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Defying the Odds: Cliff Rudzki

By June 10, 2019June 27th, 2019Athlete Feature

I make no excuses. I place no blame. I define my own destiny.

Cliff Rudzki personifies the Granite Games Athlete Creed. Despite receiving crushing news and a grim prognosis, he has resolved to define his own destiny, making no excuses and never quitting. We’re profoundly moved by his story and are humbled by our role in it.

You may recall the name Rudzki from the 2018 SISU Hammer finalists. Nikki Rudzki’s CrossFit story began with her toddler son’s brain cancer diagnosis in August 2014. Cliff had been doing CrossFit for a little over a year, but while Marek was undergoing treatment at St Jude Children’s Hospital, Nikki and Cliff decided to make their health a family priority. They knew Marek’s treatment and recovery was going to be difficult for them and improving their underlying health would put them in the best position to care for Marek and each other. They also wanted to model a healthy lifestyle for Marek (and eventually Truman, who joined the family in 2017).  They both cleaned up their diets and started moving their bodies with new-found purpose.

Before Marek’s diagnosis, Nikki was intimidated by CrossFit. But after spending 30+ hours in two surgical waiting rooms while pediatric surgeons operated on her 18-month old, CrossFit didn’t seem so scary anymore. In May 2015, Nikki jumped in with both feet and completed her first Murph only a few weeks after returning home to Cedar Rapids following Marek’s treatment at St Jude.

Cliff has been an athlete his whole life. He rowed crew at Iowa State University and lifted on his own as a young adult. He could run a relatively fast mile and anyone could see he was a pretty fit guy. Then one day in 2013, he discovered he’d never done a proper pull-up in his life. He’d been doing chin-ups and thinking he was pretty tough stuff. Like a true champion, he realized he’d been presented with an opportunity to learn and grow as an athlete and as a person. He jumped at that opportunity and hasn’t looked back.

Cliff’s first experience with the greater CrossFit Community was Granite Games 2017. Their gym wasn’t affiliated or super connected to the community, but Cliff met a couple of guys online and decided to come to St Cloud. After GG 2017, Cliff knew he’d found his tribe! He wanted to bring everything he’d experienced back to Cedar Rapids and share it with everyone at the gym.  He had swallowed a whole lot of that CrossFit Kool-Aid! In January 2018, Cliff and Nikki bought the gym and reopened as an Affiliate, 5 Seasons CrossFit. Membership exploded in 2018 and the vision Cliff had at Granite Games 2017 started to materialize. In 2018, Cliff came back to the Granite Games and Nikki competed for the first time. 2018 solidified everything he’d loved about 2017 and bringing more members of his FitFam to Minnesota was the reward for all the work he and Nikki put in during those early months of 5 Seasons.

Part of the Rudzkis’ journey with Marek’s cancer was learning Cliff and Marek both carry a chromosomal abnormality: they’re missing part of a gene that suppresses tumor growth and are at a greatly increased risk of cancer. As a precaution, Cliff undergoes annual MRI scans. Shortly after Granite Games 2018, Cliff’s MRI revealed a tumor on his brain. It was devastating news. He’d just had a huge clean PR at Granite Games, Marek was almost six and his periodic scans continued to show stable results. Truman was learning to walk, more and more people were falling in love with the #chosenfamily atmosphere they’d built at 5 Seasons AND they were getting ready to move the gym to a bigger, better location. For a few weeks, Cliff felt as though he was on top of the world. Suddenly, he was facing his own brain surgery and a hundred unknowns. Nikki, Marek, Truman and their family were going to have to watch, wait and worry while another loved one battled brain cancer.

Cliff had surgery on October 15, 2018 (and was home in less than 72 hours!). The morning of surgery, he was wearing his Granite Games 2018 athlete t-shirt and realized what his biggest goal was going to be for 2019: get back to St Cloud for Granite Games 2019. He hoped to compete, but was determined to come back in some capacity, be it on the floor or as a crew member. He asked Nikki to take a picture and his resolve was set.

The pathology results brought more devastating news: Glioblastoma. Although rare, Glioblastoma is aggressive and typically carries a grim prognosis. Despite Cliff’s excellent underlying health, his first oncologist told him he could expect this cancer to take his life in a matter of months, at most a couple of years. Cliff refused to accept that conclusion. The MRI caught the tumor months earlier than most, the surgeon was able to remove over 90% and they hadn’t yet fully explored treatment options. Instead of allowing statistics to dictate his future, Cliff got to work. He dove deep into research, met with a different oncologist and made a plan for treatment. The plan included the usual suspects: radiation and chemo and a clean diet. But what about exercise? CrossFit had brought many multi-faceted benefits to his life and he didn’t want to just quit, even if it was only temporary. His doctors supported his plan of continuing CrossFit and only suggested “toning it down a little.” Cliff had no idea what they meant because he only heard “continuing CrossFit” and didn’t ask any questions. (His mom would have preferred some clear guidelines, thank you very much!)

Early in 2019, Cliff had 42 days of radiation and chemo at Northwestern University. He worked out 2-3 times a week at a handful of different affiliates in the Chicago area and traveled home every weekend.  Since completing the radiation phase of treatment, he’s been back in Cedar Rapids, working full time, running a growing gym, coaching and living every day to the fullest with Nikki, Marek and Truman. He’s had some setbacks during 2019 but on the whole, he continues to rack up post-surgery PR’s and is showing good results from treatment. He credits CrossFit with teaching him mental toughness and lessons like “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”  He also knows CrossFit keeps his body strong and healthy so he can fight the cancer from within and better tolerate his continued treatments.

May was Cliff’s fourth month of oral chemo at home. Chemo takes a huge toll, and everyday activities require much more energy than usual. In spite of being in the thick of a round of chemo, Cliff completed a 400-meter handstand walk on May 18th and finished his 6th Rx Murph on May 27th.

Cliff & Nikki share a tender moment through the glass.

Cliff, Ross & Matt after wrapping their Granite Games weekend!

And true to his word, Cliff was here at Granite Games 2019!  5 Seasons CrossFit boasted three teams this year. And just as Cliff and Nikki found new purpose in healthy living after Marek’s diagnosis, the 5 Seasons “FitFam” has discovered new levels of meaning in cheering someone through the final reps of a tough WOD. Nikki is back this year as well, with her (OG) Powerbuff Girls, Nicole Kintzle and Jule Day in the Scaled division. Cliff competed with fellow 5 Seasons CrossFitters Ross and Matt as Man Chaps in the Intermediate Team of 3 division. Cliff can’t do as many unbroken reps as he did last year and his times aren’t as fast, but with the support of the entire 5 Seasons family, the Cedar Rapids CrossFit Community, and Nikki, Marek and Truman, he’s defying the odds at every turn.

And that’s exactly what we believe Cliff will continue to do, because defying the odds of Glioblastoma means he’ll absolutely smash the survival rates and keep coming back to the Granite Games year after year.