Coaching through cancer

PHS swim coach remains active in program despite diagnosis

Posted 2/18/21

Stephanie Warren entered the Powell Aquatic Center on Feb. 10 with a grin from ear-to-ear. The 44-year-old Powell High School boys’ swim and dive coach paced toward the diving board and began …

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Coaching through cancer

PHS swim coach remains active in program despite diagnosis

Posted

Stephanie Warren entered the Powell Aquatic Center on Feb. 10 with a grin from ear-to-ear. The 44-year-old Powell High School boys’ swim and dive coach paced toward the diving board and began chatting with the members of her team, as if everything in her life was normal.

Nothing can separate her from this passion — not even HER2-positive breast cancer. 

Warren received the life-changing diagnosis on Dec. 30, just a week after going in for a screening appointment for a lump in her breast. She was at the pool when she found out, as she is for a significant time every week. With her athletes on hand, she couldn’t keep the tragic news a secret.

“It was a lot to take in that day,” Warren said. “I figured I better share it with the boys, so if I’m not here, it’s not just because I’m not showing up.”

She began her first chemotherapy treatment on Feb. 8. Rather than taking larger doses of chemo given on a three-week basis, Warren opted for weekly, smaller doses, which she expects to “work in her favor.”

But as Warren endures the toughest battle of her life, she is still present.

The coach attends almost every practice and hasn’t missed a meet since the diagnosis. Despite the illness’ taxing nature, Warren’s continued dedication to the program isn’t surprising to the people closest to her.

“As long as I’ve known her, she’s been very active doing everything,” said Jerry Rodriguez, Powell’s assistant coach. “She’s really like the mom of the team — she just wants to take care of everybody.”

Kyler Warren, Stephanie’s 17-year-old son, also competes for the Panthers.

“It’s pretty inspiring to just see that she can still do all of this stuff with chemo and battling cancer,” he said. “It’s just nice to see her at all the events still.”

In the same way the PHS athletes and coaches care deeply about Warren, she refers to the program as her “why.” A former diving standout for the Panthers, Warren has been involved with the team since her adolescence. She has now coached at the school for almost 20 years.

In spite of the cancer’s physical and mental toll, Warren finds it necessary to be there to continue the program’s tradition, rather than dwell on the frightening diagnosis.

“Why am I wanting to get past this? They’re a reason why,” Warren said. “I’m not the type of person who can sit still for very long and to be told I can’t do something; I don’t like that. For me, it’s better to just continue on as much as I can and the sickness will allow.”

There is also another force pushing her through: faith. Warren is a devout Christian and admitted that her beliefs are one of the only things keeping her positive through the process.

“I am so thankful for the people that God has placed in my life at work, coaching, with the medical teams,” Warren said. “I have to sit there and that’s the only thing, honestly, I feel at peace about. It’s definitely an emotional roller coaster, but having a solid faith has really helped me to keep myself going.”

Much of Warren’s faith and strength can be traced to her mother, Kirsten Jackson. In 2010, at the age of 57, Jackson died of stage-four pancreatic cancer. During her year-long fight, Jackson kept religion at the forefront, despite the doctors telling her she had six to 12 months to live.

Knowing that Jackson’s days were numbered as she fought cancer, Warren spent the final year of her mother’s life getting even closer with her. And now almost a decade later, Warren is using the lessons learned from her mother’s battle to guide her through her own.

“We just had so many conversations about everything and her treatments and what she would’ve done differently,” Warren said. “Her faith is what helped her, too. Obviously her situation wasn’t the best, but I watched her faith help her through a time that was much harder than mine, and that’s one of the main things I took away from her.” 

     

Passion of a Panther

Decades before taking the reins as Powell’s head swim coach, Warren was a student of the game. 

She was one of the top PHS divers during her four years at the school, graduating in 1995. Warren was a member of Powell’s state champion team her senior year, qualifying for state all four seasons and previously holding a spot on the school’s diving wall of fame. 

In addition to her natural skill at the craft, what stuck out to her former coach, Ray Bieber, was her always-positive mindset.

“She’s just the nicest person,” Bieber said. “Stephanie is one of the best people that I had the privilege of coaching during my time there.”

Because of the sport’s intricate nature of trying to master each specific routine, diving requires persistence — a quality that Warren possessed from a young age. 

“Being a diver is really hard, but she was always determined,” Bieber said. “She battled through some adversity but persevered so much.”

That same positivity and perseverance has been on full display as she battles cancer. There is never a day Warren comes to practice or her job at Powell Middle School in a bad mood. Anyone who didn’t know of Warren’s diagnosis would have no idea what she’s facing.

As she continues to fight, Warren’s attitude is an example to the young minds she works with on a daily basis.

“Coach Warren is what Panther pride is all about,” said PHS Activities Director Scott McKenzie. “Through adversity, she exemplifies being positive. She is a class act, and her great poise is something we can all learn from.”

Rodriguez added, “It’s that never-give-up attitude that we try to instill to the kids. If you stay positive through the whole thing, that’s going to take you a long way.”

     

Helping hand

As soon as Warren’s diagnosis became public, Powell did what it normally does when one of its residents is met with adversity: From PHS swimmers to parents and others around the community, people all across the area rallied to support the coach.

The team has donned bright pink swim caps at every meet since the diagnosis to signify its support of Warren in her fight against breast cancer. For Kyler, seeing his peers rally around his mother has been memorable. 

“It’s really cool,” Kyler said. “For her, it’s pretty meaningful, too, just to have all of the support from everyone on the team.”

Parents of Powell swimmers have also assisted, creating a meal train program to provide dinners for Warren and her family a couple times per week. They also delivered a care package to the coach on her first day of treatment. 

Warren is certainly appreciative of everyone’s overarching support through this difficult time. But in a way, she feels guilty about it, as millions of other women are diagnosed with breast cancer every year. 

“It’s mixed emotions,” Warren admitted. “It’s almost not fair that just because of my position coaching that I get that support. I’m not a person that likes to air out my problems to the whole world, but I am thankful for it at the same time.”

In addition to the current PHS swimmers and their parents, Warren has also received encouragement from dozens of her former athletes, some of whom she hasn’t seen in years. Several former divers and swimmers have sent letters and other messages, offering positive messages and advice for the coach during her fight. She has also spoken with women in the community who have fought breast cancer, which Warren said has “been a huge help.”

She added that the overwhelming backing from the community did not surprise her. 

“I’ve seen how the community wraps around people when they’re struggling or have any issues going on,” Warren said. “I knew it was going to be there, just because that’s how our community is. It’s just there, whether you ask for it or not.”

McKenzie said, “Our wonderful community continues to come together during these times, and it never gets old from my perspective.”

But more than anything, prayer is what Warren desires most from the people in her life. 

“That’s all I really want,” Warren said.

     

Continuing to fight

PHS will wrap up its season on Feb. 20 at the Class 3A State Meet in Laramie. But Warren doesn’t have plans of slowing down. 

Once that season is over, Warren will begin working with the Powell Middle School swim program. She also plans to continue hosting a workout class in town, as well as teaching her middle school composition and literature class. 

The coach acknowledged that when the extreme fatigue of her treatments begins to settle in, she’ll likely be less active at the pool and in the community, but she still plans to make appearances whenever possible. Warren said the built-in holidays — like Easter and spring break — will help her stay persistent and active. 

As her treatments continue, Warren said her doctors are “confident” she’ll be able to live a healthy life after roughly five years. But she knows that time will consist of fatigue, painful procedures and other ordeals that coincide with battling cancer.

Still, Warren plans to use her strength to remain positive and be a leader in any way possible — to her kids, the community and anyone fighting a similar battle.

“More than anything, I want people to see that it can be done,” Warren said. “It’s not going to be easy, this is going to be a journey. I want to be as positive the whole time in hoping that people can see being more positive about it can help people through it better.”

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