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updated: 5/1/2013 7:40 PM

A story as beautiful as a rose

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  • Montini senior distance runner Catherine Kitz placed 34th at last fall's Class 2A cross country meet and runs on the school track team.

    Montini senior distance runner Catherine Kitz placed 34th at last fall's Class 2A cross country meet and runs on the school track team.
    Photo courtesy of the Kitz family


The story of Catherine Kitz may not be a miracle, but it's close.

The Montini senior distance runner was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 4 months old. She runs a fine line between appreciating her physical ability and resenting the confinements of the disease.

Cystic fibrosis, for which there is treatment but no cure, is a life-threatening, genetic disease that causes mucus to build up and clog parts of the body, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation website. The organs affected most are the lungs and pancreas -- ironic, Broncos coach Pete Connelly notes, since lungs are among a distance runner's most vital organs.

"I feel that it's amazing that I can run at the level that I am, because I never thought I could do this even a few years ago at this intense level in high school. At the same time I am competitive, and it is upsetting that it's holding me back in certain ways." said Kitz, 18, of Downers Grove.

A captain of both Montini's girls track and cross country teams, last fall she helped the Broncos to their second straight third-place Class 2A finish and placed 34th individually; as a junior she placed 41st. At the 2012 Class 2A track meet she ran the third leg of Montini's third-place 3,200-meter relay. She had qualified to run the open 3,200 in Saturday's finals, but in the high Charleston heat Friday's relay preliminary left her too drained to chance it.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation states that in 1995 children with the disease were not expected to live long enough to reach grade school. Due to medical advancements, by 2009 the median life expectancy was in the mid-30s. Though genetic, CF comes from two recessive genes, said Catherine's mother, Mary Fran. Neither she, her husband, Michael, nor their two other children, Brendan or Megan, have it.

Catherine takes about 20 pills a day to aid digestion, ingests anti-inflammatory medicine for her lungs, inhales more medication daily through a nebulizer and must constantly ward off infection from buildup of mucus. Born in Solon, Ohio, outside of Cleveland, she visits her original doctor three times a year. His home phone number is quickly at hand.

As Mary Fran said, "She's always battling."

Mortality, however, does not enter into conversation with this high honor roll senior, who plans on running and studying mechanical engineering at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

"I have a condition, but I don't really think of myself as a sick kid," she said. "There's things that affect me and I still feel normal. I don't let it control me. It's always there, but it's not a defining factor of my life."

The progression she focuses on is that 45 to 50 miles a week, training to help her team and surpassing personal-best times that due to the ups and downs of her health haven't changed since her junior year -- 5 minutes, 22.86 seconds in the 1,600, and 11:31.81 in the 3,200. She got another crack Wednesday at the Suburban Christian Conference meet at Rosary.

"I had a really good race (11:41.83) two months ago at York, I ran the 2-mile there," she said. "Then I got on antibiotics and I was sick. Training became more difficult and my racing, I was not getting the times I had hoped."

Monday ended the latest round of antibiotics to combat a respiratory infection. Yet through that ordeal Kitz ran times that approached her best. At the Illinois Prep Top Times indoor championships Kitz clocked in at 11:55.45; Friday at Conant her time was 12:02.1.

Those times are like an alternate reality compared to her first effort for Montini. After being cut by the Broncettes dance team as a freshman, she joined track. Her first 3,200-meter race, Connelly recalled, required more than 24 minutes to complete. She improved steadily, then midway through the season caught pneumonia. Thinking to himself as the team visited her in the hospital, Connelly hoped she'd return her sophomore year to serve as a team manager.

"She had so much great enthusiasm and spirit that I wanted to keep her around the team somehow," he wrote in a lengthy, poignant email.

Instead, when her health improved Kitz trained all summer. She helped Montini reach the 2010 state cross country finals for the first time and became an all-conference 3,200 runner in the spring.

"She worked up to it and surprised herself and her parents and everybody," Mary Fran Kitz said.

The jarring motion of running actually benefits Catherine by loosening the mucus in her lungs, as does another of her longtime pursuits -- Irish step dancing. For 12 years she's been with the Trinity Irish Dancers and has competed in such places as New Orleans, Boston and Canada.

"It's kind of a cultural thing my parents were into, and when I was little I loved the Irish music and would make up little steps to it," said Kitz, whose 5-foot-7 height translates to greater lung capacity than many CF patients, who may not achieve standard physical development.

Connelly speculates that due to her challenges, while Kitz has "a funny side", she's more serious and down-to-business than most student-athletes. This also impressed Connelly's father, Jim, who coached boys track and cross country at St. Ignatius until joining his son at Montini the last four years of his life. Pete Connelly said his father considered high school female athletes a little too "silly" -- and admired Kitz's more serious demeanor.

When it was apparent during the last cross country season that the senior Connelly would not survive a bout with pneumonia, Pete told the team about his life, work, coaching and devout Catholicism. Jim Connelly, he said, never assumed he'd go to heaven but simply asked for a prayer for his soul.

"So Catherine listened and prayed," Pete Connelly said.

She prayed to St. Theresa, who on her own deathbed said she would "let fall a shower of roses" as a sign of love. Kitz prayed to the saint for a sign of Jim Connelly's soul in heaven.

After practice about a week later Kitz told her coach about the prayer, and also about being invited to Montini's homecoming. Her date initially planned to stick a poster on her locker as an invitation but changed his mind. He instead presented her with a bouquet of roses.

Life works in mysterious ways. Catherine Kitz, undefined by a life-threatening illness, runs it mile by mile.

"This is something that will always be in my life," she said. "I'll always struggle to overcome it, but it has not stopped me from achieving things I never thought I could."

Follow Dave on Twitter @doberhelman1

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