FINDLAY, Ohio — As the high school track season began this week, no one was more excited than Findlay High School’s Natalie Rakestraw.
The last year of her life has given her a new perspective and appreciation for being able to do what she loves most.
There is a certain freedom that Rakestraw feels as she sprints around the track at Findlay High School. Not even a piercing wind coming off of I-75 could take the smile off her face. Not after all she’s been through in the last year.
"Now I have the mindset of, don't take anything for granted," said Natalie. "You have to live everyday like it's your last thing."
Back in December of 2020, in the middle of her senior year, she found a lump on her left clavicle. She underwent testing and the wait for a diagnosis began.
"Those were the worst two weeks of my life that I can remember in a long time," said Natalie's dad, Adam. "I shed more tears, contemplated life in more ways than I could ever articulate. As a parent, it just rocks you to your core."
And then, she was rocked with news that changed her life.
"I later found out on January 12 that I did have Hodgkin's Lymphoma," said Natalie.
"When she got diagnosed her first two questions were, 'Am I going to lose my long, curly hair?' and 'Can I run track again,'" said Adam. "It's your whole world. You have kids and they mean everything to you. It defines you as a parent, and to hear that you have a child that may be afflicted with cancer is a life changing diagnosis."
At just 18 years old, Natalie had to leave high school with just one semester left in her senior year. She had to watch her friends graduate while she went through chemotherapy.
She also thought of her future and made the decision to harvest eggs at the Cleveland Clinic. But she never lost sight of getting back to the sport she loved.
"It's my passion. It's my favorite thing ever," said Natalie. "Just my abilities to do it and my determination. This means so much to me. I started training in October just to be able to prepare my lungs for this spring to be able to run. I'd do anything to be out here, clearly."
Eventually, Natalie beat cancer and she began the fight to return to the track.
She battled with the Ohio High School Athletic Association to get one more semester of eligibility. Once she got over that hurdle, she returned to high school. The work continued, and recently, she made it to the indoor track state championships.
"Life was back on track," said Adam. "In a way that we're too blessed to understand."
"It was so good. I was really hard on myself at the state meet. I wasn't too impressed with myself in how I did the 16 meter," said Natalie. "But I know that I've gone through so much. I never seem to cut myself any slack with any of that, I just try to do my best whenever I can."
She’d never run during the indoor season, but it was her success there that caught the eye of colleges.
"All these coaches were like, 'Where did this girl come from? Where has she been all these years?'" said Natalie. "My coach had to explain, 'There was the COVID year, then she had cancer last year. She's just getting back into it because her lungs are just now being ready and she's just now starting off again.'"
She’s picked up some Division II offers and there is no telling how good she can be.
"I think she can walk out of here at the end of May and have the school record in the 100, 200, as well as the 400 if she chooses to run that race as well," said Findlay track & field head coach Mark Gleason. "Her desires and wants to get herself better and get healthy and come back for this year to compete and finish it up for us, I think it's just unbelievable."
"I wouldn't be where I am without cancer," said Natalie. "I'm not mad or anything, or sad that I had it. I'm grateful for it. It got me to where I am today and it taught me so many life lessons that I'll have for the rest of my life."
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