When most high school juniors and seniors were preparing for the prom, 17-year-old Brianna Hirsch was in the hospital being treated for a cancerous tumor pressing on her trachea. She’s come a long way since then. Now a college senior, her courage and determination, along with a number of serendipitous events in the years since her diagnosis, have led her to excel both in the international sport of kite boarding and in charitable fundraising.
Brianna’s story begins in 2010, her junior year at Saugerties High School. Trying on dresses for the prom with her mother, the teenager suddenly fainted. A trip to the emergency room found that Brianna had a tumor the size of a small pumpkin sitting on her heart. If one more day had passed, doctors said, it would have crushed her trachea.
She spent her senior year undergoing chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Brianna’s father Fred Hirsch, assistant principal at the high school, recalls how the entire school rallied around her. There were fundraisers, like Bagels for Brianna. Her own teachers came to the house to work with her, rather than home tutors.
With the help from her family, peers, and teachers, Brianna managed to graduate on time and was accepted into Salve Regina College in Newport, Rhode Island. Her trials were not over, though, as Brianna experienced liver failure when she first arrived on campus. She missed the first two weeks of college and spent another year going through chemotherapy, but managed to succeed academically, finishing her freshman year with a 3.8 GPA.
Because Brianna was still a minor when she was diagnosed with cancer, she was contacted by the Make a Wish Foundation. Her wish was simply to rest and relax on a beach somewhere. Having read and loved “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” series, she was inspired to choose Greece. In July of 2012, Brianna, her brother and parents made the trip. There, Brianna saw an ad for kiteboarding, a fairly new sport that involves controlling a giant inflatable kite while riding on a board similar to a small surfboard. Unlike other water sports, Brianna notes, “There is no boat. You are the boat.”
A formerly active teenager who had played lacrosse in high school, she knew she wanted to try it. She spent the last days of the trip taking lessons, but the sport has a steep learning curve and she wasn’t quite able to get the hang of it before returning home.
Brianna’s parents, though, saw that learning the sport had taken on a great deal of meaning for her. So when she suggested that they take a trip to the Dominican Republic at Christmas so she could continue working on her skills, they were completely behind it. Brianna says something clicked during that trip, and though her hands bled from so much practice, she finally was able to do it.
For the next year, she continued to pursue kiteboarding whenever she could, and that summer took a job working in North Carolina, home to a thriving kiteboarding scene. She practiced daily. One day while kiteboarding, her kite deflated, and she was stuck with a friend in the water. A woman in a house along the water took her in, and as the two talked and Brianna shared her story of living with cancer, the woman told her of an organization called Kiteboarding 4 Cancer.
Kiteboarding 4 Cancer raises money for a Camp Koru, which is a camp for cancer survivors. Brianna says a camp like this is crucial for many survivors. While there is a lot of support in place when people are going through treatment, there isn’t much support once the cancer goes into remission. It is difficult to know how to pick up the pieces of your old life after going through such a traumatic experience, and Camp Koru offers help with this. After hearing about the organization, she knew it was something she wanted to be involved with, so three days later she set up her fundraising page online. Through her page, where she told her own story of how kiteboarding helped her find herself again, she managed to raise nearly $10,000 — the most of any athlete involved.
Unfortunately, because of an injured foot, Brianna was unable to compete in the actual event, held in 2013, which features a three-mile course in the water and is designed to embody the endurance needed to survive cancer. Nevertheless, she still managed to add to her fundraising total during the event. When word got around that this survivor wouldn’t be able to compete, one of the world’s top kiteboarders, Jason Slezak, took her through the course on a stand-up paddleboard while the announcers told her story. She managed to raise $1,500 during that one hour and was carried back onto the beach by her fellow kite boarders, inspiring the spectators in the crowd.
This summer, Brianna will be working as a kiteboarding instructor herself in Fort Hood, Oregon, and will once again be collecting donations for Camp Koru through the following website: https://donate.athletes4cancer.org/fundraise?fcid=322075.
Brianna’s story has been featured in Kiteworld Magazine and in “With a Kite”— the first ever feature length documentary on kiteboarding.