Nygard clears big hurdle with courage
April 23, 2006
PULLMAN – If there was one hug, there were a hundred. Teammate after teammate, relatives, friends, his coach – a winner over cancer himself. His wife, Jenny, of course. And a 4-month-old miracle named Aubree, maybe still more on the receiving end than the giving – or maybe, as is the case with babies, the giving is effortless.All those hugs. But Eric Nygard knew from the moment he settled into the blocks Saturday that his longest embrace was already reserved.For a garbage can. Bent over, head inside, doing the kind of business you don't want to do. We clocked it at about 20 minutes.
But rarely has feeling awful felt so good.The Cougar Invitational track and field meet was something of a siege – nearly nine hours – but it all seemed to come to a halt for a minute in midafternoon for what should have been an unexceptional heat of the intermediate hurdles. Then the people who knew that just three weeks ago Nygard was wrapping up a brutal nine-week chemotherapy regimen stopped whatever it was they were doing to watch him circle the track and clatter over a set of hurdles, symbolism taken to a painful extreme.They watched with that mixture of hope and dread and admiration and affirmation we save for those we care about the most who come to find themselves in harm's way, which is pretty much the way Nygard is regarded on Washington State's track team."To see that he's able to make this kind of comeback," said fellow hurdler John Cassleman, "is just incredible."He had barely broken a minute in a race he's run in 52 seconds. It could just as well have been a world record. It was during an October training run that Nygard felt a sharp pain in his groin unlike anything he'd experienced. Then he noticed a small growth on his left testicle and booked an appointment with a urologist who confirmed the worst: cancer. A week later, he was in surgery – which was pronounced a complete success, the cancer removed. There would be follow-ups, naturally, but Nygard, a senior from Wenatchee, was free to resume training for his final season as a Cougar.When the team gathered after Christmas break, assistant coach Mark Macdonald asked Nygard to speak at the meeting – to pass on the enduring lessons of faith and fight and overcoming obstacles."I was riding the bus to campus," Nygard recalled, "and my cell phone rang. It was my doctor calling me to tell me that the cancer had come back."My speech kind of changed at the last minute."Relative to Cougars track and field, Nygard is not one of the big names, but he's one of those bedrock program guys. He did score in the Pac-10 meet last spring, but just as important he's a relay grinder and an example setter – attacking workouts and blasting through the first 200 meters of his races with a singular recklessness."He runs all out," said WSU coach Rick Sloan, who back in 1999 overcame prostate cancer, "until he's all out."So you can imagine the change in the emotional temperature of the room after addressing his teammates. "We were crushed," said Cassleman. "You could see it on people's faces. I don't know if there's another guy out there with the heart of Eric Nygard – he has this huge, lion heart. We couldn't believe he was being put through this."But sometimes those tests are saved for those best equipped to deal with them.Nygard is blessed with unwavering faith – he's a Mormon who served a mission to South Africa – and an unwavering wife in Jenny, who graduated from WSU last year. And after starting the paperwork to adopt a child back in June, they were surprised around Christmas – between the surgery and the return of the cancer – with the arrival of Aubree."About a year before we got her, we both had really strong feelings that we needed to make a big change in our lives," he said. "We felt like it was something we were supposed to do, but we didn't know why we felt so strongly."By October, it was making more sense. Even now we don't know if we can have children naturally, whether the side effects (of the chemo) will make me sterile or not."He's had other things in his corner. The specialist he was referred to, Dr. Craig Nichols, treated the world's most famous testicular cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong. His work is one of the reasons the survival percentage for patients is in the 90s.Teammates have not only supported him emotionally, they've sold wristbands emblazoned with a favorite quote – "When it's dark enough, you can see the stars."Today the Cougars throwers will hold their annual car wash, the proceeds to defray some of Nygard's massive medical expenses.And he's had a goal.Barely a few days after his first chemo treatment, Nygard did three sets over four hurdles and called it a day, spent. Last Tuesday, he ran a 300 over hurdles – "and puked, so I knew it would really hurt today."But a stricken athlete finds comfort and inspiration from returning to the normalcy of his routine, just as everyone around him tends to be inspired by the abnormalcy of the effort and desire."I didn't have anything to lose or anything to prove," he said.No, the proof Saturday was in all those hugs. Even the longest one.
John Blanchette is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review