It seemed benign - a cold, a fever, an overall feeling of malaise that lasted the duration of Damon Kosaki's first semester at Pacific University. Damon managed to pass all his classes that semester, but he wasn’t really happy. He wasn’t able to play football as intended, and he lost weight. Then, during winter break, he decided to do something about that - Damon decided to join the Air Force.
Shortly after making that decision, Damon started having trouble breathing. His Mom took him to the nearest urgent care center where blood tests showed Damon’s white blood cell count was well below normal. Without flinching, the doctor told Damon that had Leukemia and she sent him straight to the hospital in an ambulance.
The doctors at the hospital diagnosed him with Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML), and were shocked to see that Damon was still standing. Those first 24 hours were terrifying, and the next 18 months immensely challenging.
As Damon recalls, "It was particularly tough dealing with this diagnosis because of my background as a competitor and someone who loved physical challenges. I felt weak and lost a lot of weight and, in turn, lost a lot of confidence in my physical abilities. I was forced to withdraw from school for the next semester and I remember feeling defeated and detached from the world for a while."
But Damon didn’t dwell on the diagnosis for long. Shortly after his January 2012 diagnosis his warrior spirit kicked in and he returned to his studies. He enrolled at a local college to study mechanical engineering, and soon after that he started CrossFit. CrossFit was the perfect outlet since it combined an awesome community of people and it provided a platform for Damon to improve his deteriorated physical state. He says, “[CrossFit is] something that I don't take for granted and I feel so lucky to have come across it when I did."
The people that Damon has met in the CrossFit community are just as inspired by him as he is by them. His current coach and the owner of CrossFit Fort Vancouver, Adam Neiffer, recounted the moment when he found out that Damon had cancer: "I'd known Damon for years and coached or worked out with the guy literally every day for over a year before he ever mentioned cancer. We were talking about life, college, CrossFit, nutrition, and supplementation in between lifts one day in the gym when he nonchalantly mentioned he was on medication for leukemia. He said it the way someone might tell you they have a cold, allergies, or a hangnail."
That anecdote highlights a certain humility and focus that defines Damon - he acts in spite of his cancer, not because of it. He’s the guy at the gym doing a double bodyweight clean and jerk, 50+ consecutive chest-to-bar pull-ups, and handstand push-ups for days. Damon’s work ethic earned him a spot on CrossFit Fort Vancouver’s Farm Team for this year’s West Regional. It’s an accomplishment that very few people seem surprised about. Instead, they are surprised to learn that he has cancer at all.
Damon's teammate on the CrossFit Fort Vancouver Farm Team, Dawn Strong, recently found out about his cancer. After the initial surprise about the diagnosis, she said, "I realized how much this fits his character...He doesn't complain, he just does what needs to be done and gives 100%. A true champion. [I] can't wait to throw down with him at regionals and you bet I will be motivated to dig a little deeper for his fight."
For Damon, CrossFit extends beyond the community and the physical challenge; it is also the channel through which he met his wife Amy. One of Damon’s original coaches, Amy immediately noticed something about him when they first met – a certain aura, a unique approach to challenges, a relentless approach to his workouts.
Amy is clearly head over heels in love with Damon, especially his wisdom and appreciation for the small things.
"His life threatening disease provided an opportunity for Damon to explore himself.” Amy said, "’Leukemia’ is a scary word. It scared me! I thought to myself how could someone with such a serious disease, also have such strength, determination, and positive outlook? Damon embodies what it means to be an Everyday Warrior. He fights hard every day, in every aspect of his life. He inspires everyone around him."
This chapter in Damon’s life is just beginning. He recently accomplished two major goals: First, by playing an integral part in the CrossFit Fort Vancouver Farm Team qualifying for the CrossFit Games West Regional and earning the opportunity to compete at the Regional level for the first time ever. Second, by graduating from Washington State University-Vancouver with a degree in mechanical engineering. And this summer, Damon and Amy will be giving birth to their first son.
As Coach Adam Neiffer said, "With so many monumental life-changing events on the horizon all around the same time for Damon, this chapter of his life is really just the beginning for him and his young family. After the road he's traveled, it doesn't get any more inspiring than that."
* Special thanks to those who contributed to make this article possible - Traci Kosaki, Amy Kosaki, Adam Neiffer and Dawn Strong.