Benefield: El Molino's Kassidy Sani ready to let discus fly at state track and field finals


El Molino junior Kassidy Sani’s throwing career can be measured in breakthroughs.

Like figuring out the rules of discus. That was a breakthrough.

“The first meet I ever went to, I was throwing probably 75 feet and I scratched all three of my throws because I didn’t know you were supposed to exit on the back side of the ring,” she said.

She figured it out. A breakthrough.

Then, early this season, she seemed stuck, throwing less than 120 feet.

“I think it was kind of a mental barrier for me. I didn’t believe I could hit 120,” she said. “My coach told me I could and I didn’t really believe I could.”

She figured it out. Another breakthrough.

After she cracked 120 feet, she seemed to stall out again.

“My coach has always said 140 and 150 (are possible) and I didn’t believe him,” she said of El Molino’s track coach, Ryan Hopkins. “But since I hit 130?”

She figured it out. Yet another breakthrough.

Sani launched a 132-foot, 6-inch throw at a meet in Chico in April. Her new personal best has been the mark to chase among Redwood Empire throwers ever since. And chase they did. The trio of Sani, Santa Rosa’s Caitlin Grace and Middletown’s Taelor Roderick provided throwing fans competitive entertainment all season.

“If I didn’t have those girls, I wouldn’t have the drive to be the best that I can be,” she said.

Sani threw 130 feet even at the North Coast Section Meet of Champions last Friday to advance to the CIF state track and field championships at Buchanan High in Clovis Friday and Saturday.

According to Hopkins, she’s the first El Molino athlete to advance to the state meet since Joe Durling qualified in discus in 2008.

But the breakthrough that is more significant than all of those milestones this season was the one she made after an illness-riddled freshman year. Sani was so ill after her freshman volleyball season and into basketball that in the spring she went on El Molino’s home/hospital program. She was essentially home-schooled for months.

“It started with abdominal pains when she was running the mile in PE. First we thought it was the flu bug; then it was rushing to the hospital,” said her mom and El Molino’s varsity volleyball coach, Becky Sani.

“It was scary. It was really, really scary,” Becky Sani said. “She wasn’t using the right words. It was like somebody who has a stroke who was trying to speak.”

There were doctor visits, prescriptions doled out and a variety of diagnoses - none of which seemed to help. Kassidy Sani was in constant pain.

“There were numerous ER visits and various specialists and nobody could really give me an answer,” Kassidy Sani said. “I didn’t check any of the boxes that they tried to put me into.”

Until the last box: Lyme disease.

One might think it would be scary to be an athletic teenager diagnosed with such an affliction. Not to Kassidy Sani. The diagnosis meant that what was happening to her had a name. Now she could figure out how to tackle it.

She adjusted her diet. She was strict about her sleep schedule. She takes ice baths. She uses a sauna. She sees a chiropractor. She has a naturopath.

And she feels better. She is stronger.

“I don’t even have the words to describe it,” Kassidy Sani said. “You don’t really appreciate what you have until it’s gone.”

But it’s not gone. Sani is throwing farther than ever.

“She is a pretty natural athlete,” Hopkins said. But her discipline (remember the diet and the sleep schedule?) sets her apart, he said.

“She’s amazing in terms of work,” he said. “She will do everything in terms of what I ask her to do.”

But sometimes, Hopkins has to ask the natural athlete to not do things. He has to tell her to take a day off. In other circumstances, Sani would be a sprinter, too, but that is asking too much from her body.

“Last year was about trying to figure out what her body could handle,” he said.

But for Sani, days off are rare. A competitive club volleyball player, Sani regularly drives from her home in Cazadero to school in Forestville and, after track practice, to Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, where her club team trains.

The CIF state track and field championships wrap up late Saturday. On Sunday morning, Sani will be on a plane to Seattle to catch the second half of a volleyball tournament that her club team is competing in.

But first, she will make her debut at the state meet. Sani is ranked 19th out of 23 throwers coming into the competition. The top-ranked thrower launched one 161 feet, 9 inches in the section finals.

But Hopkins thinks Sani can hang in there. Sani’s personal goal is to advance from Friday’s preliminary round into the finals Saturday.

“She’s an extremely competitive person,” he said. “The pressure is off. She is going out there to have fun but to (also) go throw a bomb.”

Hopkins and Sani both say that a huge piece of being a successful discus thrower is not just raw strength, and not just coordination, but the mental piece.

Being able to step into the ring with loose, long limbs instead of tense muscles can mean the difference between throwing a bomb and bombing.

Sani thinks working her way through an illness that for many months didn’t have a name - and now handling the effects of a disease that can wear her down and saddles her with aches and pains - might, in the end, be a gift.

Kassidy Sani said the illness just might have forged a tougher person than she ever would have been without it. Her mom calls her a warrior.

“It was really a difficult time in my life, but without it I wouldn’t be the person I am now,” she said.

Another breakthrough.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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