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Courage Award winner Sammie Gehl blazes path for herself and others

scottteaser-215x160Sammie Gehl knew something was wrong, but as she headed with her parents to her doctor’s appointment that May day in 2014, she tried to remain optimistic. The 15-year-old figured the painful bump on her right knee had been caused by all the running she had done for her high school cross country and track teams during the previous 10 months. She was hopeful the doctor would wind up prescribing some therapy, meds and rest, and she’d be back on track, healthier and better than ever.

Sadly, the visit didn’t go as envisioned. Not by a long shot. That fateful day, Gehl would be told this wasn’t some minor, easily treatable, overuse injury. This was osteosarcoma. Bone cancer.

“I didn’t cry at first; I was in too much shock,’’ said Gehl, a senior nursing student at St. John Fisher College and this year’s winner of the Father Joe Lanzalaco Memorial Courage Award, presented annually by Camp Good Days and Special Times. “It took me several days to process everything.”

She would experience even greater shock in the months that followed. After chemotherapy and several surgeries failed to solve the problem, doctors had no choice but to amputate her leg just above the knee. Her running career was over. Or so everyone thought. Everyone, that is, but her.

In Gehl’s mind there were more races to run, more finish lines to cross. On and off the track. The desire to run again became her motivation, a carrot that helped her navigate the challenging adjustment she’d make to life with one limb.

Thanks to the encouragement of Fisher coach Mike Henchen, she went out for the Cardinals cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field teams. On April 29, 2017 — nearly three years after her amputation — she competed in her first collegiate race. Trekking the 200 meters was laborious, as she ran on a prosthetic leg designed more for walking. “Think trying to run with a two-by-four attached to your foot,’’ Henchen said, “and you’ll begin to understand what she was up against.’’

But, as her coach and others have discovered, Gehl is nothing if not determined. Flanked by two assistant coaches — Angela Ryck and Kristine Wolcott — and exhorted on by hundreds of Fisher students and faculty members, clad in yellow, Gehl crossed the finish line at the Polisseni Track and Field Complex. After completing the race, she was mobbed by well-wishers. One friend asked: “What are you going to do next?” In typical Gehl fashion, she smiled and said: “Keep training.”

In losing a leg, she found a purpose. Each time she hits the track — now with an artificial knee and a flexible metal foot blade better suited for running — she runs not just for herself but for others. Each journey is a triumph of the human spirit — a reminder that obstacles can be hurdled. Even ones as daunting as cancer. “I just want people to know that you shouldn’t let anything stop you from doing what you want to do,’’ Gehl said. “There’s going to be hard times in life, but you just got to look at the end goal, and figure out a way to get there. And if you are persistent enough you will.”

Her dad, Dan Gehl, chokes up whenever he reflects on her amazing journey. “It’s mind-blowing when you think about it,’’ he said. “There obviously were times when my wife (Jennifer) and I were devastated, and Sammie was, too, but Sammie never showed it. She always remained positive, never stopped fighting. She just kept focusing on her goal. Nothing was going to deter her. Words can’t describe how proud I am of her. And to see the way she’s touched others makes it all the more special.’’

Before Gehl and her parents attended an open house at Fisher in the spring of 2016, she received a note from Henchen. Like previous years, the admissions office had given the coach a list of prospective students ahead of time, and he and his staff noted which ones had been runners in high school. Henchen saw that Gehl had competed for Horseheads High School, and encouraged her to stop by the Cardinals athletics table at the open house to chat about going out for cross country and track.

“I had no idea what she had gone through,’’ Henchen recalled. “She had posted some decent times, and I just figured she hadn’t run the last few years because of an injury. When she showed up on crutches at our table, I thought to myself, ‘Well, I was right.’ Her dad was with her, and he said he appreciated my note, but also wanted me to know that Sammie was a recent amputee. I said, ‘That’s OK. That really doesn’t change anything in my mind. We’d still love to have her on the team.’ ”

A few days later, Henchen sent Gehl a follow-up letter, in which he told her: “Hey, we don’t have a lot of experience — heck, we don’t have any experience — dealing with amputees, but we’re willing to give it a shot. And if you want to get back into running, we’re going to be here to help you.” Gehl was game, and Henchen and his staff began researching how to train amputee runners. “It was new to us, and new to her,’’ he said. “There has been trial and error along the way, but we’ve learned a lot and it has wound up being an incredibly rewarding experience.”

Especially that day two years ago when Gehl competed again for the first time in a long time. “Head coaches aren’t supposed to cry, but I did,’’ he said. “I don’t know how you could not cry that day, knowing all she had overcome.” And he would tear up again at a practice the following spring after Gehl displayed perfect form while sprinting down the track in the 100 meters. Afterward, she told him that for the first time since the amputation she had experienced that wonderful sensation of going so fast she could feel the wind ripple through her hair. “Just thinking about those moments gives me goose bumps,’’ Henchen said. “She definitely has inspired us as coaches. I think she has taught us that we need to give every athlete the opportunity to compete and participate, even athletes dealing with serious challenges.’’

This sprinter clearly has become a trailblazer, opening eyes and doors.

Her father said Sammie had no idea what she wanted to do with her life before her cancer diagnosis. Six years later, her path is crystal clear. “I want to become a pediatric oncology nurse,’’ she said. “I want to work with young people who are where I once was. I want them to know that I can relate to what they are going through because I went through it, too, and I want them to see that in spite of their cancer, they can still realize their dreams.”

They can continue to cross finish lines. Just like Sammie has. On and off the track. Time and time again.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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