to my home town in Rhode Island. Initially, I was wondering if I’d be able to compete the following weeks but the doctors at Alabama were pretty clear. “If you aren’t going to go home and get that treatment, you might never throw again.”
I was lucky enough to get wedged into this amazing specialist’s schedule, to see more results. We needed to see just what kind of cancer we were dealing with. Once we knew that, we would be able to better approach how to treat it.
The results were again worse than we thought. The cancer was incredibly aggressive, as it started to spread throughout my body. I was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer. My prognosis only gave me a 20 percent chance to win. The odds were totally stacked against me. All of a sudden, the question was no longer whether or not I would throw again.
It was a question of whether or not I would live.
My only chance of survival was to begin chemotherapy almost immediately. The plan was to go through this chemotherapy, and, if it did the job, I would probably have to then amputate my leg, but at least I would be alive.
That was the goal.
I went about chemotherapy like I was getting ready to compete. I would psych myself up, get super pumped, and go in, essentially, ready to fight at every chemo session. This was a competition for me. I was basically fighting for my life. I took that head on. It was weird, it was like I was almost “excited” for chemotherapy. With each session, I knew I’d be closer to throwing again. That was my mindset.
That being said, it took a hard toll on me. Mentally and physically. I started at 245 pounds. I got as low as 190 pounds. The chemo just made me so weak and frail. Another terrible side of it was the nausea. I threw up constantly. I would just sit in the hospital bed with a bucket. Every hour.
Still, I had to embrace this if I wanted to survive. This was all part of the road to recovery, so I just accepted it. With that mindset, it got better.
In what can only be described as another miracle, my body responded remarkably well to the chemo. The doctor said it was like nothing he had seen before.
Going in, it was viewed like if the cancer didn’t get to me, the chemo would because it was such an aggressive treatment. However, not only did the chemo work, it gave us a new possibility.
The doctor said that amputation no longer seemed necessary. We had a choice. We could either go with reconstructive surgery, which would replace my fibula, the top of my tibia, my knee, and my hip. Or, we could possibly look into radiation therapy. It wasn’t a guarantee, but if radiation therapy was successful, I’d be able to keep my leg bone and all the muscle around it, something basically essential to my desire to throw again.
Once I heard that, I just burst into tears.
From a 20 percent chance of survival to amputation to maybe being able to throw again? I took it as a sign from God. This was meant to be. I was meant to fight and survive because God wanted me to be here. It was just an insane moment. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and I was more motivated than ever.
Naturally, then, I chose to do the radiation. I clearly wanted to have that chance to throw again.
I was put on this very rare experimental drug. I’m not positive, but I think it’s only available in something like 20 hospitals. Remarkably, the drug was available at my hometown hospital, as well as the hospital I would go to in Alabama. It was just another example of how fortunate I was in the whole process.
Through it all though, it was a struggle to not be afraid. Before any of this, I never had to go under a needle. I’m terrified of needles. Blood is like my worst nightmare. I remember being sick with nervousness just sitting in the waiting room, waiting for them to do the blood work.
But that’s also when it hit me. Remember how I said, “Kids don’t get cancer!” That reality was shattered.
I looked around at the waiting room. It was filled with arts and crafts and toys, basically a little playground for kids. There were kids ranging from newborns to kids my age. The sad part? There were more kids, it seemed, that were in that newborn to 12-year-old range, rather than kids my age. Kids did have cancer. I saw it firsthand.
The amazing part was though, some of these kids were still smiling. So many kids were playing, and laughing, and having a good time. It was just so inspiring to see. Maybe it’s because they’re innocent or don’t know any better, but they had this glowing positivity about them.
They changed me. Their faces, their joy, and positivity inspired me. If these kids could go through the worst thing anyone can go through, so could I. They inspired me more than I ever could have inspired them.
Armed with a new sense of positivity, I was able to persevere through radiation. It really is incredible looking back.
Honestly, it was amazing I even made it to the radiation at all. Remember, doctors would tell me that it was shocking I didn’t fracture my leg while I was throwing under the pressure of the tumor. If I would have fractured it then, I wouldn’t have been able to do the treatment.
I was diagnosed in August 2016. Chemo started in September, with radiation then beginning in January. Chemo ended in April, and radiation wrapped up in July. In August 2017, a year after being diagnosed, I was placed in remission.
Unbelievable. I had beaten it. 20 percent chance of survival. I had somehow beaten the odds.
It was an incredible moment, but I certainly couldn’t have gotten there without some of the most incredible outpouring of support.
I cannot believe all the people that reached out to me through the process. I heard from people all over the world. Former competitors reached out from other countries. Family and friends carried me through some of the most difficult times. Even my current relationship evolved because one amazing girl just decided to reach out and give her best wishes.
It was amazing. You never realize just how important you are to people until something like this happens. Even other universities would show their support.
And Alabama?! Best support ever. My entire track team signed and sent a shirt to me, but it wasn’t just their names, it was messages of personal condolences and encouragement. I would hear from other student-athletes and coaches as well, not just track.
It’s why I initially came to Alabama. It just felt like family. It was a family atmosphere amongst the throwers, amongst the team, amongst the entire athletics community.
Coach Waters says after every practice, “Be good to your brothers and sisters.” And I certainly felt that from my brothers and sisters at Alabama.
Thanks to all that support, I am now in a place of recovery. From as low as 190 pounds, I’m back to 270 pounds. Alabama, remaining ever helpful, even assisted in regaining my four years of eligibility after appealing to the NCAA. Thanks to them, I just finished my freshman year and am now preparing for my sophomore year.
Honestly, this is all thanks to Alabama. If it weren’t for the careful eye of Dr. Robinson, I may not have lived to see today. Thanks to their wonderful staff, I’m able to continue to persevere and chase the goal of the Olympics. Without them, I may not have been able to still work toward that dream. I’m ever grateful for them.
This whole process, obviously, changed my life. I learned the importance of faith and perseverance. Faith is vital. You have to believe in something. It can be God. It can be a goal. It can just be yourself. You just have to have something to strive for, which directly correlates with perseverance. You have to have that fire and that drive to finish strong and not quit. Things will get tough, believe me. It was tougher than anything I’ve ever done, but you have to push and be strong.
The phrase that stuck with me through the whole process was something Dr. Robinson told me when we first discovered the tumor. Yes, the odds were stacked against me. It was unlikely I’d ever throw again. It was unlikely I’d even live through this. Still, I asked about the possibility of me ever throwing again, and his response still resonates with me. It’s something I take with me every day. It’s the truest sentiment I can think of for me personally, to hold onto while I fought.