Close to death 3 years ago, softball's Sara Groenewegen now chases gold in Tokyo

For 10 days in 2018, B.C.'s Sara Groenewegen was in a medically induced coma, hooked up to 15 tubes to keep her alive. Starting Wednesday, she will attempt to lead Canada's softball team to a historic gold medal.

Star pitcher contracted legionnaires' disease in 2018

Sara Groenewegen was in a medically induced coma for 10 days in 2018 after contracting legionnaires' disease. (Submitted by Sara Groenewegen)

Resilient. Adaptable. Stubbornly positive. That's how Sara Groenewegen describes herself.

But she could have never imagined how much she would have to lean on those characteristics after a brush with death.

Groenewegen, 26, is a high-powered softball pitcher on the Canadian national team, which will take the field against Mexico Wednesday in Fukushima, north of Tokyo. It's one of the first events of the pandemic-delayed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

She's been part of the team for years and has become a leader, but three years ago her life came crashing down. 

"It's scary to think about how quickly life can change," Groenewegen told CBC Sports recently. "It was an extremely scary time."

WATCH: CBC Sports' The Olympians feature on Sara Groenewegen:

The Olympians: Sara Groenewegen

2 years ago
Duration 2:11
Watch CBC Sports' The Olympians feature, on Sara Groenewegen.

Groenewegen was with her Canadian teammates in Surrey, B.C., her hometown, preparing for the world championships in July 2018. The team had just returned from a trip to California and were days away from heading to Japan for its first Olympic qualifying event. 

Groenewegen is the softball team's top pitcher. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

'I woke up and had no idea what happened'

"I ended up having a fever and back pain," she said. "Two weeks later I woke up and had no idea what happened to me. I have no recollection of it."

Doctors initially didn't realize the severity of what Groenewegen was suffering from and almost sent her home. She has Type 1 diabetes and her insulin pump had broken days earlier. Her blood sugar levels were all over the map, and doctors weren't sure if that's what was leading to Groenewegen's issues. 

Groenewegen's teammates and head coach Mark Smith watched her deteriorate in front of their eyes.

Within the span of 48 to 72 hours it went from mild concern that she was sick to, oh my goodness, Sara could die.​​- Canadian coach Mark Smith

"Within the span of 48 to 72 hours, it went from mild concern that she was sick to, oh my goodness, Sara could die," Smith told CBC Sports. 

Groenewegen was diagnosed initially with a bladder infection. They administered antibiotics, but that did nothing. Then she was having coughing fits that left her breathless. Her body was breaking down minute by minute. 

"I was put on life support," Groenewegen said. "I later learned they gave me a three per cent chance at survival."

For 10 days in early August 2018, Groenewegen was in a medically induced coma, hooked up to 15 tubes running into her body to keep her alive. 

Groenewegen, second from right, celebrates with teammates after winning gold at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. (Fred Thornhill/The Canadian Press)

Legionnaires' disease

Groenewegen had contracted legionnaires' disease, a rare but severe form of pneumonia. She's still unsure how she got it, but thinks it might have come from the air conditioning system at one of the hotels she stayed at in California. The virus spreads most commonly through water droplets in the air that contain bacteria. 

Once doctors realized what it was, they were able to stabilize her but not without some tense moments. All of this was happening while her team was in Japan trying to earn an Olympic berth without one of their star pitchers.

"I was almost in daily contact with her father to know how she was doing because I wanted to keep the team apprised of her condition," Smith said. "There was one meeting we had where there were a lot of tears, myself included. We didn't know. We were told the next 48 hours would be touch and go."

But stubbornly positive Sara Groenewegen wasn't about to quit.

With her team fighting for their Olympic dream in Japan, she continued to fight for her life. After 11 days, she was finally awakened from the coma. 

"I was still ready to go to Japan," she said, laughing. "About two or three days after that the lines were being taken out of me. They gave me my phone back."

Canada's softball Olympians pose in front of the Olympic rings after arriving in Japan. (@SoftballCanada/Twitter)

Lost 2 weeks of her life

When she started to read all her text messages, she realized she had lost nearly two weeks of her life without knowing it. And during that time, her team lost one of its chances to qualify for the Olympics, placing third at the world championship but needing a top-two showing to earn a spot at the Games. 

"I remember trying to stand up and the pain was crazy," Groenewegen said. "It was a big struggle. And that's when it hit me that this was going to be a hard journey. I wasn't able to walk at that time. I could barely sit up in bed. I was taking it day by day at that point."

But the road to recovery was underway. The first goal was to walk down the hospital hallway. That came quickly. Then two weeks later, she was let out of the hospital early because of her speedy rehabilitation. 

Six months after her brush with death, Groenewegen was back at a national team training camp in January 2019. Those first few weeks in the gym were challenging, but she pushed through it. 

Adaptable. Resilient. Her coach comes up with a few other words to describe her. 

Groenewegen is part of the 15-person Canadian team preparing to take to Azuma Stadium Field in Fukushima to compete for a gold medal. (Submitted by Sara Groenewegen)

"If you know Sara the way we know Sara, you're not surprised about the fight in her. She's independent and stubborn. She has a lot of grit and moxie," Smith said. 

One year later, Groenewegen pitched the first perfect game in Pan American Games history for Canada in Lima, Peru.

Less than three months later, at the same Surrey ball diamond where the nightmare started, Groenewegen helped Canada clinch a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.

"At the same field," she said, almost still in disbelief. "We qualified. Talk about a full-circle moment."

"It's a remarkable story because this is a woman who might not be with us on this planet," Smith said. 

Groenewegen is part of the 15-person team that is now preparing to take to Azuma Stadium Field, with softball part of the Olympic program for the first time since 2008. 

And the pitcher is no doubt adding some extra fuel to an already fired up Canadian squad. 

"It's really cool that I can be an inspiration for my teammates," Groenewegen said. "This journey is really special, and I'm excited to take the field with them this summer at the Olympics. We want to make history and finish the job."


Devin Heroux

CBC reporter

Devin Heroux reports for CBC News and Sports. He is now based in Toronto, after working first for the CBC in Calgary and Saskatoon.

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