Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature

Gymnast Kelley Hennigan overcame cancer and became a DU standout

Kelley Hennigan

“Each day is a new day," says former DU gymnast Kelley Hennigan. "You’re given what you’re given, so make the best of it you can.” Photo: Wayne Armstrong

When Kelley Hennigan was 12 years old she had a secret — one that, if kept, could have killed her.

Hennigan’s story began when she was 5 years old, growing up near Houston. It was at that young age that she fell in love.

“I loved gymnastics immediately. It stuck from that age on, and it always won out over other sports,” says Hennigan, a standout gymnast who graduates from DU with a bachelor’s degree in digital media studies on June 5. “It’s a sport you don’t do just halfway, and you have to decide early on if you’re going to be competitive at it.”

She decided she wanted to be competitive, and she backed up that vow by piling on the hours of practice after school and on weekends, flying through the air in her routines.

But at age 12 she noticed some pain in her shoulder. At first it was nothing. Pain was part of what she signed up for. But it lingered. “Then after a while I noticed a lump,” Hennigan says.

Still, she kept quiet.

“I kept it a secret. I hid it because it’s part of the sport — you try to work through pain. I wanted to keep competing,” she says. “I loved gymnastics, and I didn’t want anything to come between me and it.”

After a few weeks, as the lump kept growing, Hennigan finally relented. Her doctor found cancer — soft-tissue sarcoma — in her shoulder. Not surprisingly, she was told no gymnastics and no practice. That was something Hennigan wouldn’t accept.

“I went ahead anyway,” she says. “I cut back some, but I kept training. I know that was crazy, but it was the only thing that kept me feeling normal. I didn’t want to feel sick.”

But she was very sick. She faced five weeks of radiation treatment and then surgery. After three months of treatment the cancer went away.

Looking back, Hennigan says it was the lessons from gymnastics that served as her chief weapon in her battle with cancer.

“Gymnastics has taught me an insane amount of lessons, but especially how to handle pressure … and to put everything I can into what I’m doing, to do the best I can,” she says.

Fighting cancer, she tapped those lessons. “I looked at treatment as a challenge. I had a calendar and I marked off each day of treatment knowing that if I could make it through, something good would be waiting for me on the other side.”

Waiting on the other side was the sport she loved. “I’ve always loved it. Every day is different and I think that makes it fun, but it’s challenging. The sport has always kicked my butt.”

Hennigan has done her fair share of kicking butt, too. She was one of the nation’s best collegiate gymnasts and a star on the DU squad. As a freshman, she helped the team earn a berth to the NCAA tournament for the first time in seven years. In 2009, Hennigan finished second on the team with six event titles — three vault, two all-around and one bars — along with season averages on vault of 9.806, floor of 9.747, bars of 9.658 and all-around of 38.954. In April, she made her second trip to the NCAA national championships at the University of Florida, where she took 20th place in the all-around in the semifinals.

Head coach Melissa Kutcher-Rinehart isn’t surprised by Hennigan’s resilience.

“Kelley has been a tremendous competitor throughout her career; she has been one of the most consistent on our team,” Kutcher-Rinehart says. “Her competitive drive, fire and focus set her apart from the rest.”

When asked if she has advice for those fighting cancer or other hardships, Hennigan says, “Each day is a new day. You’re given what you’re given, so make the best of it you can.”

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