Meet Coast Guard Cadet Coy Spooner, Cancer Survivor, On a Mission to Capture Wrestling Championship

by Braxton Taylor

NEW LONDON — Coy Spooner, First Class Cadet, got on a call with the hierarchy at Coast Guard Academy and was presented two possible courses of action.

Course of Action A, he could return on a limited basis, academics only, no wrestling and not to be regimental commander as planned.

Course of Action B, he could take a one-year leave to complete recovery from his cancer, Hodgkins lymphoma.

But Spooner, who had already passed every test, including the challenge he’d given himself — running a marathon, and then immediately rowing the same 26-mile distance — rejected both.

“I’m going to propose Course of Action C,” he told them. “I will return with no restrictions and do everything I said I was going to do. I will come back and I will guarantee you I will do well in school, I will be a good R.C, I will have above a 285 on the physical fitness exam and I’ll be a wrestling team captain.’ I was like, ‘give me the opportunity, don’t try to shield me from something I could fail in. Give me the challenge. Let me prove it to you.’”

The Brass relented. Course of Action C, it would be.

What Spooner, 6 feet 4, an imposing figure with a vibe to match, sets out to do, says he will do, he does. By Jan. 6, eight months after he and his mother, Dionne, who had traveled from Arizona to be with him, got his diagnosis, Spooner had left cancer flat on its back and returned to the mat to begin winning matches again. He started with a come-from-behind 5-3 victory in the 197-pound match over Mauro Pellot-Vazquez of Alvernia, who was ranked third in NCAA Division III, and won two more at the Manganaro Duals in Pennsylvania.

Spooner’s sights are set on the Division III championship he was denied in the final match a year ago, and has overcome every opponent since.

“We talk quite a bit about stoicism and adversity on our team,” said Coach Guard wrestling coach Kevin Bratland. “Headlined by Ryan Holliday’s book, The Obstacle Is The Way. The ability to embrace adversity and forge yourself into a better version of yourself. … Coy believes the obstacle is the way. He is one tough S.O.B, and he holds himself and those around him to a very high standard. His success is attributed to his ability to learn, adapt, grow, change and overcome any obstacle that is in his way.”

As he and his Coast Guard teammates prepare for March, the regional and national tournaments and, in between, Billet Night, when cadets learn their first assignments, Spooner caps a triumphant year in which he kept a promise to himself, refusing to let his cancer keep him from living the life he has chosen, with virtually no quarter given.

“I went into the first treatment really gung-ho, ‘let’s get this thing over with,’” Spooner said. “The funny thing is, if somebody had told me I would be diagnosed with cancer, I feel I would have been very scared. But when I was diagnosed, I didn’t know what lymphoma was, I didn’t know what chemotherapy was, I didn’t know the side effects of anything. I didn’t know what having lymphoma meant, I didn’t know if it was a treatable cancer or not. But in my head, it was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to beat this and then continue to live my life. We’re going to deal with this and be ready to go.’”

Spooner, 22, grew up in North Dakota, where his father, Nolan, was the wrestling coach at Minot High. He played football and ran track, but wrestling was what he wanted to do in college and he focused on the service academies. After visiting Coast Guard, he thought, “this is the place,” the place where he could pursue his academic, athletic and military goals.

At the D-III championships in March 2023, where Coast Guard finished ninth, Spooner won his first three matches, then lost the final to Massoma Endene of Wartburg College. By that time, Spooner was beginning to feel something was wrong, his neck was stiff, he felt a swollen lymph node, felt run down. Antibiotics didn’t help, and doctors were at first unable to pin-point the problem. He got his diagnosis on May 5.

A plan was soon in motion. He returned to Arizona, where his parents now live, and began six months of bi-weekly chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic. Spooner had developed a training plan, too, to come back stronger and capture the championship. He got up one day feeling ill from the chemo, but was determined to run eight miles. His mother met him at the half-way mark in case he couldn’t finish, but finish he did. He was so dehydrated from the chemo and the running in the dry Arizona heat that it took him an hour to get up from a chair in his garage, but he got his work in.

And that’s how it went all summer. Chemo, followed by a few days of feeling miserable, then a few good days and then back again. “After a while, you get a little numb to it,” Spooner said. “You know no other way. Around month five, I was like, this is just how life is.”

After his sophomore year, Spooner and two teammates took on a challenge of hiking for 24 hours straight, no sleep, and covered 50 miles in Eastern Connecticut. He’d also done a one-mile bear crawl. Now, he thought up the running-rowing “Spoon-athon” as another way to push his mental, as well as physical endurance.

“Yeah, that was an adventure, too,” Spooner said. “I challenged myself to do something. It took me about four hours, then about four, four and a half to row. It was a long day.”

So when he returned to New London in the fall to finish his chemo near the Academy and begin his senior year, he was angry at the idea of not following through with his intention, though everyone justifiably had his health top of mind.

“They were just very cautious,” Spooner said. “For most people, yes, I would say if it was most people I would be concerned, too. But I know I’m not ‘most people.’”

He reached his goal of 2.85 out of a max of 3.0 on the physical fitness exam, kept his grades close to the 4.0 mark he’d reached before his illness, began serving out his duties as regimental commander, leader of 1,100 classmates, the highest rank for a cadet.

Three weeks after his last treatment, he was back on the mat and in competition.

After graduating in May, Spooner hopes to be assigned to Galveston, Texas for duty on a fast-response cutter, and that his fiancé, also graduating, will be sent close by.

“(Olympic champion) Dan Gable says once you wrestle, everything else in life is easy,” Spooner said. “There were a lot of times during treatments, I would think back to something that happened in wrestling. That’s what gave me the mental fortitude to make it through treatment with the attitude I did. Now I can prove you can be good academically, do things athletically, you can be good militarily and you can do it in addition to having things going on in your life. If you want to be ‘poor me, this is terrible,’ you can do that. Or you can be, ‘I have some things going on but I’m serving you.’ This is my purpose, to lead and inspire others.”

©2024 Hartford Courant. Visit courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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