Thursday, September 17, 2009

Cancer in the Clubhouse

The real kind.

When I used to hear the word impervious, I would think of someone like Kurt Gibson. Back in 2006, Florida took the Ultimate World by storm and Kurt, along with Tim Gehret, Jon Windham, Cyle Van Auken, Bill MacQueen, Brodie Smith, and Gray Kirkmeyer, redefined the term "Tournament Shape". They played close to every point of every game in the sweltering heat of Columbus, Ohio, and when the heat index sucked the life out of most flatballers, they played harder and smarter.

However, when I think of Kurt Gibson now, different words come to mind. Tenacious, unflappable, admirable, and positive are just a few and despite their meaning, these words only paint the faintest picture of the man Kurt Gibson has become.

I can remember vividly the last time Kurt was in the spot light. It was about 16 months ago at the 2008 UPA College National Championships in Boulder, Colorado. Unlike 2006, Wisconsin would come away that Sunday with the National Title, but Kurt was at the top of his game. In his college career Kurt won a National Title, played in 2 National Finals, 3 Semi-Finals, finished top 3 in the Callahan voting twice ('07 and '08), was AC Freshman of the Year in 2004, and made All-Region 3 times ('06-'08). His success also extended into the club sphere with appearances at Club Nationals with Florida's Vicious Cycle ('05 and '06) and Boston Ultimate ('07), not to mention his dominance at Potlatch in 2006 with the MLU experiment where he and fellow Florida teammate Tim Gehret lead all participants in Fantasy Points.

But what most do not know is that despite his talents and physical prowess, inside Kurt's body was an oncogenic time bomb waiting to go off. Ironically, the very genetics that helped him break into the Ultimate Elite, also dealt him a mortal wild card, a high propensity for cancer. See in Kurt's family, cancer is not a word, it is a mainstay. On his maternal side, Kurt has lost his grandfather and two of his Aunt's to cancer and what coursed through their veins was ready and waiting in his.

After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in Economics, Kurt took a job in Dallas, Texas with IBM as a Client Representative and was responsible for selling the IBM portfolio to his Michigan territory. However, in addition to moving to a new place, fitting into a new work environment and trying to prepare for another Club Season, Kurt was strapped with something few 23 year olds have to deal with, Colon Cancer.

In early August of 2008 Kurt found himself visiting one doctor after another trying to figure out why he had blood in his stools and excessive fatigue. Eventually, a colonoscopy revealed, and later tests confirmed, Stage 3 Colon Cancer. Further, given Kurt's genetic background, the likelihood that this could be fatal, if left untreated, was 100%. At this point, surgery was imperative and with it the impossibility of competing in the 2008 UPA Club Championships.

Despite this, Kurt took advantage of his last competitive opportunity and attended the 2008 Chesapeake Open, where his team, Boston Ironside, went 7-1 making the Finals against Atlanta's Chain Lightning. However, their success on Saturday against Chain Lightning would not be duplicated, and they lost 15-11. Peripheral to the tournament outcome, after this game, Ultimate was relegated to 'rear view mirror' status and instead of returning to Dallas, Kurt got a ride up to New York with his Ironside teammates to await his September 10th surgery.

Because cancer is well known in Kurt's family, he had access to a great deal of experience regarding where and how to deal with the disease. Luckily for Kurt, one of the World's premier cancer institutes was in the back yard of his beloved Aunt Ana, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and Kurt went to stay with her in Westport, CT. This was a fitting home for Kurt, not only during his surgery, but later during his chemotherapy treatments, because he had spent many a summer at Aunt Ana's, and her home provided the perfect support structure he would need to overcome such a deadly obstacle.

Due to the severity of his diagnosis and family history, it was decided that Kurt's entire colon was to be removed. The surgery would require a 7 day stay in the hospital and kept him from eating for 2-3 weeks. This resulted in a loss of 25 pounds, bringing the weight of his 6'2" frame under 150 pounds. To make matters worse, doctors found cancer cells in 2 lymphnodes adjacent the colon, which is frightfully close to a death sentence for any cancer patient. This left Kurt with only one option, chemotherapy. Despite this terrible news, Kurt was determined to remain independent and decided to undertake his chemo treatments back in Dallas.

Beginning in mid October of 2008, Kurt went through a barrage of chemotherapy treatments that included Oxaliplatin, Fluorouracil, and Leucovorin. Briefly, these treatments occurred bi-monthly and consisted of a 6-8hr administration on Day 1 followed by a slow drip over the next two days. To carry out these treatments, Kurt had a mediport installed right above his heart which allowed him to avoid continual needle injections in his arm.

At first Kurt seemed to handle things well and was able to work during this process and side effects of the chemo treatments were minimal, mainly fatigue. However, as the treatments wore on, Kurt found it harder and harder to handle the duress alone. What is also worth mentioning is that not only was Kurt battling his own demons with Colon Cancer, but his other Aunt, Vivan, was in the final stages of her 3rd bout with cancer, a fight she ultimately lost in November of 2008. Eventually, after 7 treatments, the physical and emotional strain, coupled with the fact that Kurt was all alone in Dallas, broke him and he ultimately followed the advice of friends and family and moved back to Connecticut in January of 2009.

At this point, chemotherapy side effects worsened to not only fatigue, but a loss of sensitivity in the extremities, making daily activities, such as dressing one's self, immensely difficult. He also developed cold sensitivity in his hands, forcing him to wear gloves constantly. In addition, he also experienced constant flu like symptoms and vomiting, leaving him weak and vulnerable. In speaking with his Aunt Ana regarding this experience, she told me that these moments were the toughest to witness because Kurt seemed very aloof and distant. The wear and tear on his body left him quiet and inactive, and all she could do was remind him that this was the treatment not the disease. It also goes without saying that as an athlete, being in such a state was more than a little disheartening to both his pride and his self-confidence.

However, if Kurt were to beat this beast, he would have to will himself. Focusing on the pain, the odds, or the anguish would have meant certain death, and in order to remain alive, Kurt would have to keep his spirits up and stay motivated. Moving to Connecticut allowed Kurt to surround himself with those that loved him, but love and support come in different forms and Kurt would need a voice in his head that would not be afraid to point out his weaknesses and force him to overcome them.

To fill this particular role, Kurt turned to his college coach and mentor, Kurt Dahlenberg. Dahlenberg is an Ultimate legend in the Southeast and has been a part of the Miami Refugees since their inception back in 1984. As a player he had the opportunity to represent his country at the 2004 World Ultimate and Guts Championships in Turku, Finland by winning the 2003 UPA Club National Championships (Masters). Dahlenberg also coached some of our sports finest in Jacob Goldstein (CUT, SubZero, Ironside), Jasper Hoitsma (Ozone Pilots, Slow White, Ironside), Colin Mahoney (Brownian Motion, DoG, Tandem, Ironside) and Neale Mahoney (Brownian Motion, DoG, Bloodthirsty) while they were at Northfield Mount Hermon. He also had a brief coaching stint with Carleton in 2005.

In 2006, Tim Gehret approached Dahelnberg about coaching Florida and despite driving 5 hrs each way from Miami to Gainsville, Dahlenberg led UF to a National Title, 2 Finals appearances, and 3 Semi-Final births in just three years. Apart from developing some of the first zone defenses ever seen in Ultimate, I believe Dahelnberg's legacy resides with the fact that it was his training regiment that prepared Florida for their romp in 2006 and his 128-7 record with Florida marks one of the most incredible runs in College Ultimate History.

However, aside from all of his Ultimate accolades and achievements, two of Dahlenberg's most important attributes were: 1) He himself was a cancer survivor (Melanoma) and 2) He knew what Gibson needed. Dahlenberg is not known for his subtleties and despite the fact that many would object to his methods, he knows how to get the job done, on and/or off the field. In speaking with Dahlenberg for this article, I realized quickly that he is exceptionally vigilant and perceptive, yet painfully direct and blunt. No one likes to have their weaknesses highlighted, especially when they are relevant, but both Kurts knew that if progress was going to be made, if Gibson were to ever see the field again, he would have to push himself, perhaps harder than he ever had before.

Six days a week Dahlenberg was on the phone with Gibson, probing and prodding, forcing Gibson to talk when he wanted to do anything but. Tough love is not easy for anyone but Gibson became like a son to Dahlenberg and he knew that if he could use Gibson's competitive nature to keep him motivated and positive, there would be no stopping #20.

And there was no stopping to be had. After 6 months and 12 rounds of radical chemotherapy treatments, Kurt maintained his positive attitude and finally beat back his cancer. As he articulates on his cancer blog, keeping a positive attitude was what kept him alive. In discussing his experience with him, Kurt told me that his success was simply "mind over matter" and that battling cancer and surviving chemotherapy is "all mental". His Aunt Ana also reinforced this message, telling me that throughout the process, Kurt's unwavering positive attitude was incredible to witness, especially in spite of the odds and the loss of his own flesh and blood. Perhaps 'impervious' is not the wrong word to describe him.

From his initial surgery on September 10th, 2008 up until his final chemo treatment at the end of March 2009, Kurt lost excessive weight, became brittle and weak, and lost a family member to the same disease. In spite of all of this, his mind set never wavered and he ultimately succeeded. However, because he had been inactive for more than half a year and his body was all but striped of life, a new battle was just beginning.

When I asked Kurt to describe his playing shape before and after his cancer battle, he could only chuckle and say, "frustrating". Here you have a player that once ran unrelentingly from Round 1 on Saturday through the hard cap of the Finals on Sunday afternoon. At this point however, running even a single mile was an incredibly arduous task. Much like his struggle with cancer, this fight against himself was going to require painstaking diligence and an inexorable positive attitude.

It was at this juncture that Dahlenberg's presence was possibly the most valuable. In trying to regain his playing form, Gibson began taking walks with his Aunt Ana and slowly worked his way up to jogging. However, because of the immense drop off in strength and endurance, Kurt would need outside help to keep him motivated and on track. Because Dahlenberg had been so instrumental in preparing Kurt for competitive play, he naturally assumed the role of coach and mentor during this new battle against himself. Dahlenberg would offer target mile times and stretching routines on a weekly/daily basis, not to mention a few choice words of 'encouragement' when needed. Dahlenber's rigorous Football-esque approach to Ultimate would become invaluable in this latest endeavor and despite the fact that it may have been strenuous and demanding, it kept Kurt's hopes alive.

Another lesson Dahlenberg had to offer was that of friendship. When Dahlenberg told me about his melanoma case, he articulated that the relationships he had developed in the Ultimate community were his rock. Despite the fact that many of his supporters in time of need were former competitors, Dahlenberg felt that keeping his spirits up depended to a large degree on these flatball friends.

In reflecting on this and the overall support he received from his friends and family, Kurt knew that he would need local support if he ever wanted to play Ultimate again. It was for this reason that he decided to play with Doublewide in Austin, despite the tempting offer to play with Tim Gehret again on Seattle's Sockeye. He told me he just wanted friends and teammates nearby and that is exactly what he got.

Doublewide is the most elite Ultimate Team in the state of Texas, and despite its base in Austin, Dub has a strong Dallas contingent, mainly made up of former players from the University of North Texas, which is in nearby Denton, Texas. In describing his experience with his new teammates, Kurt told me that "the Doublewide guys are great" and given my own experience with the Texas crowd, I am inclined to agree with him.

The challenge of getting oneself into shape after the off-season is common to most of us, but given the Fall and Winter that Kurt had to endure, such a battle is more difficult than I can articulate here. Suffice it to say that everything from sprinting to jumping to overall endurance had to be re-attained day by day and each day Kurt's positive attitude would be tested against the frustration of playing eons behind his usual self.

In researching Kurt's comeback, I contacted Mike "Tank" Natenberg, one of the captains of Doublewide, and asked him what it was like to witness Kurt's resurgence. For starters, Tank told me that "We quickly learned that Kurt is an ubber-competitive dude. It's interesting because it doesn't come out until you see him at practice and in the huddle. He only knows winning, and doesn't believe losing is an option." This doesn't come as much of a surprise and it is fairly obvious that the persistence he exhibited during his cancer battle would be put to work on the field and at the track.

A turning point that Kurt shared with me came in May of 2009 when he told me he had his roommate drop him off 3 miles from their home. At this point, running such a distance was quite a daunting task, but Kurt knew he had no other option than to succeed, lest he sleep where he stood. During this run he began to shout at himself, demanding success. Kurt described the situation as a "football coach yelling at his players" and although he may have looked crazy, he got himself home.

The following month Kurt took advantage of an offer to play with Sockeye at Cal States, even though he was nowhere near 100%. This playing opportunity was the first he had since Chesapeake the previous August and although his physique was not what it once was, it was a chance to shake off the cobwebs and continue the journey back to his glory days. At this point Dahlenberg warned Gibson to be wary of his groin and hamstrings because of his inactivity and unfortunately for Kurt, his hamstring would become just another problem in a series of setbacks.

Be that as it may, rather than try to be an out of state player and continue with Sockeye, Kurt committed himself to Doublewide. I was curious to know what Kurt's assignment on the field was for Doublewide and this is what Tank had to say about it:

The past 3 seasons Doublewide has switched to a definitive O and D line with a few players that can play both ways if there are chemistry or slump issues. We initially thought Kurt would play on the O line and help out the D line when good match ups came up. At CoCup, Kurt's first tourney with the team, he was more comfortable playing D. At CoCup we utilized him on the D team in the first half and then mostly O in the second. It seemed to work pretty well.

From the looks of things, Doublewide has certainly asserted themselves as a contender this year. A year ago they went 2-5 at Colorado Cup with 3 DGP losses (Revolver, Bravo, and Truck Stop) and were 0-6 at Labor Day with 2 more DGP losses (Sockeye and Pony). However, in 2009 they have reached the finals at both Colorado Cup and Labor Day and are 18-3 going into the series with big wins against Revolver, SubZero, Furious, PoNY, Bravo, Jam, Madison, etc...

When I asked Tank what Doublewide's goals were for the series, he told me "to develop and maintain strong team chemistry in order to play our best friz at the end of the season". The consensus seems to be that this Doublewide team is the best in its history. What exactly that means, however, is anyone's guess. When I asked Kurt the same question, he felt at least quarters, and perhaps semifinals, was a strong possibility.

But life has a way of kicking us when we're down and unfortunately for Kurt, his hamstring would not be the last of his comeback injuries and he was thrown another challenge at Labor Day. In Doublewide's 13-8 victory over Vancouver's Furious George, he was coming back on a huck and when he jumped to grab it, he came down badly and broke his fibula. I cannot begin, nor will I try, to understand the frustration he must have felt but given his track record, I am sure he will find a way to overcome this obstacle. The tough love that Dahlenberg exhibited throughout Kurt's progression once again manifested itself and he told me that he has a "pink pair of shorts for Kurt if he wasn't playing at Nationals".

Regardless of whether or not he can suit up for Nationals, I do know that his presence alone has benefitted Doublewide. Tank told me "[Kurt] has shown me a whole other level of competitiveness and confidence. The energy and swagger he brings to the field rubs off on his teammates in a positive way". Perhaps the impression he has left on his teammates will help Doublewide repeat their success over Chain at Regionals next month.

One last question that I had for Tank regarding Kurt was "What is something about Kurt on and/or off the field that most folks probably do not know?". This question was rooted in my own personal interest in Kurt, not only as a player but as a person, and Tank's response did not disappoint:

I think when the ulty community sees great athletic ulty players we are sometimes quick to assume that they are just naturally talented. In Kurt's case, he is definitely talented but a lot of his success is based on the training and preparation he does before the tournaments. He is the last one stretching at our practices. He is running his track workouts at 5:30 in the morning with teammates to avoid the texas heat and get the most out of his body. In other words...he has a great work ethic and expects it from his teammates as well.

and he's pretty good at flip-cup although he has never beaten a team I've been on. :-)

In putting this project together, I have been amazed with the people I have come across. As Tank alludes to, before I talked with Kurt, I just assumed that he was on another level when it came to physical talents and abilities. However, his real talent lies within his mental strength, which we all have within us, and I think any/everyone can appreciate and take something from Kurt's example. I was also touched by the interaction I had with Kurt's Aunt Ana. The losses she has had to endure are beyond words and the energy and positivity she exudes in the face of such misfortune are astounding. Moreover, even one of the photographers I utilized for my pictures is waging his own war with Chemotherapy (Hodgkins Lymphoma) and yet he still manages to work and contribute to the Ultimate community.

I want to thank all those who contributed to this piece, especially Kurt Gibson. This topic is immensely sensitive and I appreciate the opportunity to cover such a story with the grace, emotion, and professionalism it deserves. Our sport almost lost one of its stars, but luckily (for Doublewide at least), he has once again returned to the field.

I haven't written much this past year but I decided to come out of my slumber for this piece because cancer is a very important issue. Despite it's severity, however, it is likely overlooked in the Ultimate community. Most of us are young, well to do, healthy people that think we are invincible, especially against something like cancer. However, as any ultimate player will understand, we are not exempt from such a disease and actually are more than likely to cross paths with something like skin cancer because of the massive amount of time we spend in the sun. In discussing Dahlenberg's own cancer story with him, he told me all of his friends went and got checked out in light of his ordeal and I hope this article resonates the same way.

I asked Kurt's Aunt Ana if she had a message for those lucky enough not to have dealt with cancer and she told me "Never overlook a symptom. Get yourself checked out if there is something amiss. Early detection can and will save your life." In addition, I think Kurt's example of positive thinking sends a great message, not only for battling cancer, but in dealing with life's challenges as well.

Lastly, my main reason for putting this together is because of the unfortunate story of my friend Protik Mia. Earlier this year he was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer and at this moment is dealing with some of the harshest treatments and prognoses cancer has to offer. Peripheral to the fact that he gave me the opportunity to play at Kaimana last year and babysat me while I was there, he is an amazing person and has been a powerful force in every ultimate community he has been a part of. He and his wife Becky have been updating his condition on Pro's Blog.

In following his story, the only thing more powerful than the cancer that is threatening his life, is the courage and dignity with which he has carried himself. I was fortunate enough to spend a few special days with Pro, Becky and their two beautiful children and this blog post is for him.

just my thoughts

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