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Hamburg grad Karlie Kisha refuses to let cancer steal her Olympic dream

Karlie Kisha has always had a plan to follow.

Whether it was excelling in multiple sports at Hamburg Area High School, pursuing a Division I field hockey scholarship, winning two NCAA titles at Connecticut or making the U.S. national team, she always had a plan to follow.

But last month, Kisha’s quest to compete in the Olympics was suddenly clouded.

She was diagnosed with thyroid cancer five weeks before USA Field Hockey was to announce the names of the women who would be going to Paris in July.

She never saw or felt the small lump on her neck that a doctor at a routine exam detected. She had no other symptoms. She was floored. She was confused. She had no plan.

From the time she made a vision board as a fourth grader displaying her “ultimate dream,” Karlie (Heistand) Kisha spent two decades following a course that she hoped would take her to the Olympics.

It was within her grasp. And then she thought maybe it wasn’t.

“It was a really hard and challenging time,” she said. “It still is. To know the Olympics, something you’ve been working towards your whole lifetime, is right around the corner and it could be just taken away from you, it was really tough. It was devastating, for sure.”

Kisha refused to let cancer steal her dream. Once she consulted with several doctors in Charlotte, N.C., where the team is based, she had a plan in place.

She underwent surgery May 17 to remove her thyroid and lymph nodes. She rejoined the national team in Belgium a week later and started running two days later. She returned to action in the FIH Hockey Pro League just 16 days after her surgery.

And on June 10, she was named to the 16-member U.S. women’s field hockey team that will play in the Paris Olympics.

“It meant absolutely everything to me,” Kisha said. “It was another surreal moment. Three weeks before that, I didn’t know what was going on with my life physically. To be able to be on this Olympic roster, I am just speechless. I am so proud. I am so grateful. It was so, so fulfilling.”

Karlie (Heistand) Kisha credits the support of her family for helping her get through her thyroid cancer diagnosis and surgery. From left are Rayell (Heistand) Wallace, her sister; Cliff Heistand, her father; Diane Heistand, her mother; Karlie; and Josh Kisha, her husband. (Courtesy of Karlie Kisha)
Karlie (Heistand) Kisha credits the support of her family for helping her get through her thyroid cancer diagnosis and surgery. From left are Rayell (Heistand) Wallace, her sister; Cliff Heistand, her father; Diane Heistand, her mother; Karlie; and Josh Kisha, her husband. (Courtesy of Karlie Kisha)

Kisha, 28, is one of five women from Berks County selected to the team. The others are Twin Valley grads Ashley Hoffman and Kelee Lepage, Oley Valley product Phia Gladieux and Fleetwood resident Meredith Sholder, who graduated from Emmaus.

“When Karlie announced her situation, everyone was kind of in shock,” Gladieux said. “I had no doubt that she was going to fight back and come back even stronger. I thought she probably wouldn’t be able to play in Pro League. I just didn’t think it was going to be feasible.

“The next thing you know, she’s on a plane and she’s playing. It all happened pretty quickly. She was in shape. She didn’t lose any skill. It was inspiring.”

Kisha has always been an optimistic person, a quality she and her family believe has buoyed her during her recovery.

“I think it’s helping her tremendously,” said Diane Heistand, who coached field hockey for 20 seasons at Tulpehocken. “She just has a good attitude about things. She was walking the halls in the hospital a day after the surgery. Then they let her go outside the hospital and she was walking. She just kept walking.

“It says a lot about her physical shape and her mental strength. She’s so tough. It didn’t set her back.”

At Hamburg, Kisha was a two-time finalist for the Reading Eagle Female Athlete of the Year award and was an All-Berks selection in field hockey, cross country and track as a senior during the 2013-14 school year.

She committed to Connecticut like her older sister, Rayell, who played for the Huskies from 2008-11 and was later selected to the U.S. national team but who didn’t play in the Olympics.

Diane Heistand coached games at Tulpehocken while carrying her daughters, who were born five years apart. There was little doubt that they would play field hockey.

“I don’t even know how to put it into words,” said Rayell (Heistand) Wallace, now the coach at Slippery Rock. “You’re so proud of her. Playing in the Olympics is the ultimate goal that you have. Everything that she put into it before this has led her to here. It’s her major reward.

“But it’s also a reward for Mom for taking us to all the tournaments. And Dad (Cliff) for listening to the recap of every game.”

At UConn, Kisha helped the Huskies win NCAA championships as a freshman and as a senior when they went undefeated. They also reached the Final Four during her two other seasons.

She was selected to the U.S. national team in January 2020 at the same time as Lepage. USA Field Hockey was then enduring turmoil after failing to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, which were postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic.

The program experienced turnover and moved its base three times until settling in Charlotte.

“It’s been a crazy four years to say the least,” Kisha said. “We didn’t really have a home. We didn’t really have coaches. It really set USA Field Hockey back as a program financially. There wasn’t a lot of stability with our team and our program.

“But as soon as we started to centralize here in Charlotte, which was August 2021, the growth from there to now culturally and physically has been exponential. You could just see how far we’ve come.”

The improvement culminated with the U.S. defeating Japan 2-1 in the semifinals of the FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifier in India in January, which clinched a berth in Paris for the Americans.

The U.S. entered the 12-team tournament as the ninth seed and defeated India, New Zealand, Italy and Japan before losing to Germany in the final.

“It was absolutely amazing,” Kisha said. “It’s crazy how in one moment you just feel fulfilled. Everything you’ve done is validated. To qualify for the Olympics, especially in a tournament where no one thought you would, I still don’t have words for it yet.”

Four months later, her world changed with the cancer diagnosis. She said the surgery at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center was successful. She has surprised many by playing in three international matches since the surgery for papillary thyroid cancer, the most common type of thyroid cancer.

“Luckily, with this type of cancer I won’t need chemotherapy,” she said. “I’ll be taking radioactive iodine through a pill (next week). It’s been a little stressful and overwhelming. I’m on a different diet now to get ready for it.

“I’ll probably be isolated for about five days. It’s more or less to protect other people. I should be able to work out during that time. Then I should be good to go.”

One of those people is her husband of three years, Josh, who graduated with her from Hamburg. She said he’s been a rock through her ordeal. When she played at UConn, he drove hours from Pennsylvania to see almost all of her games.

“He’s been with me every step of the way,” she said. “He does not get the credit he deserves, that’s for sure.”

Josh Kisha said the last two months have seemed like an eternity.

“When she told me she had cancer, it was a pretty scary moment,” he said. “There’s been a lot of crying, a lot of hard times. We’re taking it day-by-day. It will all feel surreal when she steps on the pitch for that first game in Paris. I’m really looking forward to that moment.”

So is his wife, whose optimism has withstood a gut punch.

“I’m trying to stay positive, have a plan and follow the plan,” she said. “I’m going through some of the lowest points and some of the highest points of my life so far. I’m trying to relax and enjoy this moment, enjoy that I was able to achieve a goal that’s been mine forever.

“And to make sure I take care of my health.”

Editor’s note: This is the first of four stories on Berks high school products who are on the U.S. field hockey team going to the Olympics.

Source: Berkshire mont

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