Cancer can’t slow Koons’ performance

Kaitlin Santanna

If you ever need to find cross country and track runner Frances Koons, just look to the front of the pack. For a competitor who always likes to jump out first and finish a race in the lead, to suddenly feel that extra push of energy fade away is enough to raise some eyebrows in concern.

When Koons’ drop-in performance did not go away, this concern eventually led to action. In the summer of 2007, this elite runner received news that would cause anyone to feel dread, all-American athlete or not. Doctors told Koons she had a malignant tumor on her left kidney, clear-cell renal-cell carcinoma.

Proving herself an excellent and competitive runner since first setting foot on Villanova’s campus, Koons led the Wildcats to several victories in her first two seasons both on the cross country field and on the track. One such race occurred in 2006 when Koons ran on the Villanova relay team that won the women’s distance medley relay at the Penn Relays.

At the Penn Relays just one year later, however, something was different about her performance. Anchoring the distance medley relay for the Wildcats, Koons caught up to the leading Tennessee runner with 500 meters to go. She was unable to hold on to the lead, however, leaving Villanova to finish just a second behind the leaders.

“I can’t explain the last 100 meter of the race,” Koons said after the race. “My legs just wouldn’t let me go any faster.”

Although Koons couldn’t account for the uncharacteristic finish, Head Coach Gina Procaccio was determined to uncover the reason behind one of her top runner’s up-and-down ’07 track and field season. Koons realized that something was physically off with her performance as well.

“There were little things, like in practice I wasn’t recovering as quickly as I should,” Koons says. “I was really tired at the end of races, too.”

Despite efforts by Procaccio to cut down Koons’ practices and races, the situation was not getting better. Koons and her family found the answer during the summer of 2007, when a urologist diagnosed Koons with kidney cancer. Clear-cell renal-cell carcinoma, the most common form of kidney cancer, is usually associated with smokers and obese people in their mid-40s to 50s. Koons, a collegiate runner, is obviously not the normal candidate for the disease.

While Koons was disconcerted when she first heard the news, she bounced back to her normal, overwhelmingly positive self soon after. She credits her excellent support system, comprised of friends, family and doctors, in contributing to her smooth recovery.

“There was the initial reaction, I definitely got emotional,” Koons says. “But most of the time, outside of that, we were able to sort of kid around, just keep it light and know that it was going to be alright.”

On Aug. 7, 2007, Koons underwent laparoscopic surgery to remove the tumor, the most noninvasive procedure possible. Not only were the doctors able to remove all of the growth, but Koons was able to keep her kidney as well. Her youth and health, combined with an excellent team of doctors, contributed to the successful outcome of the procedure.

For an energetic runner who loves fast starts to both her conditioning and races, the slow recovery process was a learning experience for Koons. The now-graduate student took six months completely off before starting running every other day for 20-30 minutes per day. As soon as the calendar turned to 2008, Koons was permitted to resume a more rigorous schedule.

“It was a real gradual build up, which is something that I needed,” Koons says. “In the past I had a tendency to get really excited and want to go out and run hard and fast, but that’s not really the way it works. It forced me to really take care of my body and slowly get into shape.”

The Allentown, Pa., native may not look intimidating standing at just 5 feet 2 inches and not much over 100 pounds, but Koons has proved herself both a fierce competitor and solid teammate throughout her time at Villanova. Her spring track season after recovery is one of Koons’ best to date. In 2008, Koons was named the Most Outstanding Track Athlete of the Big East Outdoor Championships where she picked up titles in the 1,500 meter and the 5,000 meter races. She then went on to finish third in the 5,000 meter in the NCAA-East Regional Championships before finishing 12th in the 5,000-meter finals of the NCAA Championships.

Koons’ successes last spring brought her to the Mecca of track and field events: the United States Olympic Trials. She finished fourth in her quarterfinal of the 1,500-meter race, qualifying Koons for the semifinal race. On July 6, Koons was eliminated from the Olympic Trials when she finished eighth in her heat in a race where the top six competitors advanced. Even though her experience was cut short, Koons cherished her experience and proved that she could compete with the best professional runners in the country.

“It was like being surrounded by rock stars,” Koons says. “I got to compete with some of the best in the country and just get my nose in there and see what I could do. It definitely gave me some confidence for this upcoming track year.”

Although many of Koons’ accomplishments have come individually, she says she truly loves the team atmosphere and striving for team titles. Koons lived out this team experience during the ’08 cross country season. Taking the patience she learned from her recovery process, Koons started her past cross country season slowly, focusing on improving on her conditioning before winning the races at the beginning of the season. The hard work paid off, and Villanova and Koons had one of the best cross country seasons in recent history. Koons led the ‘Cats to finish the season ranked No. 5 in the nation. She fronted Villanova to win the Big East Championships, finishing the 6K race in second place with a time of 20:13. Throughout all the personal struggles that Koons has faced over the past year and a half, one of her most poignant moments was not one of joy.

“I got really emotional winning the Big East Championship,” she says. “I really only cry when I’m really happy. I came to Villanova to win team titles because the tradition is rooted in awesome cross country teams winning titles. It was such an honor to be a part of that and to add to that.”

Koons and the Wildcats then competed in the Mid-Atlantic Regional where the graduate student captured the individual title in the race and was named to the All-Mid-Atlantic team. Koons rounded out her last cross country season at the NCAA Championships where she finished 20th overall and was Villanova’s top finisher. She was awarded with USTFCCCA All-American honors for finishing in the top 40, her fifth collegiate All-American nomination.

As Koons enters her last indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, she remains cancer-free. She will receive checkups twice a year for five years, and her doctors were pleased with her last visit. With her medical woes behind her, Koons can focus on continuing her successful running career at Villanova. She has one season remaining of indoor and outdoor track. After her collegiate career concludes, Koons will stay in the area to finish her graduate work in applied statistics while continuing to run. Although it is still a bit off, it looks as though Koons and Villanova will miss each other equally when the spring season concludes.

“The team aspect is going to be a great loss,” Koons says. “It’s not something I’ll ever experience again. Even if I join a training group, I’ll never run in relays or in cross country where you have a team score. I think I’ll miss that tremendously and the atmosphere here at Villanova.”