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Stroke of Determination

Delaware rower hasn’t let cystic fibrosis steer her off course

By Kate Sneddon as told to Brian Hendrickson

ROLE: University of Delaware senior Kate Sneddon, a coxswain on the rowing team, doesn’t let her cystic fibrosis pull her away from her passions. HER STORY: She tried backing off sports in college, but boredom led to rowing – and the discovery of a new love. LESSONS LEARNED: Working hard and staying active is not just a path to success; for Sneddon, it is the best medical treatment.

When you have a chronic illness, there’s no finish line. You kind of have to keep fighting that battle.

I almost didn’t realize how bad my cystic fibrosis was. There were times I would flare up and have to get IVs, but it never held me back from doing the things I wanted to do until I got to college. I started to get older, and it got even harder to stay at a baseline level.                          

I had never rowed until I got to college. I played soccer and lacrosse in high school. I did winter track also, but it was mainly to keep in shape for lacrosse. I really had considered playing lacrosse in college – I had gone to a couple training camps at different colleges. But in the end, I decided I wasn’t going to go down that route. I wanted to have more of a college experience when I got to school. And about a week in, I was like, “if am bored. I need to be doing something.” My friend just happened to be like, “oh, hey, I’m trying out for the crew team.” And I was like, “what’s that? I’ll try it.”

Four years later, here I am, kind of obsessed with the sport. It’s unlike any sport I’ve ever played before. You are pushing yourself solely for the people around you in the boat. If you take one off-stroke, that’s putting your teammates behind. In a soccer game, one player can have a breakaway, and that can make the game. In rowing, everyone is hitting it as hard as she can, stroke after stroke, not really getting a chance to let up.

I knew I would always have to stay active in one way or another. It’s definitely something you have to think about with CF: how am I going to get moving? And how am I going to make it a lifestyle?

The CF mutation I have affects my lungs and it affects my digestive system. I get very worn down, and I cough a lot. The mucus throughout your body gets really thick and sticky, and you can’t clear it. So you get chronic infections in your lungs, and with every infection it gets a little worse because your lungs get scarred. I was actually really sick my sophomore year. I wasn’t managing my health well. I couldn’t run a mile and I was like, “oh, my god. This is not good.” I got x-rays, I got all the tests. And I got really mad at the doctor when he was like, “you’re just getting older, Kate. This is what happens.” I left there, and I called my mom and I was like, “absolutely not!” I was so livid. I learned that you’ve just got to keep training in some way because, otherwise, CF gets the best of you.

I rowed my freshman year, and then sophomore year I transitioned to being a coxswain. I’m very small, and I’m very loud, so it seemed like a natural fit to me. But it was kind of scary. I felt like every day, I had to be on top of my game because you’re steering the boat, everyone’s listening to you, and the pressure to perform for my teammates pushed me to do my own research, ask as many questions as I can, record myself, do any little thing.

Once I started to get the hang of it, I felt like I was impacting our success every day, in a small way. It made me feel good. It also humbled me because as much as I try to motivate everyone, sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you fail or you feel like you failed, even if your teammates don’t say it. You have to have thick skin and not get too upset about a comment from a coach or rower. But then when you do feel like you had an impact one day, or when someone says, “When you said that, it got me pumped up,” it’s very, very rewarding. And that really carries through all day.

There’s nothing more exciting than when you’re next to another boat, and you’re looking at them and you’re like, “we’re gonna pass them, girls! We’re taking them down!” And then you do it. I’m not going to be ok when it ends this year. It’s so crazy to think about because the past four years I’ve been totally engrossed in the sport.

I’m going to have to find a rowing club that’s near me or something. Because I just can’t imagine walking away from it.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.