Cambrian Golden Shield cross-country freshman Wyatt Kennedy is sincere when he claims to have little to no expectations of the 2016 OCAA season. Far more than most, the 21 year-old native of Manitoulin Island is simply thankful to be able to enjoy the trails and courses across the province.
This stands to reason when one is less than a year removed from being informed that their next challenge would be far more daunting than any of the steep hills he might be asked to climb while traversing the various eight kilometer circuits strewn across Ontario.
Midway through his second year at Sault College, in December of 2015, Kennedy was informed that the fall malaise that had him feeling quite lethargic through much of the cross-country season was actually the onset of stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I ran just one race in my second year,” Kennedy recalled. “There was something going on. They thought it was just an infection, so I had no idea.” The eldest of four children in the family – Wyatt had always remained active in his youth.
A familiar presence on both rep and high school hockey teams on the Island, the soft-spoken young man was also finding his way to an innate strength as a middle to long distance runner, competing in both track and cross-country meets.
“In grade nine, my coach (Jim Stringer) kind of pushed me quite a bit, and I started to get good results, so I just kept at it,” stated Kennedy. In grade 12, he would finish fourth at NOSSA, behind only ultra-talented Graham Hansel of North Bay, and a pair of runners from Sault Ste Marie.
Seven trips to OFSAA, five with cross-country and two with the track team, attracted the attention of the Sault College coach, who sent Kennedy a recruitment letter to test the waters. “I didn’t expect to be recruited,” he said. “It was quite the experience.”
Gradually, he showed signs of progression, literally getting his feet underneath him, making the jump to the post-secondary ranks, as he looked to help the Cougars take a realistic crack at qualifying for nationals. “There was a lot more training than I thought there would be,” said Kennedy.
“I ran into some injury trouble my first year there, so I only got two races in, but still finished 52nd in the province at OCAAs, which was alright.” Replicating that achievement was likely the furthest thing from his mind, just over a year later, as Kennedy underwent his first round of treatment just four days before Christmas, 2015.
The initial shock of the diagnosis would give way to reality, but also an optimistic view of his particular battle. “It’s pretty curable, one of the most treatable ones – but it’s still pretty awful to have,” conceded Kennedy. “Every 21 days, I was in for three days of treatment, for about six months in all.”
As his final round of radiation in June gave way to the regular three month checkups now on his schedule, Kennedy gave little thought to resuming his running career. “I really didn’t have much on my mind, regarding running and stuff, even coming into school in September,” he noted.
Transferring over from Sault College to Cambrian’s Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning program (HVAC), Kennedy was simply looking forward to trying to incorporate as much normalcy as possible into a tough situation. “You really can’t do a lot of anything for that six month stretch,” he explained. “You spend a lot of time in bed.”
Much to his surprise, Kennedy sensed a nagging urge. “I got here and found that I kind of missed running, and wanted to get back into it,” he smiled. As he made his way out to the Cambrian tryouts, not mentioning a word of the illness that derailed his sophomore season, Kennedy launched himself into the challenging workouts of coach Eric Leishman.
“It was awful the first few practices,” he said with a laugh. “I was really out of shape. I felt it for a couple of weeks, but I just wanted to run again.” It wasn’t until Kennedy was competing, with his Cambrian teammates, at an early season race back in Sault Ste Marie, site of the national championships, that Leishman would catch wind of the road to recovery that his incoming freshman had travelled.
Talk about shedding a whole new light on the situation. “I think I just appreciate everything a lot more, and am happy to still be around,” said Kennedy. “I appreciate the weather.” Gradually, worries and fears of cancer give way to his deeply-rooted will to run.
“I feel like I’ve been running pretty well. I haven’t had a bad season, considering what I went through. It’s probably not this year, but by next year, I should be back in full shape, ready to go again.” That kind of positive outlook has served Kennedy well, as he focuses on the road ahead, while remaining cognizant of his recent past.
“I don’t really have any expectations for myself, not this year, at least,” said Kennedy. “Maybe next year, once I get a full year of training in - I would like to make nationals.” And if that is not to be, Wyatt Kennedy will walk away happy. He is running, once again.