HANFORD — With the end of the CIF Regional water polo championships this past weekend, there were many teams that celebrated successful seasons.
Those who made the tournament were definitely worthy of celebrating. The teams who won their respective Central Section titles could celebrate. Or maybe it was a bit smaller accomplishment and it was the boys and girls who won their league titles.
With so much success flying around at this time of year for water polo, there was one team, one player in particular, who celebrated a successful season.
Their season didn’t involve the raising of a championship banner or end with a shiny ring. It was something so much more than anything materialistic. What they won didn’t even take place in a pool.
But when they did win, the prize was something so simple it was easy to take for granted — it was a chance to get back in the pool.
It’s late October and the Hanford West boys water polo team had just concluded its season. The team finished 5-22 overall and 1-11 in the West Yosemite League with the lone win coming against rival Hanford.
I arrive at the Hanford West pool as Huskies goalkeeper Kevon Calhoun emerges from a shed-like area having just finished helping coach Kevin Jauregui put away some items from the season.
I introduce myself and we make some small talk by complaining about the weather and how it’s been too hot. After all, it’s almost November, but we both agree (more like hope) it’ll cool down soon.
The 17-year-old senior is coolly dapper in a long-sleeve Billabong shirt with slick, round unmissable glasses. They’re complimented by a pair of gray shorts and gray sandals.
The 6-foot, 140-pound goalkeeper has a slender frame and it’s all tied together with his flashy million-dollar smile. But behind his smile, you’d never guess he’d been battling for his life just 12 months prior.
Just another game
It’s September 15, 2016, and the Hanford West boys water polo team had just finished a game against Redwood. For Calhoun, the junior varsity goalkeeper, it was just another game.
“I was moving fast— water polo, school, everything — I didn’t even notice anything was going on with me,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun’s mother, Rebecca Lopez, noticed a lump on the right side of Calhoun’s neck. Being a mother, she wanted to check it out and Calhoun, being a teenager, brushed it off as a bruise or knick as a result of water polo.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal because I didn’t even know what lymphoma was then,” Calhoun said.
Lopez didn’t think it was a big deal either. She thought the ball might have hit him or someone grabbed him during the course of the game.
“Maybe it was just a little puffy from pulling a muscle,” Lopez said. “I figured it was some kind of injury that he didn’t even notice.”
But Lopez insisted they take Calhoun to the emergency room the next day to get a clear understanding of what it was. The next day was Friday and also the esteemed Dog Bowl as well as Calhoun’s aunt’s birthday, so there were plenty of other things on his mind than a medical issue.
A CAT scan was followed by myriad of other tests and the worry began to creep into the back of Calhoun’s mind. They had arrived at around 3 p.m., just after school, and over seven hours later, were still there.
“Around like 10 or 11 [p.m.] my doctor came in and told me that I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma,” Calhoun said.
It was stage IIB Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that starts in the white blood cells. In the scan, the doctor could see it was present in Calhoun’s chest, around his lungs and esophagus. There was also a mass in the left part of his upper chest.
“Right when he left the room, I just started breaking down,” Calhoun said as he searched for words to remember the moment. “I was scared, I was crying, but not because I was sad or anything, I was just scared about what was to come.”
All Lopez could do was hold Calhoun and reassure him that everything was going to be OK.
“I was just in shock because it was the farthest thing from my mind,” Lopez said. “That was a thought that hadn’t even crossed my mind. I never in a million years would’ve thought that’s what the doctor was going to come back in and tell us.”
Two days later, Calhoun celebrated his 16th birthday. Celebrate is maybe a bit of a strong word.
September 23 was the official diagnosis after a biopsy confirmed what the doctor had seen — the scar on his neck is still present. A treatment plan was created around Calhoun’s cancer, since every cancer is unique, and a couple days later he started treatment at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera.
Calhoun’s first round of treatment consisted of four days of chemotherapy. He stayed in the hospital during that time, but the next week, it was one day of outpatient treatment followed by a week off and then back to his four-day treatment.
The first few days weren’t hard. Aside from being tired, Calhoun didn’t feel much different.
The specific regiment was a cycle to give Calhoun his best chance to combat the cancer. The cycle would continue like a broken record until December: inpatient, outpatient, no treatment and back to inpatient.
During his hospital stays, Lopez said some days he would be completely wiped out. Vomiting and the usual symptoms would tire him out to where he would sleep for long hours. Once, he slept for 24 hours straight.
Luckily, chemotherapy didn’t make Calhoun very sick or debilitated when he was home. It did kill his appetite so occasionally he would get sick when he had to take his pills on an empty stomach. But other than that and fatigue, outpatient treatment wasn’t terrible.
Also, while on chemotherapy, his white blood cell count was depleted, which meant infection was a real possibility. He had to stay at home during the duration of his treatment and that, in a way, was what hurt Calhoun the most.
“Being at home while you’re a junior in high school, it sucked a lot,” Calhoun said. “October was my favorite month and I was sick then just at home doing nothing. Same for Christmas and everything, missed all the holidays.”
Last year was also the year Hanford West won the WYL and CIF Central Section Division III championship in water polo. Although he was on junior varsity, Calhoun would have certainly been called up to the varsity team late in the season. The only reason he wasn’t on varsity was because they had legendary goalkeeper Jonah Addington.
Instead, all he could do was sit at home. The only time he left the house was to go to treatment. Nothing more.
So he had to find a way to pass the time and in came the Xbox One to the rescue. It would be his window to the outside world for the next couple of months. He had thought about selling it since his busy schedule in high school hadn’t allowed him to touch it much, but he was glad he didn’t.
“It’s actually what made chemo a lot easier. I have a lot of friends that play Xbox with me so they could talk to me on the mic. It’d be like we were hanging out.”
A bit of a movie connoisseur, Calhoun, who wants to be a film producer, also turned to his love for movies for comfort. “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “Psycho” were a couple of his favorite movies during that time.
A scan in December showed the cancer had shrunk a good deal. The prognosis was good and Calhoun could see the end of his treatments on the horizon. But he wasn’t completely out of the woods yet.
“All I knew was, around December, I was happy because I knew I just have to get through these final months and I’d be good,” Calhoun said. “I knew it was going upwards.”
For Lopez, it was just a huge sense of relief knowing the treatment was working and his body was responding in the correct way.
“You do go through the days where you’re worried like, ‘Is it going to get worse?’” Lopez said with a shaky voice. “Knowing that everything is working it was just a huge relief.”
He would have to get through the worst part, which was radiation. It wasn’t a cycle where he would get a break. Radiation was every day from January until mid-February.
“Radiation just made me so tired and sick,” Calhoun said. “It was actually worse than chemo. I was just sick throwing up.”
It was difficult because Lopez — a single mother of four — had to commute from Hanford to Valley Children’s in Madera every day. But like everything else, they made it through and reached the finish line. When radiation was over another scan was taken and all was well. The cancer was gone. Three months passed and another scan was taken in June and the cancer was still gone.
Despite the two scars that serve as a reminder for what Calhoun has gone through, sometimes it’s the scars you can’t see that are the most painful ones.
At this moment, Calhoun still has those lymph nodes and that mass in his chest, which has turned mainly to scar tissue and is currently non-cancerous. The key word being “currently,” because that mass is like a dormant volcano or a ticking time-bomb because the mass in his chest can become cancerous at any time with no explanation, no reason and no warning.
Calhoun said the doctors told him it has a good chance of being active again, but don’t know for sure if it will and have no way of telling how so, for now, Calhoun can only continue living his life.
“For me, it was a big wake-up call,” Calhoun said. “If there’s something there that can start being cancerous again, I only have a certain amount of time to do everything that I love for as long as I can, as much as I can and I can’t spend any second being regretful.”
It’s a hard concept to grasp for sure. Especially for a 17-year-old who has so much ahead of him, but nonetheless Calhoun has come to terms with it.
“I have to take every second and be grateful that I’m here and that I can help others out and I can do the things that I love,” Calhoun said. “This thing can come back and if it does, I don’t want to end up regretting what I did when I was free.”
Back in the pool
About a week after being cleared, Calhoun was right back in school.
“I was still feeling kind of sick when I went back to school, but I was excited to be back with my classmates,” Calhoun said. “Even though school doesn’t sound that amazing, it was better than just being at home.”
Getting back in the water would be the next step and compared to everything else the senior had gone through, it was a breeze.
Doctors warned against starting up a sport so soon since radiation killed a lot of his lungs and it had only been a couple of months since the end of his treatment.
“When June rolled around, I was just more than anxious to get in the water,” Calhoun said. “My body’s not anywhere close to being how it should be, but I wanted to play, so I just got in the water.”
He was also told it would be a year or two before his body got back to its old self, if ever. Fueled by wanting to prove the doctors wrong, Calhoun trained as much as he could until their season opener against Sierra Pacific.
“That was a chance to really show me coming back,” Calhoun said. “Did I actually make a comeback or did I just join the sport?”
There were no nerves in his first game, just the determination to prove to himself that he was ready for the game. That he had truly come back.
It was a 14-8 loss, but the word “loss” is so subjective when Calhoun put up a 14-save performance against what would turn out to be a CIF Central Section Division III runner-up team.
His next game against Exeter, another 14 saves and an 11-9 win. But the win was just the icing on top of the win Calhoun had already made by just getting in the pool.
“No one really thought that I could get to how I used to be,” Calhoun said. “Not only did I get how I used to be, I got better than how I used to be.”
By season’s end, Calhoun had played in 26 out of 27 of Hanford West’s games and done so in shining fashion with more than 175 saves.
In their only WYL victory of the season against Hanford, Calhoun showed up time and time again. The last quarter, the Huskies were down a man, but the senior goalkeeper did not break. He had 17 saves and helped seal the 17-14 win.
“I’m just glad he’s got his life back and able to enjoy his senior year,” his mother said. “I’m just excited to know he’s good, he’s OK, he’s back in school. It’s just a feeling I can’t even really describe.”
As our time came to a close at the pool, Calhoun looked to the future.
The immediate future holds endless possibilities for Calhoun. After high school, he wants to go to a UC school and see if he can play water polo there. While at college, he wants to study cinematography and work in the film business.
If not, he’s more than content going to a junior college and then transferring to a UC to play. As he put it, “it sounds pretty great to me because it’s an opportunity to play.
He also made sure to thank those who have helped him. Former player Addington was first on the list as he trained Calhoun throughout his junior year and made him fall in love with water polo. Calhoun had actually never played an organized sport before his freshman year, so Addington played a big role to him.
Julie Koss, who was “a mother to everyone,” always came to practice and supported the team, which only made him fall in love with water polo more. Calhoun’s girlfriend at the time, Kallista McCarty, helped him with different things and would even bring food over to the house for him on occasion. He said he could never pay her back.
Lopez, of course, was one that he thanked a bit more. The hospital visits, being by his side at all times and all the care that she gave to Calhoun. Well, it’s love only a mother can give.
Now sitting on the Hanford West bleachers, Calhoun took a moment to reflect.
“Before when I was a freshman, sophomore, junior, I was just going on and passing my classes with just whatever grade,” Calhoun said. “I was also taking things for granted. I wasn’t really realizing how lucky I was.”
But now, everything has been put into perspective.
“I was born lucky,” Calhoun said. “Every day that I’m alive, I have a chance to make things better. I have a chance to make other people happy. I have a chance to spread my love and I have a chance to do all the great things that I love.”