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JSerra's Vorenkamp rises above cancer fight
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO – Tim Vorenkamp made the short walk from his high school, JSerra, to a downtown coffee shop, neatly dressed in slacks, a crimson sweater with the school logo over the heart and a smile as bright as his blond hair.
There was nothing about him that drew your attention, yet also everything, a unique duality of being a confident, young high school senior and student-athlete totally lacking any airs.
He took a seat in the back of the shop and spoke about his love for volleyball, which he took up in middle school and which became the center of his life. “I’ve met my best friends from playing volleyball and being around the sport,” he said.
He enjoyed playing as a senior with his younger brother, Patrick, who was a freshman. He talked about the transition his parents, Pieter and Petra Vorenkamp, made when they came to the U.S. from the Netherlands when he was a toddler.
He spoke about his past goals – continuing to compete for the USA Volleyball junior national program, getting a major college scholarship, maybe making the U.S. Olympic team and having a pro career, plus a college education and a career in business or sports.
Then he spoke of his new goals.
“My first goal was to get recruited to a top five school and the Olympic team,” he said. “Then it was just to get back on the court.
“Now, it’s to turn 80.”
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Everyone wants to live to a ripe old age; very few teenagers project that far into the future. Vorenkamp’s perspective comes from dealing with the kind of medical condition that would send mature adults reeling into despair.
Vorenkamp has synovial sarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer, spindle-like in its form and usually found in soft tissue. It discriminates; it usually infects the young.
He has gone through three major surgeries and countless rounds of chemotherapy to stay a step ahead of a cancer that relentlessly bounces around the body like a stray bullet.
The 18-year-old has been just as relentless fighting the physical and emotional strain. He has managed to retain a sense of self and optimism, impressing everyone he meets.
After his initial diagnosis, he was the recipient of a Make-a-Wish day, where he met two members of the U.S. Olympic volleyball team, Reid Priddy and Clay Stanley. Now he makes appearances and speeches on behalf of the charity. He recently spoke at a Chapman University Make-A-Wish event that raised $10,000.
He was a team leader for the JSerra volleyball team even though his treatment wiped out part of his career and changed his college volleyball plans.
In a moment that can only underscore the beauty of life amid pain, Vorenkamp became a bellwether for his high school coach, Tim Layton, who recently lost a son to sudden infant death syndrome.
“Tim was a touchstone for the coach, someone to hold and grieve,” JSerra Director of Administration Eric Stroupe said at a game shortly after Layton’s loss. “Tim is a touchstone for the whole school.”
Volleyball has been Vorenkamp’s personal touchstone. Getting back on court became a goal with each setback, and each time he became an exemplar to those around him. He’s mature enough to crack a joke – that the cancer turned him from a middle blocker to a setter because it stunted his growth.
“It never changed my enthusiasm for the sport,” he said. “It’s been an escape. My coaches said what was most notable is that I could come out to play and someone would never know by looking at me or watching me play.
“If I had gotten down about it, I’m not sure I would have handled it. I’ve always tried to turn it around. I realized there are other people going through the same thing, and sometimes worse. There were people out there looking to me for advice. I was being asked adult questions while I was still a teenager.”
He was forced to make adult decisions. Resetting his goals was difficult but a key to facing the malady. He had a letter of intent to play at UC Irvine for David Kniffin and attended its conference tournament games last month with his dad.
But a few weeks later, after he learned he had been accepted at Cal, he changed his mind and put a turn in his volleyball career.
Cal does not field a Division I college volleyball program. He’ll play for its club volleyball team, if he plays at all. He plans to stay active with his longtime local club team, 949, when he’s not at Cal.
“There are almost two separate feelings for us,” his mom, Petra, said. “On one hand, it’s heartbreaking. On the other, it makes you so proud. It’s hard to express when it’s your son and you see the amazing way he handles things.”
Kniffin said the letter of intent was never a gesture.
“I saw what he did at JSerra while he was dealing with all of the trials,” Kniffin said. “He kept finding ways to get back on the court.”
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This all began when he was in eighth grade. He had what was originally thought to be a cyst on a muscle in his upper right leg, but then it began to grow.
“It was pretty thick,” he said. “It looked like two iPhones stacked on top of each other.”
A biopsy was positive, he underwent surgery and the sarcoma diagnosis was confirmed. That led to the insertion of a chemo port in his chest – which he despised – and six months of chemotherapy and radiation. He had moments when he couldn’t eat and he lost 20 pounds, but by March 2011, he was cancer-free.
“Seven rounds of chemo and 33 radiation treatments,” his mom said. “It took 12 days for his blood levels to get to normal. The doctors told him to forget about volleyball. Three weeks after the tumor was gone, he was back on the court.”
In 2013, he had a relapse. He was walking to the beach when he was hit by “insane” cramps in his right side. The cramps turned out to be a new tumor that had spontaneously collapsed his right lung. It was a difficult surgery, with the new, somewhat flat tumor atop the lung but underneath the ribs.
His lung was reinflated. He endured chest tubes for a few weeks and then went on an oral regimen of chemotherapy. His hair went from blond to white.
“I looked like an old man. My hair was white,” he said. He went to a hairstylist to get it colored and took his brother with him so she’d get the color right.
He returned to school, and volleyball, again, but a new tumor showed up a year later on the other lung. A new cycle of chemo didn’t work; the tumor returned four times.
A doctor took a different medical tactic early this year, and the tumor has shrunk. His front line of defense is what he calls “the nastiest” oral medicine.
“There aren’t a lot of cases where they take the tumors out and then medicate and radiate,” Vorenkamp said. “That really doesn’t stop the process.”
“Every time, he’s used volleyball as a goal for his recovery,” his mom said. “The last time, he was still motivated but realized he needed to change his goals and dreams.”
“My attitude has always been ‘I can do this,’” he said. “But with everything that’s happened, I felt I needed a different perspective. There’s more to life than being in hospitals or even playing volleyball. I started asking myself what I wanted to do now.”
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Vorenkamp will head to Cal in August and take a year to decide what he wants to pursue. He’s intrigued by business. He has an affinity for science. He thinks it would be cool to one day work in sports communication.
“It’s reality,” his mother said. “But he keeps giving himself these goals and really goes for it. The doctors recently told him not to exercise so much. So he went to the gym for three hours.
“It’s unbelievable where he gets his wisdom.”
There’s very little about Tim Vorenkamp that appears unbelievable.
“I’m tired at times,” he said on that splendid day in a coffee shop. “But other than that, it’s been a beautiful two months.”
Editor’s note: The Register is featuring the stories of Orange County high school graduates every day this week.
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Staff photographer Bill Alkofer contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: email@example.com