Canada's Sara Groenewegen Shines After Life-Threatening Illness
Sara Groenewegen was in the midst of yet another summer with the Canadian national softball team last year when her life was rocked like never before.
During the Canada Cup in late July 2018, the former University of Minnesota star pitcher was faced with flu-like symptoms and a dangerously high fever that led her to a stay at Surrey Memorial Hospital in British Columbia. When doctors discovered she had a severe form of pneumonia called Legionnaires' disease, Groenewegen had no choice but to remain behind in Canada while her team traveled to the Women's Softball World Championship in Japan immediately following the Canada Cup.
Though Groenewegen remained conscious after initially being hospitalized, it was soon determined that she needed to be put into a medically-induced coma to aid her recovery, which she woke up from on August 3.
"I was literally almost dying, but at first I had the mentality that I was going to shake it off like it was a sprained ankle," said Groenewegen, now in her seventh year with Team Canada. "But looking back at it now that it has been a year, I'm just extremely grateful for my health and for the opportunity to play again and be able to represent my country."
Now one year removed from her life-altering experience, Groenewegen is healthy and back to full form on the softball field, where she currently competes for both Team Canada and the Canadian Wild of the National Pro Fastpitch.
But Groenewegen's road back to softball didn't come without its difficulties. After regaining the ability to walk at the end of August, Groenewegen was back in the weight room in September. During those initial stages of her recovery last fall, she didn't make pitching a priority. Her goal was simply to get into the best shape she could possibly be in before she stepped onto the mound again. As a result, Groenewegen didn't pitch until November, and even once she did, she eased her way back into things.
"I wasn't hard on myself because I knew where I had come from," she said. "Three months prior, I could barely walk, so I couldn't get mad at myself for not being able to throw a screwball with the perfect spin. I was just taking it day by day and I was grateful for every chance I had to get on the field."
After getting herself back into softball shape, Groenewegen rejoined Team Canada for training camp in early January, which marked the first time she had pitched to batters since before her diagnosis. That week, she once again started to feel like the pitcher who was a three-time All-American in college.
"I rocked it," recalled Groenewegen, who was also the Big Ten Player, Pitcher (twice) and Freshman of the Year during her career at Minnesota. "It was so much fun being out there. To be able to stand on the mound with my team behind me, I felt like myself. It was like a sigh of relief to know that I had the ability to come back."
Just months after her softball future—and her life—were hanging in the balance, Groenewegen was named to the Canadian national squad for the 2019 season, where she now finds herself as one of the team's most reliable arms. She proved that sentiment to be true at the 2019 Canada Cup earlier this month, where she was named the tournament's top pitcher, exactly one year since she was hospitalized.
"To be named the top pitcher for anything, it's an honor, but to have it be in the same tournament, on the same field, one year apart (from my illness), it's pretty remarkable," Groenewegen stated.
Now that her illness and recovery are behind her, Groenewegen has her sights singularly set on the goal of helping Team Canada qualify for next summer's Olympics in Tokyo. She will have a chance to make that goal a reality when she takes the field at the WBSC Americas Softball Qualifier late next month.
"Honestly, I don't even think I can put that into words," Groenewegen said when asked what it would mean to her to be able to help Canada qualify for the Summer Games. "This year, our main focus has been to qualify. It's all everyone's been talking about. It would be amazing."
You can bet that when Groenewegen takes the field at the qualifier next month at Softball City in British Columbia—which is just five minutes away from her childhood home—she will be filled with a level of aplomb that comes only from having overcome adversity.
"What I went through has made me believe in myself even more," Groenewegen said. "I was really confident in myself before, but to look back now and see how much I've changed in a year and how much better I've gotten, it's really cool. I think I can always get better, which is a pretty cool perspective to have after being close to death. There are no limits."