Back in Minnesota and back from the brink as well, former two-time Big Ten Pitcher of the Year Sara Groenewegen returned this week to the state she called home for five years, arriving to coach a softball clinic and visit friends for the first time since she graduated in December.
“I’m very happy to be back,” she said.
In July, Groenewegen felt fluish on a Friday, but pitched anyway while she prepared in Canada with her national team for softball’s world championships in Japan. That Sunday, she went to an emergency room when her fever and blood sugar spiked and she experienced severe back pain.
By midweek, she had been placed in a medically induced coma for the next 10 days after doctors eventually diagnosed Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia that strained her lungs and heart.
On the road to recovery three months later, she spoke last week about entering and exiting “my coma” so matter-of-factly, even if she can’t remember much of her three weeks spent in two Vancouver-area hospitals.
“It’s scary to not know what happened in those 10 days,” Groenewegen said. “I’m just thankful I’m OK now and everything is fine. Those 10 days could have gone a lot worse.”
Origin remains a mystery
Like her older sister, Marina, Sara is a type-1 diabetic. Diagnosed when she was 9, she knows her body well from years of injecting herself daily with insulin. But she has no clue how or why she contracted a disease caused by inhaling a distinct kind of bacteria often found in the mist of hot tubs, showers or air conditioning.
On the road with Team Canada last summer, Groenewegen became sick to her stomach in California, but dismissed it as something she ate. Her insulin pump broke that next week when she was home in British Columbia — minutes away from her house — to play in the Canada Cup. She pitched fine that Friday even though she didn’t feel like herself, but she attributed her nausea and back pain to her blood sugar “being all over the place” because of the broken pump.
“Your brain doesn’t go to the worst thing automatically,” she said.
Especially not when you are 23, athletic and having started summer feeling fresh. She spent the winter and spring not playing, but as a graduate assistant at Oklahoma.
Within days she lay unconscious, hooked to what she now calls a “big, fancy machine” airlifted in that helped her lungs oxygenate blood. She keeps a photograph that shows bags — “all these lines, all the antibiotics, all the medications, the feeding tube” — dangling from stands above her body. A scar remains low on her neck — “It looks like a hickey” — where a line the size of a garden hose brought blood to and from her body.
“It was scary, jarring,” former Gophers coach Jessica Allister said. “It’s not something you expect to happen.”
Allister scouted a lightly recruited pitcher and hitter at a Seattle tournament once upon a time and was impressed by Groenewegen’s variety of pitches — good curveball and rise ball with a changeup she had yet to completely figure out.
“Athletic, competitive, she could swing the bat, too,” said Allister, now the coach at Stanford. So Allister signed Groenewegen and helped her develop into a three-time All America and Gophers all-time strikeout leader. She went 31-4 with a 0.63 ERA her senior season and was the pulse for a 2017 team that finished 56-5.
“The pitcher is so much the personality of the team,” Allister said, “and when you have someone standing there that believes they can beat anybody, that’s really contagious.”
‘Playing for Sara’
From standing tall with the ball in the circle to abruptly unconscious in a hospital bed, Groenewegen remembers little after she checked into the emergency room that Sunday, even though the next day she sat on her bed and visited at length with Team Canada coach Mark Smith.
“I remember getting my wristband,” she said, “and that’s about it.”
Her teammates intended to visit as well on their way to the airport bound for Japan. Their bus was delayed and their visit canceled, but she intended to join them just days later on a trip they hoped would qualify Canada for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
By Thursday, her teammates were settled in Japan, preparing for a 10-day tournament. Back in suburban Vancouver, doctors had recommended Groenewegen be placed in a coma.
“At some point, playing for Sara became a rallying cry for us,” Smith said. “We’re so grateful it finished with a happy ending, but we didn’t know that was going to be the case for a while.”
Groenewegen speaks now of a “huge outpouring of support” back home in White Rock, British Columbia, and from the softball community near and far.
“People from all over the country and all over America letting me know I was in their prayers and thoughts,” she said. “I felt very supported. Softball is a competition, right? But it didn’t feel like they were my competitors. They were on my team and they had my back through it all.”
Happy to be back
Groenewegen calls herself grateful that she fell ill while home in Canada rather than Japan or California, grateful that her illness brought her family together for the first time in years.
On her first day of recovery, she tried to stand with a walker and lasted 10 seconds. She improved with each day and left the hospital in mid-August. She began throwing again last week, hopeful she can work her way back toward helping Canada still qualify next summer for the Olympics.
Last week in Cleveland and Cottage Grove, she worked the Nike-sponsored the Packaged Deal, a traveling clinic for aspiring girls created by four former collegiate stars. She plans to stay in Minnesota this week to throw with her former Gophers pitching coach, have a few dinners and visit an apple orchard with friends and former teammates.
“I love Minnesota and I miss it so much ... it holds a special place in my heart,” she said. “When I saw Minnesota on the schedule, I knew I was going to be healthy for it, I was going to make myself healthy for it because I wanted to come back so bad.”