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HIS BEST SHOT UB's Jake Madonia makes a strong comeback in a track season thought lost to the effects of cancer Cover story: Weight thrower gets almost no practice time during recovery before making return to collegiate competition

He enters the shot put circle, preps to launch a practice throw, and all those who know him can't believe he's here.

Didn't he recently undergo two surgeries for synovial sarcoma, losing the middle toe on his left foot and part of an adjacent toe to the cancer?

Wasn't it over the summer that he was ravaged by steroids and chemotherapy, the former messing with his mind to where thoughts of suicide danced between his ears?

Could it really have been a scant 10 weeks ago that the radiation treatments cooked the skin on his foot to a ghastly, blistering, flaking crisp, leaving him to wonder what could be holding the works together?

Yes. Yes. And yes. All of that is accurate. Yet here stands Jake Madonia, poised to compete, his mere presence at this indoor track and field meet, the Cornell Upstate Challenge, a salve to his soul and a testament to the depths of his ethereal determination.

Lorrina Kostuk, Jake's girlfriend, has made the drive from Buffalo along with her roommate, Carolyn Whitcomb. For a while, they're standing alongside Jake's close friend and University at Buffalo teammate Tina Villa, watching intently, and a tad fretfully, as Madonia spins and unleashes his first practice put. How far, they wonder, how far?

"I know that anything over 50 [feet] was going to be good in his eyes," Kostuk said of the throw that was in that range. "And I was like, 'Did he just do that?' And Tina was like, 'Oh my goodness. I hope he can throw that way once they start marking them.' "

Already the scene's pushing toward the limits of surreal. It's a Saturday, the 24th of January, about a week since Madonia approached throwing coach Jim Garnham Sr., and declared that, contrary to their previous understanding, he now opposed sitting out the indoor season. Before they'd separated for the Christmas break, in his first practice attempts since starting his treatment, Madonia could barely manage to get off a throw, the left foot screaming agony when subjected to the pressure of the heave.

"At first it was really discouraging because at first I couldn't even stand on one foot," the Rome Free Academy graduate said. "And then once I started to do that I couldn't get up on my toe, which I have to do to come out of the circle. So that was probably three weeks I kept trying to get up on my toe and couldn't do it. It was just too painful, too weak. It was really discouraging.

"But I went away for Christmas break, didn't throw at all, just kind of rehabbed a lot, lifted, and then came back and got on my toe just like that. It was still painful but we figured out a way to tape it so it would help me stay up there. A little discomfort, but . . ."

"I didn't think he was going to be ready to throw until maybe outdoor season," Garnham said. "His foot would not function at all."

>No staying home

Jake's parents, Donald and Judy, had strived to convince Madonia to withdraw from school for the fall semester, allow himself time to heal. Granted, if he stayed he wouldn't be the first person forced to make his way around campus while wearing a protective boot, while using crutches, while sometimes needing a wheelchair. But how many others did so while coping with comparable pain, while still haunted by the threat of infection?

"From when he got done with all the chemo he was thinking about skipping the whole semester, and I tried talking him into it real hard," his father said by phone from Rome, N.Y. "Then he started thinking and he said, 'Look it, Dad, if I sit home it's not going to help me at all. So I'm going to go back and I'm going to do what I have to do at school and I'm going to do my best to compete.' "

"His parents called me and told me I need to talk to him [about taking the semester off]," Kostuk said. "I said, 'He's not going to do it. That's just Jake.' "

And so for months Madonia, a senior who has another year of athletic eligibility remaining, willed himself around campus, through his class work and into the weight room, where he continued to build his upper body. Only those closest to him knew the extent of his ordeal, realized that the left foot he dragged around during the radiation treatments of September and October was nothing but raw and tortured meat appalling in its appearance.

"It was disgusting," Kostuk said. "It smelled almost like a rotted body. He was in excruciating pain. I don't even know how he went to class. He would be in so much pain in the morning, and he got these huge blisters all over his foot, covering the top of his foot. There were blisters like the size of a half dollar. The side of his foot was black because it was burned so bad it turned his skin actually like a dark purple.

"Not only was it painful, he was exhausted," Kostuk said. "It took so much out of him. His energy was down so much on top of all the pain he was in."

The meet at Cornell marked Madonia's first competition in almost two years. He had redshirted his junior season, the goal to build strength and enhance his opportunity to qualify for NCAAs later in his career. He had no clue that what had been throbbing in his left foot since his sophomore season was something far more severe than a standard athletic ailment.

>Tears begin flowing

The competition at Cornell commences and Madonia fouls on his first throw, a typical occurrence. His next attempt travels some 53 feet, dropping jaws.

"I thought I could keep it together," said Villa, who'd already won the women's shot. "After they measured it I was standing next to Coach Garnham and I think right then and there is when the total event just hit me. It was very emotional. I've never cried so hard from being happy. I looked at Coach Garnham and he was all teared up. And I got a text message from Lorrina, and she was like, 'I'm crying right now.' I was like, 'OK, good, me too.' "

Madonia could have walked away right then and there, his expectations fulfilled.

"And then my third throw, I put out 55-2," he said.

"And I was ahead."

"When he hit the 55-footer, tears flew out of my eyes," Garnham said, his voice cracking. "It still gets me. For him to throw as far as he did, to come within a foot of what he threw two years ago, with the limited amount of training is amazing. Absolutely amazing."

The wait was on. It had been Madonia's mission to return to competition, to affirm his capabilities. But to ostensibly throw the crutches aside and win a six-school meet? Could it possibly happen?

"You're standing there and you're rocking with like your hands in your mouth," Kostuk said. "I remember holding onto my roommate and everything was going so slow. They would throw and you'd be waiting for the guy to say how far it was because you knew it was close to Jake's.

"And you're like, 'OK, OK, he's still OK.' It was almost like you're watching the Olympics or something. It was so crazy."

The number held (he beat teammate Alex Stamatakis by 4 1/4 inches).

And the dam broke.

"I cried my eyes out," Madonia said. "I'm not a big crier, but that day? A lot of stuff in the basement. Just being with the team, I was happy enough. To be with Tina, who has been with me since all this has happened, and my roommates, who are also my teammates, plus Lorrina was there, which was just another added emotion because she was with me every doctor's visit."

"Everyone was crying," Kostuk said. "There were grown men and women crying. All his head coaches were in tears at the end and the parents that knew Jake they were like, 'It was unbelievable.' "

Not every UB athlete knew what had transpired. Events are conducted over the vast expanse of the arena. Competitors focus on their own disciplines. When head coach Perry Jenkins gathered the men's team on the floor for their post-meet review he could barely get out the words.

"Jenkins broke down, too," Garnham said. "He broke down a little more than I did. And then the guys just started clapping and Jake's putting his hand up, like, 'That's OK, guys.' "

"Jake was always a guy who did what he had to do no matter what he was up against," his father, Donald, said. "He's been like that since he was a little kid. He seems to thrive on the challenges."

>Just like a movie

Challenges, yeah, OK, but this was so much more than the routine challenge, so much more than the standard story of athlete meets adversity.

"It was like out of a movie," Kostuk said. "There's no other way to describe it. From him being redshirted and not competing to being diagnosed, and all the chemo, and people saying, 'Is he going to be the same again?' And he looks people in their eyes and says, 'Of course I am.' And no one says anything because they don't want to let him down but you're like, 'How is that possible? It's not possible.' "

Ask Jake if there's a lesson in this and you won't get the response you probably expect. There's no talk of mind over matter, believing in yourself, kicking sand in the face of whatever has the audacity to confront you.

"There's a huge lesson," Madonia said. "Don't take anything for granted. As much as practice sucks sometimes, as much as school sucks, it could be a whole lot worse. I mean, I saw things I never want to see again. I saw little kids go through things that I know I wouldn't want to go through. Be happy with what you have. No matter how bad you have it, somebody's got it a lot worse."

He pauses, smiles and adds, "I still forget that sometimes."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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