It’s no surprise Black Hills High School senior Bella Brown is a tough, aggressive soccer player.
Her mom, Regina, played the sport at the University of Oregon and later skated with Olympia’s national champion women’s roller derby team. Her dad, Jim, wrestled at West Valley High School in Yakima.
When Jim’s father, a Navy veteran, passed away in 2011, he had the word “HOLD” tattooed across the knuckles of his right hand, “FAST” on his left. It’s a nautical term reminding him to persevere in difficult times.
In May of 2015, Jim found himself coughing and short of breath when he rode his bicycle, a favorite activity. The diagnosis was harsh — Stage 4 lung cancer, a variety only three percent of patients survive beyond five years. Two decades of gulping smoke as an Olympia firefighter had taken its toll.
“I went from being a firefighter and a cyclist to my family having to deal with me being in the worst stage of the deadliest cancer in existence,” Jim said.
Bella heard the news on a Friday. Then a freshman at Black Hills, she was scheduled to run the 1,600 meters in the Freshman Invitational at Centralia the next day as part of the Wolves’ track team.
The result? She finished second among 22 runners in a personal record time of 5 minutes, 52.33 seconds.
“I channeled my anger,” she said. “If you’re given a healthy body, you need to do the most with it.”
She ran 11 more 1,600s for Black Hills, winning three times, before narrowing her focus to soccer, but never beat her personal best from that pivotal weekend.
Sticking to soccer has been a good decision. Bella, a do-everything bundle of energy for the Wolves in the midfield, is on track to become the first four-year all-2A Evergreen Conference player since coach James Corbin took over the program. She’s committed to play for Central Washington University next fall.
“Bella’s balanced, a very well-rounded player,” Corbin said. “She contributes as a leader and a teammate. She’s the glue that keeps us together and moving forward.”
Bella started playing soccer at 5 on a recreation league team that included current Black Hills’ teammates Rylee Flahaut, Megan Lowe, Sydney Lowe and Julia Wojnar. The girls have been together ever since.
“I love the game. It’s really cool to have something to always be working to master,” Bella said. “There aren’t a lot of sports where you use your feet. I like running, I like that it’s a contact sport, everything about it.”
Her youngest sister Lillian, 11, also plays soccer while Phoebe, 15, is a volleyball player. Their dad has always been a part of his daughters’ sports support system. When Corbin learned of Jim’s health situation, he moved to make him a formal part of the Wolves’ program.
Athletic trainers hadn’t been a consistent presence, so Corbin asked Jim — who still works at the Olympia Fire Department as a captain in charge of medical services, though he can no longer respond to fires — to become the team’s sideline medical person.
“Jim’s an invaluable reminder to our players of the value of life,” Corbin said. “It’s amazing to see his perseverance and what he’s still able to achieve.”
The team has added graphics of a fist tattooed with the “HOLD FAST” phrase to some of its apparel.
“The school community has really embraced us,” Jim said. “ ‘HOLD FAST’ has been my battle cry. James and the team adopted that.”
The Brown family has turned its attention to the future.
“At first my dad’s cancer was devastating. Hard doesn’t even describe it,” Bella said. “You don’t think it will happen to your family until it does. Everyone knows someone who’s had cancer, but I wasn’t expecting it to impact me directly. I’m a Christian, so looking to God for strength was important for me.”
Advancements in medical science leave room for hope. Jim is able to ski in the winter, ride dirt bikes and has taken a stab at Crossfit.
“We’re striving toward ‘chronic disease management,’ ” Jim said. “People think you beat cancer and go into remission, or you don’t. I’m in a kind of middle ground. I liken it to the ’80s when somebody got diagnosed with AIDS, they were a goner. Now it’s a chronically manageable disease.”
Soccer is the place where father and daughter can occasionally get away from the shadow of the disease.
“When Isabella’s on the field she’s a beast, she’s making things happen,” Jim said. “I’m proud of the way she carries herself. She’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. She takes on the role of a leader, has humility and her work ethic is astounding. When a coach sees something she needs to work on, she’s open to it and not defensive about it.”
Bella’s leadership has extended to parts of the Black Hills campus beyond the field. She is ASB secretary and headed up committees for homecoming coronation and student recognition. Yet, the Wolves’ goal of winning a Class 2A state championship is paramount. Two years ago, Black Hills made it to the round of eight before losing to eventual-champion Squalicum.
“We have no drama this year,” Brown said. “We’re very close. Our senior class has shown leadership even though some of them have never been that role before. It’s really cool to see the improvement of our underclassmen since last year. It’s exciting and promising for this season and for the future of the program.”