by Eva Dean Folkert
There inside an eight-foot, concrete circle with a discus white-knuckle-gripped in her right hand, it was not readily apparent that Hope College's Haley Fischman '18 was coping with cancer. The senior student-athlete struck the pose of a skilled thrower ready to propel two pounds of wood and metal and carbon fiber ridiculously far through the air and seemed much the same as she had hundreds, maybe thousands, of throws before. Well, maybe there was one exception, one new item added to her usual orange-and-blue Hope uniform that betrayed her new reality: this time, on the first day of the 2018 Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association Track and Field Championships in early May, Fischman wore an unassuming cream-colored bandana over thinning brunette hair.
Finally, Fischman inhaled deeply, began to twirl as discus throwers do, and then, by power and faith, rendered a ferocious heave and let both go — the disc in her hand, that breath from her chest. Discus and exhalation, they flew and flew.
After the first was fully and forcefully ejected, it landed 124-feet, 6-inches away with a solid thud on new May grass. When the second was equally expelled, it made an adament noise, too, the sound of effort and relief penetrating the crisp spring air. It all was a feat that few, except those on the Hope team and in her family, understood as inspiring and even miraculous.
And not just at that moment but also a day later. Fischman's all-out effort and that fourth-place-resulting discus throw accounted for five points, just enough for the Hope women's track team to defeat Calvin College by four and a half points (179 - 174.5) over the course of the two-day meet and thus win the MIAA championship.
Here's the added kicker (as if knowing she has cancer isn't a gut-punch enough): Haley Fischman was not even supposed to be there. Two surgeries and chemotherapy initially, understandably discouraged her from going. But go she did, pulling off a championship-difference-maker after her third infusion of sickening and weakening chemo nine days prior. Fischman has been receiving a hopefully-curative-but-potent concoction for Hodgkin's lymphoma every other week since late March. She also has a chemo port on the left side of her chest. But what she mostly has is an indomitable spirit and a deep Christian faith, and her fortitude and charismatic, infectious smile signals a young woman at peace in the fight of her life.
Photos of Haley Fischman competing in March on the team's 2018 spring break trip.
"I was raised in a faithful Catholic home by amazing parents (Renee and Paul). Just loving God and knowing Jesus and just having that strong foundation," Fischman begins. "But when I was first faced with this, I was terrified. When I had that first lymph node diagnosed (as cancerous), I spent an hour in my room just crying. But then I was like, 'Haley, this is God's plan.' And I think I just slowly started to kind of realize, 'Hey, there is suffering in the world, but God is in control. He's going to give you all of this love. This is temporary. This is temporary.' And so that's what I keep reminding myself."
Cancer's timing and presence are always an inconvenient truth. Fischman was diagnosed with the hateful disease in February, just after the indoor track season, one week before outdoor season and two-and-a-half months from graduation. The driven and goal-oriented 22-year-old had plans, and plenty of them: to win the MIAA in discus during the outdoor season, to qualify for the NCAA championships, to travel to Zambia and serve as a missionary with Pōětĭce International for the summer of 2018, and then to enroll in graduate school in genetic counseling in the fall.
Lymphoma bullied its way into those plans. Fischman was able to delay her chemotherapy for just a bit so she could travel on spring break with the track and field team and compete for what she believed would be one last time. After that, she hunkered down every other week at home in Grand Ledge, Michigan, for her treatments at Sparrow Cancer Center in Lansing. She would return to Hope's campus on her off-chemo weeks to do what she first had only strength enough to do: finish her classes. "Chemo really knocks it out of you," she says. "I am hurting a lot (during treatment weeks)."
But Fischman just could not forget or give up on her first dream of the season — to win a MIAA championship in discus. The thought of literally throwing one early success in cancer's face was a huge motivator for a young woman who has an uncanny knack for exhibiting confident moxie and compassion all at the same time.
"When she sets her mind after a goal," says her father, Paul, "it's 'Damn the torpedoes full speed ahead.' You gotta love it. But first, she had to get clearance from her doctors to blast her own personal torpedo.
"My oncologist is actually from Bosnia, and he's hilarious. A very straightforward guy," Fischman chuckles at the recollection of the conversation. "I was like, 'Hey, I throw discus,' and he says, 'Oh, I know discus.' I was like, 'Yeah, I kinda want to do this in our conference meet. This is my goal.' He just looked at me and said, 'If you think you can do it and you can throw it far, go right ahead.'"
The matter-of-fact conversation was all the green light Fischman needed. Practicing only 20 throws just three days before the MIAA Championships held at Adrian College, she suited up with that new and needed bandana, buoyed by being back with the team but weighed down by anxiety.
"Honestly, I was nervous. I've been having a lot of trouble with panic attacks, just really bad anxiety and that week was actually an all-time high," Fischman confides. "And I think it was just because it's my last week of college, I'm graduating, it's conference. I had all kinds of crazy things going on so my anxiety was really rough. I was obviously trying not to go into (the league meet) with expectations, but I'm a very competitive person and I was like, 'Hey, I want to win. I want to do well because that's been my goal.' I knew I was not going to be that good, but I still really wanted to do well and not be a weak link. Not just for myself but for my team because we were so close to winning."
Championship photo by Alan Babbit. Fischman is center left holding the MIAA trophy with Alison Rich at center right.
Indeed, the Flying Dutch won the 2018 title in one of the closest meets in MIAA history. It could be argued that, out of all the points the Hope women's team accumulated, the five points that Fischman secured from her first-day, discus performance (she also finished 10th and scoreless in both shot put and javelin on the second day "and I was not too happy about that!") were the jolt the Flying Dutch needed to claim the league crown. Her presence did not weaken the team; it helped make them champions.
"Having Haley there meant more than the points she scored," says teammate Alison Rich '18. "It really boosted our morale. Seeing her give her all fires you up to do the same. She was just a huge inspiration for us all season long."
The feeling was mutual. Her team uplifted Fischman, too. Throws coach Paul Markel texted weekly; her teammates constantly sent cards, flowers and called. When it came time to be back among them, Fischman continued feeling the love.
"When you get back in a competitive situation, you just do it because you love everyone you're competing with," Fischman explains. "(The team) has been a huge support the entire time and just having them there next to me, cheering me, just meant so much. And it felt good to feel normal again."
Fischman hopes to finish chemotherapy soon, with radiation to come, and in that as well she'll continue to embrace the mantra she adopted early in her cancer journey: "to be faithful, not fearful" taken from Isaiah 41:10. Many in the Hope community also have that tenet wrapped around their wrists. On the April night of the annual HOPEYs Awards that honor outstanding and inspiring performances by Hope teams and student-athletes, Fischman received the Karen Page Courage Award given in honor of Hope's long-time women's tennis coach who ended her brave, five-year battle with breast cancer in the summer of 2009. In a gesture of solidarity, 400 orange-and-blue "Faithful Not Fearful" wristbands were offered to those in attendance. Every single one was taken; more had to be ordered to satisfy demand.
"Having so many people supporting me has been amazing," she says. "It would be so hard to do this without them."
Like a trip to the NCAA championships, Fischman's summer excursion to Africa will not occur either, but the funds she raised for her summer experience are now helping to support three local Zambian interns instead. Even in her absence, more faithful expressions are moving the kingdom of God a continent away.
One last Fischman goal will not be sidelined, however. The self-proclaimed biology nerd who graduated with honors (and a 3.68 GPA) has every intention of enrolling at University of North Carolina-Greensboro this fall for a master's degree in genetic counseling. Her doctor has again cleared the way and Fischman again is ready to go.
"A genetic counselor is to a geneticist as a nurse practitioner is to your primary-care doctor," she explains. "We talk about how your genetics and the history of your family's diseases are affected by genes. The area I want to go into, ironically enough, is cancer genetics, but I had made up my mind about that way before this happened. Now I guess it makes sense."
So, the next time you marvel at athletes' physical talents, consider too the state of their spirits. If Haley Fischman has taught us anything, it is this: Always admire the visible and invisible. Appreciate the strength and faith found in both body and soul.