Winnipeg’s Sierhuis discovers love of rowing after childhood cancer diagnosis

Katie Sierhuis describes the agonizing homestretch of a rowing race as feeling like her legs are on fire.

And she cherishes every lung-busting moment.

The 20-year-old from Winnipeg, who is competing in three rowing races at the Canada Summer Games this week, took up the sport after recovering from a rare form of cancer.

She’d been a talented young hockey and soccer player before she was diagnosed with ovarian dysgerminoma at age 12. The many months of treatment that followed thoroughly sapped her strength.

“It was definitely crazy to feel so weak, when you can’t even walk up the stairs and do all these things that I think I took for granted,” Sierhuis said. “So I think it’s really special that I’m able to go out and be on the water, and work out and stuff. It makes me appreciate it that much more.”

Ovarian dysgerminoma makes up less than 1 per cent of childhood cancers. She had been experiencing weakness, dizziness and joint pain for several months before a specialist found an alarming level of calcium in a blood test and sent her immediately to hospital.

Doctors then found a large tumor on an ovary and another baseball-sized tumor on a lymph node adjacent to a kidney. Several months of chemotherapy followed.

In the spring of 2017, Team Manitoba coach Janine Stephens was recruiting at the high school where Sierhuis’s mom Lori works. Her mom thought rowing might be the ideal sport for Katie and her brother Riley.

It was the fresh start Sierhuis needed. She was instantly hooked.

“I like the personal growth that I can see in myself since I’ve started and then also the team aspect of it, of really working together to just do everything you can to make a boat go fast,” she said. “And then also the balance between hard work, but then also staying composed, and keeping the rhythm and keeping it graceful.

“Because it looks so beautiful when you watch boats go by. But it’s so hard.”

Sierhuis made her Canada Games debut in 2017 in her first season in the sport.

On Thursday at Henley Rowing Center, she and Leah Miller were fourth in the women’s pairs to qualify for Saturday’s final. Sierhuis will also compete in the women’s four and eight races, with finals scheduled for Sunday.

She’s also fresh off her rookie season at Gonzaga University. She was named “newcomer of the year” at the WCC conference championships, where the Zags swept the podium, winning every race.

Sierhuis, who was also a top high-school athlete in cross country, said she appreciates the team aspect of rowing.

“It’s exciting, especially if you can give that extra 5 per cent, and you know everyone else is literally the same boat as you, and you’re all experiencing the same thing and everything hurts but you’re all pushing together,” she said. “It’s kind of special that you get to work extra hard with the group of people that you’re with.

“And then you just feel really accomplished after, because it’s tough. But it’s fun to do it.”

Sierhuis is majoring in human physiology, and then hopes to go to medical school to specialize in cardiology. Her own experience with hospitals and doctors helped spark her interest in medicine.

“I was always more of a science kid. But I think just seeing what people did, and how they were able to help you really made me want to do the same for others,” she said. “And I also coach at the Winnipeg Rowing Club, and those interactions with people make me happy, and so I think if I could do that in a medical setting, that would be really cool.”

Stephens believes earning a spot on Canada’s U23 squad would an achievable goal for Sierhuis.

“Even when Katie first started rowing, you could see the determination that she had,” Stephens said. “But also the positive energy that she brings to the crew and the motivation that she brings for other people, in her willingness to work hard and her desire to improve, you can really see that in all the boats that she rows.”

Sierhuis’s family and friends also created a foundation called “Katie’s Krew” which is a dragon-boat team that fundraises for cancer research. It’s raised more than $300,000 in six years.

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