WATCH: Florida State’s McKenna Keith discusses her first day back with the swimming team after being cured from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Rory Sharrock, Tallahassee Democrat
Senior Day for the Florida State swimming & diving teams is a festive celebration.
McKenna Keith’s triumphant return Saturday added to the excitement and emotion.
The senior from Boca Raton returned to the pool for the first time in six months after overcoming a bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, helping the Seminoles close out the 2018-19 regular season on a winning note over Florida Atlantic.
“This was everything I could’ve imagined. I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time. It was everything I dreamt of,” Keith said.
“I was happy to be on the last relay. There were a lot of emotions. Once I got here, I was surrounded by my teammates and they made me feel great. This was the perfect day to come back on Senior Day.”
Keith’s emotional day was filled with hugs, rowdy cheers and, of course, multiple swimming events the Morcom Aquatics Center. It was Keith’s first meet since she was sidelined in July of 2018 while she fought Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The disease is a cancer of the lymphatic system. Keith returned to the team for the start of this semester after she learned she was cancer free.
Keith competed in the 200-yard medley relay, 50-yard freestyle and 200-yard freestyle relay. Her signature moment came as the anchor on the 200-yard freestyle relay. The senior’s position as the last leg helped FSU secure first place at 1:35.21.
This was a surprise gift by the coaching staff to have her swim in the last event of the day.
“It’s a great silver lining. To have her here is pretty cool and last relay and anchor the relay. She’s inspired a lot of people and influenced so many. She’s a breath of fresh air,” FSU swimming/diving head coach Neal Studd said.
These accolades capped off a heroic journey of unstoppable perseverance for this star athlete, a former All-American at St. Andrew’s in Boca Raton. Keith transferred to FSU last season after starting her collegiate career at South Carolina where she swam her freshman and sophomore seasons.
Keith’s first indication of a potential problem came from a self-examination. Last summer, while on a flight to Germany, Keith realized she had a lump on her neck. She initially chalked it up to stress and discomfort associated with a long trip.
After a week-and-a-half, the lump was still present. This prompted her to seek medical attention while overseas.
“My gut told me something was off,” Keith said.
“I went through a few people there – personal trainer, athletic trainer and a coach. There was a doctor of a kid on the swim team who was an ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist). I never really knew how serious it was. She told me to get an MRI. I was in a hospital and had to speak with translators.”
The results of the MRI confirmed she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Upon returning home, she broke the news to her FSU teammates and coaches.
“I remember when she told me over the phone. We were having a regular conversation. At the end of the conversation, she dropped that bomb on me,” Studd said.
“When I first out, she was digesting it. It was private for a short time. There were things she was worried about, like taking care of her lease. It was cool to see the team rally around her.”
Keith underwent three surgical procedures over a three-week span. She later endured eight rounds of chemotherapy. Her surgeries, chemo and radiation sessions were administered by Dr. Spencer Bachow of the Lynn Cancer Institute in Boca Raton.
ROAD TO RECOVERY
Throughout the summer and fall semester, Keith received an overflow of support from family, friends and teammates. That encouragement and backing stretched from former high school swimmers at St. Andrew’s School to the University of South Carolina.
FSU teammates stayed in constant communication with her throughout the recovery process. When Hurricane Michael struck the Panhandle last October, some fled the area and visited her in Boca Raton. The team also created a GoFundMe page to raise money for her medical expenses.
“She’s such a huge part of our team and senior class. She’s so positive. We loved her and supported her. We made sure we were there for whatever she needed,” FSU senior Leila Johnston said.
Keith had her moments of anguish and anxiety while on the mend. There were several concerns regarding medication and treatment. However, the most frequently asked question was when would she be able to return to the pool.
“From my first doctor’s appointment in July, my first question was when can I get back in the water. They said best-case scenario, you can be back in school in January. Every time I had chemo or was feeling down, I’d think about being back to my normal life and back with my teammates,” Keith said.
During the fall semester, she returned to Tallahassee for a home meet and served as the No. 1 cheerleader for the Seminoles. Having her poolside was a surge of inspiration on a personal and competitive level. Keith also stayed on schedule academically through online courses.
“She’s such an incredible person. She came up for the Arizona State meet in the fall. It was great to have her here. It put everyday problems and little things we go through in perspective. I’m so proud of her,” Studd said.
A NEW START
Saturday was highlighted on the calendar of everyone in her inner circle. To the outside world, it was viewed as Senior Day at FSU.
For Keith, it represented a new start, a return to normalcy in many ways. Yet it was also inspirational and courageous. She is healthy, happy – and just as competitive as ever.
The crisp temperature from the early morning was replaced by a pleasant, sun-soaked breeze. When the public address announcer read aloud the name McKenna Keith, a vibrant cheer bellowed across the Aquatics Center.
WATCH: Parents Michael and Ginger Keith discuss daughter McKenna’s return to the FSU swim team. McKenna is now cancer free from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Rory Sharrock, Tallahassee Democrat
While there were heartfelt feelings of joy from teammates and coaches, the proudest group at the venue was her immediate family – Michael (father), Ginger (mother), and sisters Tatum and Channing.
“We’re unbelievably proud,” Michael Keith said.
“When this all came about, the best-case scenario, aside from being cured of the Hodgkin’s lymphoma, was she’d be able to attend this meet. The odds of this happening were very slim. Everything had to go just perfect for her. Today, we’re here. As soon as she jumped in the water, my wife turned to me said are you crying – and I was.”
Keith’s mother was humbled by the overwhelming support throughout the process and on Senior Day. She basked in the glow of this snapshot memory of triumph for the entire family.
“We’re so grateful she’s going to graduate on time. She stayed on track with online classes. It took a lot of hard work to be here. We don’t care about her times. She’s part of the camaraderie and celebration. We’re very grateful,” Ginger Keith said.
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