Six years ago, Katie Sierhuis was a typical seventh grader who loved hockey and soccer.
But her fun-loving, active lifestyle did not prepare her for the harsh reality she was about to face.
Normally a high-energy kid, she found herself lacking stamina. She was also experiencing joint pain, which was at first thought to be an indicator of childhood arthritis.
Blood tests revealed something more ominous. Imperceptibly, a football-sized tumor had grown in her abdomen and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes.
That was June 2015. Sierhuis was scheduled for surgery to remove the tumor, diagnosed as stage 3 dysgerminoma cancer, and followed that up with three rounds of chemotherapy.
Remarkably, she was in remission four months later.
"It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve probably ever had to go through, especially at 13," said Sierhuis Tuesday.
"I wasn’t doing what all my 13-year-old friends were doing. So it was really hard and it definitely wipes you out. I was getting out of breath going up like stairs. Something that was motivating me was just like getting back into sports and growing my strength back."
With the benefit of hindsight, Sierhuis believes returning to hockey that fall had a rejuvenating effect.
She credits the support from her parents, Dennis and Lori, and three siblings to help pull her through a difficult recovery, but admits her youthful naivete played a role, too.
"I think my parents probably knew more than I did but I was involved in most of the conversations. I was also 13 and didn’t even fully understand what cancer was at the time," said Sierhuis.
"So I guess I kind of had a mindset of, ‘Oh this is just a bump in the road, just get through it and get better.’ I don’t really think I fully understood the severity of the situation, which was probably good… I found that throughout that hockey season, just getting into activities honestly helped me bounce back pretty quickly."
Months later, Sierhuis experienced another life-altering event. Responding to Winnipeg Rowing Club head coach Janine Stephens’ recruiting pitch in 2017, she decided to give the new sport a test run.
She found rowing tough but strangely invigorating.
"I grew up doing a lot of team-oriented sports… so I’d never had too much exposure to just racing," said Sierhuis, who also played hockey at St. Mary’s Academy during her high school years. "This is honestly probably the most challenging sport I’ve ever done in my life and I think it’s been really cool to see how I’ve pushed myself in ways that I didn’t think I could.
"It’s a little harder than it looks and it’s a full body workout but once you get the hang of it and you’re there at 5:30 in the morning, it’s just like the best thing ever."
Last month, her accomplishments in the sport were recognized when she one of four local rowers and University of Manitoba students to earn Peter Nykoluk Rowing Scholarships. The award was established 25 years ago to honour the life of Nykoluk, who died in 1990.
Sierhuis proved to be a quick study, rowing for Manitoba at the 2017 Canada Summer Games. In 2019, she earned silver medals in the women’s pair and four and a bronze as a member of the eight-person boat at the Western Canada Games in Swift Current, Sask. This fall, she will transfer to Gonzaga University and also row for the Spokane, Wash.-based school.
Stephens, a former Olympian, said Sierhuis’s wide range of experience has helped to make her reach the NCAA.
"I think having done so many different sports, she was really sort of aware of her body and how to take the strokes," said Stephens. "And so we needed her and she filled an important role in one of the boats that we had and she took to it pretty quickly."
While training during the pandemic hasn’t been easy, Sierhuis has found a way to stay fit. Under current health restrictions, workouts are limited to single-person boats.
At Gonzaga, which is planning to start in-person classes this fall, she will be concentrating on the eights.
"It’s interesting because in her first couple years of rowing she was still playing high school hockey and still doing the multi-sport thing, which I encouraged, but this year she just had rowing and even though we were closed for four months, I think just technically she really made some solid gains with her fitness with her stroke. I think that just sort of opens up more possibilities for her now."
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
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