Growing up as an athlete, Virginia junior pole vaulter Sarah DeVita had always been healthy and in great shape, but that changed late in her freshman season.
"I was feeling tired, I was feeling that I wasn't getting a lot from workouts" she says. "They weren't getting easier, I wasn't getting stronger or more fit. I kind of just felt tired and slow."
"The more we practiced, the worse things got," said Bryan Fetzer, UVa's director of track and field. "Sometimes that happens from a physiological standpoint when you're training an athlete. Those kind of things sometime take place, but it just never got any better."
When she went home to New Jersey in the summer, DeVita noticed some bruises and decided it was time to go to the doctor.
"My white blood cell count was super high," she explained. "It was higher than anything he had ever seen. He immediately called some of the doctors that he knew in New York City at the cancer center and he got me in there right away to see them and to do some more tests."
DeVita was sent to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and eventually diagnosed with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia, a slowly progressing blood and bone marrow disease that is very rarely found in people as young as her.
"I was thinking, how could this possibly happen to me?" she says of the diagnosis. "You see the stories on TV all the time and you hear about people getting cancer, but you never actually think it will happen to you. Especially since I didn't feel very very sick, I was just kind of in disbelief."
Her teammate and brother Tommy vividly remembers getting the call from his mom on that summer day.
"I was working, and my boss called me and said 'you have to call your mom.' I said, 'oh my gosh, what's wrong?' She said 'you're coming home, we have to take Sarah up north. Early speculation, it might be cancer.' It's just awful. One of the worst days of my life so far."
Tommy not only recalls his family's heartbreak after hearing the news, he also remembers Sarah's reaction.
"When the doctors told her leukemia, cancer, the first thing she said was 'can I go back to school, and am I done running?' She's crazy like that, and I love her for it."
Sarah wasn't done running, and she wasn't done at UVa. Her doctors found a treatment that worked to manage her illness so she didn't have to have a bone marrow transplant. Within a month, she was back at school and back with the team.
"I feel like if I didn't do track when I came back or really at all, I would have kind of just been dwelling on the fact that I was sick and not knowing what to do," she says of staying on the team in her second year. "Working out, it makes me feel like I'm not sick."
DeVita stayed on the team and did as much as she could, but she knew she wasn't as healthy as she should be. She began to once again feel frustrated with her workouts, and thought about quitting.
"I went into [Coach Fetzer's] office one day with the intent on quitting, and he basically just said, 'no you can't.'"
"Just being around her and knowing how tough she was, how much she enjoyed UVa, I figured that it wasn't going to be a decision that she was going to end up doing," added Fetzer.
DeVita decided to stay, and her health has improved with each passing season. In fact, she's so healthy now that some of the youngest members of her team don't even know about her illness.
"She did put it out there and say 'hey look at me I'm going through this, feel sorry for me.' Which is a pretty cool thing," said Fezter.
For those around her, each practice and each meet is a testament to Sarah's physical and mental strength, but one meet in particular stands out in Tommy's mind as a reminder of just how strong she is. It was the Sykes-Sabock Challenge Cup, Sarah's second time competing after her diagnosis.
"My family came and watched," he says. "It was a pretty awesome, moving moment for at least us. She kind of pushed it aside, 'it's the way it is, I'm okay you know.' But it's emotional. Three, four months ago she was laying in a hospital bed with IVs hooked up to her, and now she's competing in a Division-I uniform for the University of Virginia. It was spectacular."
Sarah still has leukemia, but says taking an oral chemotherapy twice a day helps her feel completely healthy. Since her diagnosis, she has learned how to manage her workouts and meets, without pushing herself too far. But that's not all she's learned in the last two years.
"I think it's taught me just to not take life too seriously," she says. "What happened to me is so serious that now I kind of go through with a little more ease about like school or track. It'll all get done. I don't really stress out as badly as I think I used to, because it put a lot in perspective for me."
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