She was a top sportswoman on a sports scholarship to an American university, but for former Taupo student Anna Taylor, it all fell apart last year.
Anna, who was then 18 and in her freshman year of a rowing scholarship at Oregon State University, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In the months that followed, she battled through surgery, radiotherapy and depression but has fought her way back to her winning form, regaining her place in the Oregon State University Beavers varsity 8 rowing team, being named newcomer of the year, winning a spirit award and being named to a US West Coast rowing 'dream team'.
Anna, 20, who attended Taupo-nui-a-Tia College and St Peter's School in Cambridge, was originally a swimmer, but took up rowing while at St Peter's. There she was noticed by a US rowing scout and offered the Oregon scholarship. But a few months after arriving in the US, she noticed in December 2010 that something was wrong. ``I started getting really tired and not being able to eat my food which was very frustrating, taking hours to eat a sandwich.''
When Anna wound up with pneumonia, her doctor noticed a lump on her throat. An ultrasound and a biopsy later, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She felt scared and alone, although her team and her coach were supportive and Oregon State University found funding to bring her parents to America twice. Anna had surgery on her thyroid in April 2011 and her mother, Taupo midwife Raewyn Taylor, went over to be with her. But Anna's recovery took months and once back in New Zealand, Raewyn was concerned. She made a second trip to Oregon and found Anna ``in a dark hole'' and struggling with depression.
``Her whole hormonal system was completely shot. The thyroid affects your appetite, your moods, ability to concentrate, ability to sleep, everything, so it's been quite a struggle.''
Raewyn brought Anna home to New Zealand for two months and the family nurtured her back to health. But when she returned to the US, her oncologist discovered she was still harbouring cancer cells and she had to go through radiotherapy in November 2011. The radiotherapy was rough _ it wiped out Anna's tear ducts, saliva and the fluid around her joints _ but she was determined to come back.
Anna worked as hard as she could to regain her fitness, even though a physical session would leave her wiped out. ``But it was such a good feeling, I enjoyed working hard and feeling tired because I was part of something greater and it was so exciting to be back with the team and being competitive again.''
That work paid off last January when she did an ergometer test (a 2000m trial on a rowing machine that matches the length of a collegiate race) and recorded a personal best time. She stepped off the rowing machine and collapsed in tears of joy.
Anna is continuing with her exercise and sport science studies at Oregon State University and is back in the university's number one crew. She says she is spending the summer ``living the dream'' rowing for the Vesper Boat Club in Phildephia. The team has just returned from the US club nationals where it won a silver medal in the intermediate quad and two golds in the intermediate 8+ and senior 8+. The club won the women's overall points trophy and the overall points trophy for the regatta. ``I have learnt a lot about the value of health, and how blessed I am for my parents, friends, teammates and coaches,'' Anna says. ``Life is good.''