Karlie Kisha always knew she wanted to be an Olympian. The Olympic rings on her fourth grade vision board serve as proof. 

It’s a dream held by many, yet achieved by so few.

That dream inched closer to reality in January 2024 when the No. 15-ranked United States team went into the 2024 FIH Hockey Olympic Qualifier as one of the lowest-ranked teams, but pulled off a series of upsets – including against the host nation of India (No. 6) — to earn a spot at the Olympics after missing out on the Tokyo Games three years ago. 

It all came down to the match against No. 9 Japan. The team knew they had to play strong to stand a chance, but Kisha, age 28, said the team had prepped and planned for that moment ever since failing to qualify for Paris at the 2023 Pan American Games.

After trailing, the U.S. rallied back with two goals in the fourth quarter to win 2-1 and punch a ticket to Paris. 

“It was honestly one of the most fulfilling moments,” Kisha recalled. “For me, I’ve been on the team now for four years and this has been a lifelong dream and goal of mine. To just feel in that moment that everything was worth it, was just one of the most surreal feelings ever. Being able to celebrate it with some of my best friends and the most amazing women I’ve ever played with, was just icing on the cake.”

However, in early May, a mere five weeks before USA Field Hockey was set to announce its Paris-bound roster, her life was turned upside down and her cherished dream was suddenly cast into doubt.

A few weeks earlier, Kisha had gone in for a routine exam with her ears, nose and throat doctor. She didn't have any symptoms and most certainly didn’t feel the lump that was found on her thyroid that day.

What followed was a whirlwind of tests and examinations, culminating in the devastating news she never expected: She had papillary thyroid cancer.

The diagnosis came on May 6, 2024, exactly 82 days from the opening match of the women’s tournament at the Paris Games, in which Argentina — the Tokyo Olympic silver medalists — will face off against the United States. 

Soon came the realization that her Olympic dream could slip away.

“Immediately my mind went there because — just like anybody who gets any injuries leading up to the Olympics — it only comes every four years and you work your whole life for this,” Kisha said. “To have something that could take it away was pretty devastating.”

With the clock ticking — and the final eight games of the FIH Hockey Pro League right around the corner — Kisha sprung into action. On May 17 she had surgery to remove her thyroid and lymph nodes — where the cancer had spread to. 

Karlie Kisha
Courtesy of USA Field Hockey

While Kisha, who also works remotely as a volunteer assistant coach for Villanova University, was recovering in the hospital, the national team left for Europe. Although she wasn’t able to join them just yet, their love could be felt from thousands of miles away. 

“I have to say, they were very, very, very supportive from afar with Facetime calls, texts, and all of the above,” Kisha said. “They’ve been amazing through this whole process.”

Determined not to let her diagnosis hinder her, Kisha reunited with her team in Belgium a week after her surgery. Two days later she was able to start running again. 

“I was feeling shockingly very good, so I was basically getting up to sprints and being able to do almost whatever I wanted to do while running. Then I picked up the stick on May 28,” Kisha said. “What’s crazy — and we’ll never really know — is that one of the biggest symptoms of thyroid cancer is fatigue. I could have been living in more of a state of fatigue and I didn’t really know it because we’re elite athletes; we’re always fatigued. So maybe this was just me feeling good because I don’t necessarily have that cancer in me anymore.”

Whatever the reason, it didn’t matter anymore. All that truly mattered was that Kisha was feeling stronger and able to return to the field. 

Just 27 days after receiving her diagnosis, she returned for the final three matches of the Pro League, beginning with the match against Germany on June 2. As family, friends, teammates, coaches and the world marveled at her swift comeback, Kisha herself was astonished by her resilience. 

“The fact that I was able to come back that fast was pretty crazy,” she said. 

On June 11, Kisha’s Olympic dream was realized when she was named to the 16-woman roster that will represent the United States at the Paris Olympics. 

The opportunity has kept Kisha — and her team — motivated beyond measure. 

“It’s everything. It’s why we play. It's why we practice and we do our runs and we lift and we sacrifice so much of our time,” Kisha said. “And this isn't where it stops.”

Luckily, chemotherapy won’t be necessary, Kisha says, but she will have to take a thyroid hormone every morning for the rest of her life. On July 3, after two weeks of being on a low-iodine diet, she received radioactive iodine. She was able to return to full team practice after isolating for two days. 

On July 14, Kisha and her teammates will head to Ireland for a week-long holding camp, a final preparation before moving into the Olympic Village in Paris.

Despite the unexpected hurdles she faced, Kisha's unwavering determination and resilience have brought her full circle to the realization of her lifelong dream.