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YMCA athlete overcomes cancer and returns to compete

08 December 2022 - by Zoja Popovic
Being an athlete is a feat that requires talent, determination, commitment, resilience, and really hard work. For many, these wonderful skills transfer to other parts of their lives. Their athletic ferocity helps to bolster and support them as they navigate life’s twists and turns.

This story is about a young YMCA athlete, Victoria, who faced unexpected turns in her health. She met these challenges, recovered, and came back stronger and more determined than ever.

Victoria Sbrizzi is 15 years old and a longtime member of the Brampton YMCA. She is also one of the best competitive swimmers on our Lifesaving Sports team, The Barracudas. Her love of swimming started at an early age when her family enrolled her in lessons at just 8 months old. Eventually, this led her to the Brampton YMCA, to our Junior Lifeguard Club, and then to The Barracudas.

In October 2021, Victoria’s health took a frightening turn when a tonsillitis surgery and subsequent checkup revealed that she had lymphoma, a type of cancer. Victoria was only 14 years old and did not fully understand the diagnosis. She says the day of the diagnosis was confusing, but clarity came quickly.
“I didn’t know what lymphoma was but when I saw my mom crying and they used the word cancer to talk about my treatment, I realized what was going on,” says Victoria.

A few weeks later, Victoria was in the care of oncologists at the Hospital for Sick Children. The doctors diligently investigated her case further and found that, luckily, the disease had not spread beyond one area. She immediately began treatment. Cancer treatments like chemotherapy, which Victoria had to undergo, can often leave patients tired, requiring a period of deep recovery, and with a compromised immune system. This was true for Victoria.

Her diagnosis and treatment also came as the rest of Ontario was battling some of our toughest COVID-19 periods. Lockdowns were in place, YMCA pools were closed and even if they weren’t, Victoria’s doctors told her that swimming was off the table.

While she may not have been competing for a medal in the pool during that time, she was definitely working hard to reach another, most important, milestone: getting back to good health. And we are all so thrilled that she did.

In April of 2022, with YMCA pools open again and Victoria’s treatments finished, she decided to get back to her chosen sport. Natasha Bouchard, YMCA Program Director of Aquatics, Child and Family Programs, who has worked with Victoria for many years of her swimming career, was thrilled to have her back.

Natasha says, “Victoria was one of the first people to jump back in the pool and one of the first people to get back into competition. We had our first competition after lockdowns in June 2022.”

Victoria says the return was a little nerve-wracking.
“It wasn’t just my diagnosis, and that I looked different with no hair. It was also the two years of COVID restrictions and not swimming for that long. I was worried that I would not be able to get back into the routine. My coach, Spencer, and my friend, Riko, were really happy to see me and I was happy to see them, too. Overall, I was really excited to be back!”

Natasha says she vividly remembers the first time Victoria competed again. Everyone in the Y community who knew Victoria’s story was rooting for her to come back. And when she swam her first competition, “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” says Natasha.

As a swim coach, Natasha says it’s been a pleasure watching Victoria become a leader.
“The confidence, and shine in her eyes, it never wavered. Her hair may have been different. But the true leadership and brightness shone through, the entire time.”

Many younger athletes look up to Victoria, and she has always been a great support to them. She’s now putting those leadership skills into her newest role at the Y as an assistant swim instructor.

Victoria says she has big plans for the future. Her experience at Sick Kids hospital left her inspired, thanks to a very special person.
“Alex, my child life worker at Sick Kids, was really supportive and important to my recovery. It made me realize that I also want to help people for a living. I think because I know what it’s like to go through this process; I will be able to offer really good support and understanding to other kids.”

At only 15 years old, Victoria has overcome challenges many adults have not had to face. She has come out on the other side of her illness with strength and determination inspiring all of us here at the Y. We can’t wait to see what’s next for Victoria in her athletic and personal journey.

One thing is for certain, Victoria is a perfect example of shining brightly, overcoming obstacles, and then bringing that strength back into the community. We are all inspired!

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