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Michelle Mazza NJ overcame life-threatening surgery to become a top shot putter - 2014 DyeStat

Published by
DyeStat   Feb 26th 2014, 4:23pm

Mazza making most of her 'second chance'


By Doug Binder, DyeStat Editor

Michelle Mazza crouched in the back of the circle, a gray rubber shot coated in chalk pressed against her neck. From there, she uncoiled, rising and rotating, mustering all of her force for a personal-best throw at The Armory in New York City.

On Monday at Eastern States, Mazza, a junior at Ocean Township NJ nibbled away at her lifetime best. She PR'd three times and finished third with 41 feet, 10 inches.



Progress is the name of the game in track and field and Mazza is thrilled with every gain. She has big goals, the biggest of which is a 50-foot throw that would be a New Jersey state record.

Michelle Mazza prepares for the shot put competition at Eastern States, Feb. 24, 2014."I'm psyched out of my mind. I wanted that 41 (feet) today and I got it," she said. "There's more to come. I just keep growing exponentially."

But it's the progress outside the throwing circle that is a bigger story here. Seven months ago, on July 23, Mazza lay on an operating table in Philadelphia to undergo a life-saving procedure. Surgeons removed a cantaloupe-sized tumor that had torn a hole in her bronchial artery.

"I feel like there's a weight off my chest," Mazza said. "As long as I could remember I had a cough. I was sick all the time. We thought I had mono in the eighth grade, but it really wasn't. All of that is pretty much gone now."

The tumor was tested for cancer and was thankfully benign.

The persistent cough that had troubled Mazza for years was routinely mis-diagnosed. But on a family trip to Boston last summer, her situation became dire. The upper respiratory infection that Mazza believed she had turned worse when she began to cough up blood.

Mazza's parents, Don and Dara, took her to the hospital where a scan was performed. That revealed the tumor. But she had to fly to Philadelphia in order to have the surgery to remove it, and in the meantime she was losing blood.

In surgery, the tumor was removed as well as half of her left lung.

"If she was not as strong, or had been smaller, she could have died," surmised Mazza's mother, who is a nurse.

In the days and weeks that followed the surgery, Mazza focused on her desire to return to throwing as a way to stay motivated. Her throws coach, Jon Kalnas, and friend Jason Bryan, a 60-foot thrower from Rumson Fair Haven NJ, were key members of her support group.

"It was a little rough at first," Mazza said. "I wanted to go back to things. (The doctors) went through my left side and left an eight-inch scar between ribs."

Despite the loss of lung tissue, Mazza's breathing is normal. Particularly cold air or anaerobic exercises still sting. And because the incision was on her left side – Mazza is a lefty after all – there was little choice but to let the wound heal completely.

In September, Mazza, a 4.0 student, was cleared to begin physical activity again. It was a slow, steady process and she is still building her up her strength.

"We started a workout routine and (Kalnas) just kept pushing me," Mazza said. "Him and my family and (Bryan) they were always there for me. If I needed something, like a pick-up, they were always right there. I couldn't have asked for a better support system."

Once Mazza was cleared to begin working out, Kalnas was determined to get her focused on throwing and not what she'd been through.

"You'd never have known she'd been through (the surgery) that by October," Kalnas said. "She started following a detailed program."

Kalnas, a former All-American at Monmouth and a 66-foot thrower, is a personal trainer who has developed a committed group of high school throwers from throughout New Jersey.

Kalnas develops training schedules and strategies for each athlete and packages them like a business plan. With Mazza, who he started working with last spring, the long-term plan calls for increasing her fitness, sharpening her mental focus and working out the kinks in her technique.

Mazza threw 38-1.25 in her first meet of the season, on Jan. 4, and even that was a personal best. Since then, she has tacked on almost four feet.

Michelle Mazza in the ring at The Armory."I love the sport," Mazza said. "During my recovery period I wanted to get back in the circle. I have a better outlook about it now. Not many 17-year-olds get a second chance at life and get to do something they love. I've picked throwing."

Energized by her third place showing at Eastern States, Mazza has the New Jersey Meet of Champions on Saturday and then will gear up for New Balance Nationals Indoor, March 14-16 at The Armory.

The outdoor season will bring a better opportunity to refine her technique and put together bigger throws. There is no longer anything to impede her progress, or her goals.

"I want to throw 50 (feet) by the end of the year," Mazza said.

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