Turn back the calendar a year or so and it was not the best of times for the St. Michael’s Pony Express dance team and captain Keanna Capener.
Today and Saturday at The Pit, the energetic and bubbly Capener – now an 18-year-old senior – and her teammates are chasing the school’s 26th state title at the New Mexico Activies Association’s Spirit Championships.
But back then, she just could not seem to catch her breath as the Pony Express pushed forward in ever-complex and intricate routines.
“I couldn’t breathe for a few months and I was always coughing,” she said. “My coach (Lydia Sanchez) kept telling me, ‘You need to go the doctor.’ She basically forced my mom to take me to the doctor.”
When she finally did, the news was just about as bad as it gets.
“I had a giant mass blocking my trachea,” Capener said. “The mass was blocking my airway.”
Biopsies revealed that she had stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“I was scared for my parents,” Capener said. “They started crying right away. I was shocked. I didn’t think I would ever get cancer. It hurt to see my parents hurt and crying.”
Likewise, the team was crushed by the news.
“They were very devastated,” said longtime coach Lydia Sanchez. “It was hard to get them to focus.”
Taking away dance, if only for a little while, was something that was difficult to live with, Capener said.
“Dance has basically sculpted the person I am today,” she said. “Especially in high school and middle school. You learn discipline, respect, hard work. You don’t get anything for free in life and if you want to get anything in life, you have to put in the work to get there. It’s a way to express myself and or get my anger out or become angry with it.”
Capener first noticed the breathing issues in September 2015, but given the delay in seeing a doctor, it wasn’t until early February 2016 when doctors in Albuquerque began an aggressive treatment of radiation and chemotherapy. But even as she lay in the hospital bed, the thought of missing out on the state spirit championships never entered her mind, although simple things like eating were such a chore.
“It was basically the dance team that kept me going,” Capener said. “They were my biggest supporters. They’d visit me in my in hospital room and they’d Facetime me at practice.”
The support was actually a two-way street, Sanchez said.
“She would Facetime during practice and make sure the girls were all there and staying there,” the coach said. “We would send her videos so she could see how everybody was doing. She was with us 24-7, thanks to modern technology. She didn’t miss a practice. She was our captain, and she would make sure practice was still running smooth.”
Already a member of three straight state championships, the next hurdle was to get herself ready to compete again in mid-March, over the objections of the surgeon who had inserted the port-a-cath for the chemotherapy treatments.
“My oncologist said I could dance as long as I felt all right and he talked with (the surgeon). And all of sudden I was cleared to dance,” the 5-foot-5 Capener said. She rejoined her team for practice just a week before the state meet.
“A lot of it had to do with the support of my teammates,” she said. “They motivated me to do my best. It all came down to them helping me.”
It also meant finding the energy to dance.
“Lydia was always telling me, ‘You have to eat. You have to keep going, not for just yourself but for the team,'” she said.
Red chile diet
As a matter of fact, on that end of things, the coach was able to help with the appetite, and Capener managed to keep her weight up.
“There were moments where just she couldn’t eat,” Sanchez said. “I had to get after her. ‘If you don’t start eating, you won’t have the energy you have to have to get out there.’ We finally figured out that red chile had the best taste. So we started pouring red chile over all her food and she started to eat.”
Getting her back with the team “was very important,” Sanchez added. “It made our family complete again. Everybody was here. It made everybody happy to have her standing by their side.”
Still, for those who knew, she wasn’t quite the same.
“She had damage to the nerves in her legs from the treatment,” Sanchez said. “She starts off with a head stand and you can see her little legs shaking. But nobody was going to stop Keanna.”
This year, the team has rolled on without any drama, but faces a challenge from West Las Vegas, Hope Christian and Sandia Prep.
“We have action-packed routines, so if we’re going to go down, we’re going to go down fighting,” Sanchez said. “Only one high school has more state championships and that’s Artesia football. We’re catching up to them. We’re going to catch them. That’s our goal … to catch Artesia football.”