Columbia River swimmer Bottelberghe pushes through stroke of bad luck

River senior works to return to pool after cancer surgery

By Candace Buckner, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

These days when Monica Bottelberghe carries around her water bottle, it's more than a simple reminder to hydrate throughout her day at Columbia River High.

The bottle bears the quote: "Strength is the product of struggle. You must do what others don't, to achieve what others won't."

Bottelberghe, the All-American and two-time defending Class 3A swimming state champion in the 200-yard freestyle, often reads that inspirational message as she takes careful but progressive steps while recovering from surgery to remove thyroid cancer.

"Just because of everything that's happened in the past couple months," Bottelberghe said, "I really think it's changed me for the better and has made me a stronger person."

Last March, a visit to the school nurse prompted concern when the nurse noticed a lump on Bottelberghe's throat. The discovery led the Bottelberghe family down a "long road," as Monica's father has described, which resulted in surgery on Aug. 16.

Since the procedure, Bottelberghe, 17, now attends physical therapy sessions. She has also improved enough to participate with her Columbia River teammates in morning practices. Since Bottelberghe must harness her natural competitive tendencies, she has spent most of those sessions kicking in the water and helping teammates.

"Being able to teach and transfer your knowledge is a talent (so is) being able to bring somebody up to the next level," Columbia River coach Carol Sandison said. "She's really helping her team and that's a positive."

This past summer, Bottelberghe placed fifth in the 200 at the Senior Sectional Championships held in Gresham, Ore. The performance qualified Bottelberghe for the USA Junior National Championships in Irvine, Calif., where she competed in three events.

Then just a week after nationals, Bottelberghe underwent a biopsy and learned that she would need her thyroid removed.

"You sit through biology (class) and you learn all about this stuff and then it happens to someone you know," Bottelberghe said, repeating the perspective that she has shared with two of her best friends and enthusiastic supporters, Columbia River seniors Nicole Williamson and Kim Turner. "And when it does, it's like, 'oh my gosh.'"

Since the surgery, Bottelberghe has prepped for a promising senior season. Last weekend, she went to Boise State -- where older sister Jessica competes on the swim team -- for an official recruiting visit. Just before the trip, Bottelberghe swam for the first time since having the procedure.

"She looks marvelous in the water. She's just a tremendous athlete with skill and talent," said Sandison, who described the particular drill that Bottelberghe participated in as a stress-free exercise devoted to improving the swimmers' techniques. "It's fun to watch that smooth, efficient streamline athlete moving through the water."

Eventually, the fundamental drills will give way to races and competitors who are targeting state championships of their own. Bottelberghe wants that challenge and has even set goals of winning both the 100 and 200-meter freestyles at state this year.

"You have to set them somewhere," Bottelberghe said of her lofty ambitions. "It's senior season. Who doesn't want to win senior year, right?"

Sandison added confidently: "I expect to see her up on that championship platform this year. She has continued to train hard and she has those goals for herself. We'll see. I certainly hope to see her as an All-American again."

However, before Bottelberghe will attempt to reclaim her gold standards, she must maintain on the road to complete recovery.

"Take it one stroke at a time," her father Rolland Bottelberghe said. "She has handled it better than anybody else I know that would be in that situation."

Bottelberghe requires 10 full practices before being allowed to compete in her first meet of the season, which could happen on Oct. 3 at Kelso. Until that date, she will remind herself about the struggle and the strength she now carries because of it.

"Well, I guess I had a setback, but I'm not going to let that hold me back," Bottelberghe said. "I'm going to be more determined than ever. Especially this year. The support I've gotten from everyone… has really helped me the last couple weeks. I don't know what I would do without them."

Girls swimming outlook

SWIMMERS TO WATCH

Darya Samiee, jr., Mountain View; Alice Chang, sr., Union; Livi Cox, so., Union; Marissa Young, so., Union; Anna Panebianco, jr., Camas; Corinne Bintz, so., Camas; Julieann Reed, sr., Camas; Kieko Inouye, Prairie; Maddie Green, Woodland.

FOUR THINGS TO WATCH

  • No. 1: Hawks flying solo: After years practicing with the Camas High School and North County swim programs, Hockinson has broken free on its own. The Hawks are led by coach Carolee McAfee.
  • No. 2: North County finding swimmers: Hockinson has gone out on its own, but that doesn’t mean the North County swim program doesn’t have swimmers. Seton Catholic has six swimmers, Battle Ground has three, Woodland has one and Prairie has seven.
  • No. 3: League battles: Union has some good speed and is building depth to compete with Camas in the 4A GSHL. Mountain View also is working on depth to keep pace with Columbia River in the 3A GSHL.
  • No. 4: Postseason: The 4A district meet will be held Friday, Nov. 8 at Propstra Aquatic Center. The 3A district meet will be Thursday, Nov. 7 and Saturday, Nov. 9 in Kelso. The state meet is set for Nov. 15-16 at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Ferderal Way.