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Tuesday, Feb. 27
The Indiana Daily Student

sports

Kahn overcomes injury, illness

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It was a Sunday in February of 2008, her freshman year of college.  Cassidy Kahn woke up to find her knees covered in rashes, two on the left and one on the right.

The diver had been plagued with sickness after sickness since she got to school — mononucleosis and kidney infections. The rashes barely fazed her.

A day went by.

By Monday morning, the rash was extremely painful and she began running a fever. The IU diving team trainer sent her to the team doctor.

The rashes were hot and quickly spreading. The doctor advised her to see a dermatologist.

That night, her fever increased to 104 degrees.

She woke up Wednesday morning, three days after discovering the rash, to the most excruciating pain of her life. After seeing the trainer, team doctor and dermatologist again, she was rushed to the hospital.

X-rays and blood cultures were done immediately. The tests found toxic gas in both of her legs, causing hot, crunchy-textured skin to form on her thighs.

Kahn had necrotizing fasciitis with gas gangrene and compartment syndrome, a rare and life-threatening illness.

There was only one logical option: emergency surgery.

The doctor came in before she went under and asked her what religion she practiced. She told him she was Jewish.

They sent in a Rabbi.

“Right before they rolled me into surgery he said, ‘this is gonna be the toughest fight of your life,’” she said.

***

Kahn, a senior, has been on the IU diving team for seven years, but has only been able to compete for two full seasons.

Her dreams of competing at the highest levels as a diver, a gymnast and a swimmer have carried her though a lifetime of fighting off illness, including 20 surgeries since age eight.

Despite a series of serious illnesses and injuries, Kahn made it to the Big Ten Championships with the IU diving team, nearly qualifying for the NCAA championships, and performed in international diving competition.

“Having been a part of a lot of different teams throughout her years here, she has signified the traditions and legacy that IU diving is all about,” senior teammate Kate Hillman said. “She is so supportive and will do anything for the team.”

***

Kahn woke up several days after her emergency surgery, each of her incised legs open to the bone.

She spent three weeks in the hospital before she was discharged and able to fly home to New York.

Just a day and half later she was back in the emergency room.

The infection had spread to her calf. She was suffering from every possible reaction to her antibiotics — stomach infection, reactive arthritis and serum sickness, among others. Her feeble organs were shutting down.

“My mom couldn’t even touch me at one point without me screaming because I was in that much pain,” she said.

She had to undergo an additional surgery to remove the remainder of the infection and was told she might never walk again.

She returned to Bloomington at the end of April for the team banquet, where she received the Mike Collier award. The award recognizes a person who overcame adversity that didn’t allow them to achieve all they had hoped.

“No one on this team ever gave up on me,” she said. “No one faltered on my place on this team. Just to have that behind me through everything was absolutely incredible.”
Kahn went back home and, on June 11, 2008, three days before her 20th birthday, the doctors closed her up for the final time, infection free.

She stayed home until August, re-learning how to walk.

***

Kahn was born in Dallas in 1988, but grew up in New York.

She was born with acute learning disabilities. Her dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and auditory processing disorder kept her from learning to talk until she was 4 years old.

She was enrolled in the Churchill School in Manhattan, a K-12 school where her learning needs could be met.

Kahn started swim lessons at a very young age, but she had other dreams on her mind.

“We went to the Big Apple Circus one day and I came home and I kept saying something,” she said. “My speech was horrible at the time. Finally my mom goes, ‘I think she’s saying she wants to be an acrobat in the circus.’”

Kahn’s mom decided to enroll her in gymnastics. Kahn remained a gymnast and a swimmer throughout her childhood and into her teenage years, hoping for a future in gymnastics. And she wasn’t afraid to dream big.

“My dreams as a little girl were to go to the Olympics and get a college scholarship,” Kahn said.

She had achieved success at the highest level and even wanted her mom to take her to Cincinnati to train with the best. Although that was never a possibility, the sport still served as an outlet for Kahn.

“I think at first gymnastics was always my balance because school was always such a struggle for me,” she said. “Whenever I was at the gym it was just something that always came so naturally for me, so it was my home. My teammates were my family and my coaches were second parents.”

Kahn suffered her first setback when she was diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans in both elbows at the age of eight.

Overuse had caused her bone and cartilage to deteriorate over time. Surgery after surgery, doctors had to remove bone from both of her hips and insert them into her elbows in order for the cartilage and bones there to grow.

Finally, six surgeries and eight years later, the doctors told her she couldn’t go on any longer. Just like that, her gymnastics career was finished.

***

“Whenever one door closes, another door opens,” Kahn said.

Her mother’s friend suggested she try diving.

“The dreams I had as a gymnast just transferred over to diving,” Kahn said.

After a trip to California to train the summer before her senior year of high school, she began being recruited by division one schools. Kansas, Michigan, Columbia, Brown and others wanted Kahn on their teams.

IU wasn’t even on her radar. To her, that was the school with “the Olympic coach,” which seemed completely out of reach for someone who had just begun diving the year before.

That all changed on her recruiting trip to her top choice at the time, Kansas.
Unbeknownst to Kahn, then-IU Coach Jeff Huber had sent her a letter asking her to come visit.

Because she didn’t know much about IU’s program and she was somewhat intimidated by its deep-rooted tradition in the sport, Kahn visited campus reluctantly.
“The very first night I was here I texted my mom, ‘I’m going to IU,’” she said.

***

The day Kahn returned from her visit, tragedy struck her family again when her brother passed away. Her mom considered keeping her out of school for a year.

But that wasn’t an option for Kahn. She told her parents IU was the only school she would even apply to. If she didn’t get in by December, she would begin applying elsewhere.

A week later, she received news from the IU diving assistant coach that she had been accepted.

Kahn left for Bloomington in 2008 after graduating high school. She spent two weeks training with the coach she never even thought she would meet.

“Those were the best two weeks of my life,” she said. “It was amazing. He would tell me to do something and I would be like, ‘OK, how many?’ I was living what I had always wanted to do.”

Her worry-free diving was short-lived. After having some knee pain, she went home to New York and found out she had cartilage damage, possibly a torn meniscus, and needed to have arthroscopic knee surgery.

It took months for her to recover. The following August, when she had re-gained her strength from the necrotizing fasciitis, they found a bulge in her leg.

At first, she ignored it, but when she went home over winter break, she found out the bulge was a muscle hernia and her skin was all that held her muscle down.

Kahn got set for yet another surgery.

“I really had no understanding of how weak I was,” she said. “Even at three years old I was stronger than I was at that point.”

Six months later, two years of college done with, Kahn had yet to compete in a college diving meet. There was no doubt in her mind that junior year she would get that chance, she said.

By the time she had regained her strength, Kahn had just a few months to prepare for the Hoosierland Invitational, the first big meet of the year.

In October, she was finally cleared to begin diving again by the doctor who had saved her life.

Even the best day of her life came with bad news. Hours later she came down with Swine Flu, keeping her out for another week.

It was Nov. 6, and Hoosierland was just on the horizon. When Huber told her she could compete despite having just a couple weeks to prepare, Kahn was overcome with joy.

“I remember sprinting to the locker room and calling my mom in tears,” she said.

Not only did she perform her easiest tower dives, she also competed on the one-meter and three-meter. A group of Kahn’s friends wore white “Yes She Kahn” shirts to support her in her first collegiate meet.

The rest of the year didn’t go as planned because of her recurring knee injury. In May, she had bilateral stress fractures in both tibias, which kept her out for the summer.

Then, in December of that same year, she had to undergo entire patella realignment. She was debilitated for 11 more months.

***

It was the summer 2011 and Kahn said it was the perfect time to take her Birthright trip, a free 10-day trip to Israel to celebrate her heritage.

As a part of the trip, they visited the Olympic facilities in Israel. She said she was inspired to seek dual citizenship to Israel. She hoped she could one day dive for them at the World Championships, she said.

“I’m focused on getting back to diving at this point, so I figure why not have the same goals that I used to have?” she said.

That December, just a month after being cleared again, Kahn was hospitalized for two weeks with kidney stones. While in the hospital, she received a call saying she had earned dual citizenship.

With her long-term goal being to qualify for the World Championships in 2016, Kahn went back to school to continue training for her season.

Just a week passed before a broken hand and more knee problems took yet another year of diving away from her.

Last season, her sixth year of eligibility, was the first time Kahn competed in the first meet, the last meet, and all meets in between. She said Big Ten Championships went better than she could have ever imagined.

“It was like a dream meet for me,” she said. “Everything went right.”

She got to the one-meter finals, placing seventh. On tower, she made the semi-finals after only training for three weeks. Kahn was just one dive away from making the NCAA Championships.

She had the best season of her life. And she wanted more.

Huber encouraged her to apply for a seventh year of eligibility, something that is rarely granted.

Kahn recalls sending in her application on a Thursday last year at 4 p.m. Twelve minutes later, it was approved.

And that was just the beginning of the good news. At the end of last season, Kahn received a Facebook message from the president of Israeli aquatics saying she had gotten into the World University Games in Russia during the summer 2013.

She accepted the offer. Less than four months later she was competing internationally for the Israel team.

The diver who had only been able to compete for one collegiate season in her career was now diving at the highest level.

There was one problem: Kahn was without a coach.

Once in Russia, she met the director of acrobatic performance for Cirque de Soleil by complete accident, and he stepped in as her coach for the meet.
She placed 20th on 1-meter and 16th on 3-meter.

Her first dream of becoming an acrobat, now 19 years in the making, had become a reality.

***

Kahn started out her seventh and final season strong, but realized it might not last much longer. Almost all the cartilage in her knee was gone. Her body was worn down.
Last Tuesday, she officially, medically retired.

“After much thought and conversation and just really having to for the first time in my life listen to my body, we just decided it was time,” she said. “I think the hardest part for me was going in and saying it, admitting it.”

A seven-year-long journey filled with innumerous ups and downs ended in disappointment for Kahn. But her teammates and coaches have said the mark she will leave on the tradition of IU diving doesn’t go unnoticed.

“She leaves in her stead an example to the young divers in our program of heart and love for the sport,” Hillman said.

It may be the end of Kahn’s career, but she remains a part of her seventh team.

“She’s going to support the team and still be a big part of our success as we go into the championship season,” head diving coach Drew Johansen said. “She’ll be remembered for her resiliency and toughness and that never quit attitude.”

Kahn touched both elbows, both hips, both knees, both shins and reached across her shoulder to her back counting all 16 scars that plaster her body. Her body is marred forever, but she now has dreams beyond the sport that she’s determined to achieve.

Kahn is set to graduate in May with her masters in public health. Eventually, she hopes to get a Ph.D in clinical psychology and work with athletes. Her goal is to create a program that works with junior and senior student-athletes on their transition out of sports.

Like she said, whenever one door closes another one opens.

“I just want people to realize that if you love something, put your heart into it,” she said. “Don’t give up on something just because someone said you can’t. This team is my family, it’s my life. It always is going to be a part of me, even though I didn’t get to where I wanted to go. I don’t want the people that maybe weren’t the best on the team to be forgotten.”

Follow reporter Grace Palmieri on Twitter @gpalmieri7.

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