The nerves usually don’t kick in too much for Lizzie Powell.
The senior from Patrick Henry High in Virginia, and a nationally-ranked pole-vaulter, does get a little nervous. She does get that excited anticipation that one normally experiences before competition.
This time, though, it was different.
Only a few days prior to the Flames High School Invitational, held on the campus of Liberty University, Powell couldn’t relax.
“I never really get nervous before a meet, but I was nervous,” she said. “The day of the meet I was just shaking. Normally, I’m confident. Normally, I’m O.K. But I was extremely nervous – for a few days!”
In typical fashion, Powell was able to channel out those nerves in the Jan. 16 meet and finished with a winning height and meet record of 11 feet, 6 inches. The effort was a foot less than her personal best and seven inches lower than her gold-medal performance in capturing the VHSL Group AAA state championship in late May.
Nevertheless, Powell had an ample enough excuse in falling short of her PB as well as her rare uneasiness before the Flames’ meet. (Lizzie getting some air)
Her performance in mid-January was her first time on the runway since the gifted teenager was diagnosed on June 3, 2009 with a form of cancer known as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. The disheartening news came on her 17th birthday, only five days after copping her outdoor crown.
The good news for Powell is she is now 100 percent clear of the cancer. She found that out the final week in December.
But as Patrick Henry coach Scotty Brown states, “It has been a whirlwind year.”
THE DETECTION CAME SUDDEN FOR POWELL, who first noticed a lump in her neck the Monday morning following her win at the state meet. A small bit of concern came a day later when it doubled in size.
“I didn’t think anything of it. I just thought it was a muscle that was swollen,” Powell said. “But I was a little concerned when it got bigger.”
It was the young Powell’s father, Dr. Robert Powell, the director of the emergency department at St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond that was able to first diagnose that the lump was cancerous when she was brought to the Medical College of Virginia.
While her daughter sat in the waiting room, Patricia Powell, Lizzie’s mom, went into the x-ray room with her husband.
“The x-ray came up on the screen, he looked at it, and I knew,” she said. “I have known my husband long enough. He just got up and said, ‘I’ll be back.’ He came back and I looked at him and he was crying. She had six tumors in her neck similar to a mass in her chest.”
Patricia Powell didn’t break the devastating news until the ride home, but her daughter already could sense it wasn’t good.
“I looked over at my mom and said, ‘Do I have cancer?,’” she recalled. “She nodded yes and started crying and told me, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get through this.’”
Brown remembers when he first learned his state champion pole-vaulter had cancer.
“It was a big shock,” he said. “When you see someone go out and have a great performance like she did (at the state meet) and you think about someone going out like she did, you don’t associate a person like that getting cancer.”
What followed after the fateful day were four cycles of chemotherapy where Powell would have radiation treatment on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and the following Monday each cycle.
“The first treatment knocked me out and I got really tired,” Powell said. “I would just get really bad headaches. But I definitely didn’t feel that bad after that.”
Patricia Lowell stated it was a little more intense than her daughter explained.
“She had two blood transfusions as well as the chemotherapy. Her blood levels dropped to 5.7 with normal being about 13. They couldn’t believe she even had the strength to stand,” said Patricia, who indicated another time where her daughter experienced a very high fever from the therapy. “It was definitely a long haul for a while.”
“It was a tough ride for everybody,” she continued. “It was kind of a crazy summer, to say the least.”
In the recovery process, Lizzie Powell credits the support she received from her family, friends and coaches, including Brown and her pole vault coach at Extreme Heights Val Osipenko and his wife Nadia, as a major reason she was able to get through the long ordeal. She also believes the mental and physical strength she developed as an athlete and trips to the beach also helped in the process. (Lizzie and the Extreme Heights team; Lizzie is 2nd row, 3rd from right)
A certain U.S. Olympian also did her part.
While undergoing the first cycle of chemotherapy, Patricia Powell sent an e-mail to American pole vault record-holder and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Jenn Stuczynski about her daughter. Stuczynski didn’t hesitate to respond.
“My first night of chemotherapy, she called me and asked what I was doing and how things were going,” Lizzie Powell said. “We were just kind of talking about the pole vault and she ended up inviting me to New York to come and train with her."
Stuczynski also sent her newest friend a “care package” that included all clothes she received while competing in the Beijing Olympics.
“That was really neat,” Powell said. “We have established a friendship through the e-mail. That just really encouraged me to start training.”
POWELL’S LAST CYCLE OF CHEMOTHERAPY was just before the school year began on Sept. 7. She maintained her strength as much as possible during the last three months through the use of a strength coach. She began working on her craft again, at least on the runway, in late October.
“My goal was to beat cancer and come back the best I can,” Powell said.
Brown said the hardest part was trying to get his pole-vaulter to slow down.
“She probably tries to push herself too much now,” he said. “I’m a little more patient with the comeback process.”
At the Flames Invitational, the primary goal for Powell and her coaches was to get the feet wet again. How high wasn’t too much of a concern.
On Powell’s first attempt, the nerves subsided when she cleared her opening height of 10 feet.
“Just to clear that height I was so happy,” she said. “I was so happy I didn’t even care what I did after that.”
What she did do after that was clear an impressive 11-6 to win the event by two feet over Turner Ashby’s Cayse Hartt. Brown was somewhat taken back with the way Powell responded despite the long absence and what she had to experience during that time off.
“But in a way it doesn’t surprise me when I look at the work ethic and what she does. She’s a very strong, young lady,” he said. “I knew she would have a good performance, but I didn’t think 11-6. I figured 10 feet, 10-6. It was interesting to watch her. She’s a young lady with a great bit of fight in her.”
Not surprisingly, it was an emotional day for Powell and all the people that had supported her during her brief fight with cancer.
“I just started crying,” Patricia Powell said. “It was so emotional…I told her back in June I would just be happy for her to get out of the hospital. We were just thrilled that she was out there.”
With her cancer in remission and her first meet out of the way, Lizzie Powell has big plans before the indoor season comes to a close. She achieved her best of 12-6 when she placed third at the National Scholastic Indoor Track & Field Championships last winter, a height she has done two other times last year. (Lizzie with her brother, Harrison)
It’s also a height she’s looking to surpass in the next few months.
“She’s hungry for more,” Brown said. “In the state of Virginia, she wants to be the first one to clear 13 feet, and I think she can do it. If you bring in competition, she is ready to roll.”
On her bathroom mirror, Powell wrote a big No. 13 with magic marker to remind her daily about the magical height she’s hoping to reach.
“I think it’s definitely a reachable goal,” she said. “Last year at the nationals I jumped 12-6 and was close to 13 feet. I told myself last year I can definitely jump 13 feet.”
Brown, who is in his 11th year as a track coach at Patrick Henry and is also an assistant varsity football coach at the school, can’t recall a more determined athlete than his pole-vaulter.
“(In all my years) of coaching, that's the toughest thing I’ve seen someone come back with,” he said. “It’s a game-changer. You know you can recover from injuries, but you never know with cancer.”
“It definitely was a hard journey,” Powell said. “It definitely changed my life. But I had the big support of people and all my coaches have just been there. Their support for me has just been amazing.”
And so has her comeback to the elite level.