The Green Bay Notre Dame cross-country team has 129 boys and girls on its roster this season.
But despite having the largest collection of runners in his four-year tenure as coach, John Gard still can quickly go through it and point out the individual who is perhaps the toughest of them all — Brianna Ehlinger.
On the surface, the Tritons’ sophomore appears to be like any other runner. However, mere looks don’t tell you what she’s been through.
When Notre Dame opened its season at Gibraltar on Aug. 23 it marked exactly one year from when Ehlinger was pulled out of class on her second day of high school and informed by her parents that she had cancer.
“You just get happy when you realize she gets to be a kid again,” Gard said about the opening meet. “It was just one of the moments where you’re so happy because she gets to show her running talent.
“Getting tired in a race is probably one of the easiest things for her to overcome because she’s overcome a lot tougher stuff in the past year.”
Upon being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Ehlinger missed a semester of school while first going through chemotherapy at St. Vincent Hospital and then radiation treatments in Houston during December.
“Not being able to start out freshman year with everybody else was the hardest part, probably,” said Ehlinger, who finished 15th out of 120 junior varsity runners in the City Meet at Colburn Park on Friday.
Ehlinger was ruled cancer-free and returned to school following treatments, regaining strength in time to play softball on the Notre Dame junior varsity team in spring.
The strong recovery was due in no small part to discovering the cancer early.
“Her cross-country physical was really a saving grace to us,” said Teri Ehlinger, Brianna’s mother.
John Ehlinger, her father, added, “It was just disbelief and shock. We had a lot to learn.”
Once the cross-country team and community members learned of Ehlinger’s ailment, they wasted little time in giving support to the family, which also includes Brianna’s three younger siblings, Johnny, Ryan and Maria.
Other parents offered assistance whenever the children needed rides to activities or a meal, like when Teri stayed in Houston with Brianna. People also spearheaded fundraising campaigns for research, which included setting up a relay team at the Cellcom marathon for it.
“This cross-country team just held us up,” Teri said. “They were there every step, giving her tons of support. They made her blankets, gave her cards, held special masses for her.
“One day we were driving to the hospital for her chemotherapy and on the Notre Dame sign it said, ‘We miss you Brianna.’ It couldn’t have been better timing. I could not believe it.”
Although Ehlinger wasn’t able to attend meets, many of her peers showed their support by wearing violet headbands throughout the season, representing the color for Hodgkin’s lymphoma awareness.
“Brianna is an incredibly strong young lady and her team rallied around her,” Gard said. “Our heart was with her, and we knew her heart was with us.”
In overcoming her bout with cancer, Ehlinger took an interest in pursuing a career in the medical field, where she hopes to help other people do the same someday.
But right now she’s happy being like any other teenager, participating in school and sports with her friends.
“It’s a big transition from last year because I’ve come so far,” Ehlinger said. “Every race when I finish I just feel thankful to be here. I really think of every day as a blessing now.”