Amanda Kauffman knows that hard work and determination pay off: the Toronto native, together with her Nexxice synchronized skating team, placed first in the national qualifier for the World Junior Skating Championships.
“We trained almost every day in December, leading up to the national qualifier. My team won, so we are going as the top Canadian entry to compete at the World Junior Skating Championships in Neuchatel, Switzerland, in March,” said Kauffman with joy. “We also just returned from an international competition in Austria. It is an honour to represent Canada on the international stage, an indescribable feeling of pride being announced as ‘Team Canada.’ ”
Kauffman fell in love with skating when she was just two and a half years old and maintains that same passion today. “I was basically born into the sport,” she said. “My mom was a competitive synchronized skater throughout her life and she won the World Championships with her team.”
Set to music, synchronized skating is a highly specialized sport, in which groups of eight or more skaters perform various group formations and maneuvers. The objective is for the team to perform, seamlessly, in unison.
Kauffman’s early years were with CanSkate and the Leaside Skating Club, before she moved to Nexxice, which is based in Burlington, Ont., in 2016.
“It’s a big commitment with a long travelling commute,” said Kauffman. “During high season, we can train every day. Off-season, we will skate four hours on ice and two hours off ice, four to five times a week. And we practice all summer and holidays.”
But Kauffman’s journey has not been an easy one. In her first full season with Nexxice, she competed internationally, travelling to Germany and Austria, where her team won silver. “I was sick then, but just didn’t know it,” she said.
(Video: Amanda Kauffman and her team compete in Austria)
The teenage athlete was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer in July 2017. In the throws of treatment, she wondered whether she would ever skate again.
Kauffman’s first symptoms appeared at the beginning of 2017. “I had just finished a hard couple of weeks of training, when my left side of my lower lip went numb. It persisted for months. We saw every doctor and every specialist and was told it’s nothing to worry about,” she said.
While studying for exams in June 2017, another symptom appeared –shooting knee pains. “I had an x-ray and we were told it was probably a stress fracture,” said Kauffman.
The symptoms persisted. “It was my mother’s ‘motherly instincts’ that escalated an MRI” at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, she said.
A MRI that should have taken 20 minutes lasted three hours. Doctors removed a lymph node under Kauffman’s armpit, which was found to be malignant and a CT scan revealed they were spread throughout her body. She was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Kauffman celebrated her 17th birthday on July 15 and was admitted to SickKids the next day. “I endured seven rounds of gruelling chemotherapy,” she said. “Three times a week, they would inject chemo into my spine and brain. I had horrible side effects of the drugs, from blistering of hands and feet to debilitating mouth sores, and more than 50 blood transfusions.”
The Jewish community – along with her fellow skaters, school friends and her family – were a source of strength for her. A Facebook page called Axels for Amanda was created to raise her spirits. “People would skate an axel, which is a skating jump, and send me a short message. It made me smile,” said Kauffman. “It went viral – we had Olympians, Elvis Stojko, hockey players and famous people participating. My skating team would FaceTime at practice and give me virtual hugs. They even dedicated one of their performances to me, skating to Andra Day’s song, Rise Up, and wore green ribbons on their performance dresses.”
Kauffman’s last surgery was at the end of 2017, when she was declared to be in remission. Working tirelessly with a rehabilitation team, she rebuilt her strength. “At that point, I could barely walk. It was really hard, but I was determined, every single day, to get back in the rink,” said Kauffman. “Little by little, I started with off-ice balance and co-ordination, I would see if I could stand on one foot for three seconds, basically learning to walk again.”
Kauffman shocked the world when she travelled to Hungary in March to compete in the World Championships just two and a half months after her last surgery. “There is someone watching over me, because everything is OK,” she said. “I emerged on the other side, healthy and thriving.”