Goalie goes from cancer survivor to team leader

Published Nov. 24, 2010 11:29 p.m. ET

Standing over the penalty kick, in the oddest of circumstances, Washington's Jorde LaFontaine-Kussmann wasn't a cancer survivor.

She was a goalkeeper, taking a penalty shot in the ninth-round of a shootout in the NCAA women's soccer tournament with Washington's season on the line.

''I was more nervous taking the (penalty) than for any of the 11 shots I had to face,'' LaFontaine-Kussmann said.

LaFontaine-Kussman scored, part of Washington's second-round upset of Portland in a shootout that eventually lasted 11 rounds. The Huskies went on to beat UC Irvine in double overtime last week and will face Boston College in the national quarterfinals on Saturday in Newton, Mass.

But the nerves of being the center of attention in a penalty shootout are mundane compared to what LaFontaine-Kussman previously faced.

Three years ago, as a freshman at California, LaFontaine-Kussman was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

''I think that's the best thing about our team that everyone can look to their left and right and they all set great examples for each other,'' Washington coach Lesle Gallimore said. ''Jorde's is a little bit more extreme and it definitely goes without saying on our team that if she can do this I have very little to whine about, one, and if she can do this, then I can do this, I can do my part.''


LaFontaine-Kussman's whirlwind journey started in the fall of 2007, when she was one of the top prep goalkeepers in the country enrolling at California, leaving behind the gray gloom she'd grown sick of seeing in the Pacific Northwest.

Shortly after arriving in Berkeley, she began experiencing sharp chest pains. While convinced they would go away, she told the team trainer anyway. And then began a whirlwind week of tests and scans and more exams.

She's thankful that she spoke up. Doctors said the fast-growing mass they found had been developing for about a year, but the cancer hadn't spread and most likely would respond well to treatment.

She had the first of six chemotherapy sessions a week after the cancer was first found. Her chemotherapy and radiation treatments continued for six months.

And by September 2008, LaFontaine-Kussman was back on the field for California.

Yet the return was rushed. She physically probably wasn't ready to be going through the rigors of Division I soccer less than a year after first being diagnosed.

Add in a coaching change at Cal and LaFontaine-Kussman began rethinking her situation.

''It just wasn't clicking, I just wasn't enjoying it anymore, how the program was being run,'' LaFontaine-Kussman said. ''I decided I either wasn't going to play anymore and stay at Cal or I was going to transfer somewhere else and try and get back to the level I was at before. I decided that Cal was an amazing school, but I had played soccer for so long, it really is what I love to do and I only have a certain amount of time left to play.''

LaFontaine-Kussman received plenty of support in Berkeley. When she told her friends and dorm mates on the men's soccer team she would soon be bald, they beat her to it: They shaved their heads in support.

When she decided to move on, Washington immediately became first on her list. She didn't even give the Huskies the regard of an on-campus visit when she was coming out of high school, set on getting out of the region.

But her desire to be closer to friends and family, and her connection with Gallimore and associate head coach Amy Griffin, made the Huskies the smartest choice.

Because she transferred to another Pac-10 school, LaFontaine-Kussman was forced to sit out the entire 2009 season. It became just the break her body needed. LaFontaine-Kussman tried rushing back just a few months after concluding chemotherapy, a decision she now says wasn't wise. By transferring, she got nearly 18 months to get her conditioning back to where it was before the cancer was first detected.

She still gets scans every couple of months to make sure the cancer hasn't returned.

''I think it took her a year to feel better and another year to get fit and back to being an elite athlete, and she worked her butt off to get where she is,'' Gallimore said.

Her effort in getting healthy again was validated by her performance this season. LaFontaine-Kussmann was a second-team all-Pac-10 selection and ranked in the top four among the conference goalkeepers in six different statistical categories.

But she's saved her best work for the postseason. In the upset of Portland, LaFontaine-Kussman made 13 saves during regulation and overtime, then made two stops in the shootout. She followed up with four saves in the win over UC Irvine last week for her seventh shutout of the season.

Her experiences fighting her cancer made LaFontaine-Kussman realize she wanted more interaction with people, more of an opportunity to help. When she got to Washington, she shelved her plans of going into psychology, instead choosing Washington's nursing program.

''I think it's going to be a great segue to use my experience as an athlete and a leader to be able to handle stressful situations as well as being able to connect with people who are going through a hard time,'' LaFontaine-Kussman said.

But first comes facing Boston College.