In rowing, a coxswain’s ability is not measured by physical strength but by having the tools to lead through commands. Often known as the master of the vessel, the coxswain is the strategic voice that guides a team through rough and competitive waters.
Over the past three years for the USC women’s rowing team, that voice has come from Dionne Licudine, and heading into 2012, all signs pointed to a successful campaign.
That was true until the night of Feb. 3, when the team’s vocal leader encountered the most unexpected fight of her life.
“I went to the hospital that night complaining of severe abdominal and back pain,” Licudine recalled. “I was admitted a short time later for what was supposed to be a simple surgery since they told me I had gallbladder disease. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.”
After her initial surgery on Feb. 6, doctors came back with bad news for Licudine, a native of the Phillippines.
During the procedure, she had suffered major complications, including blood loss and massive internal bleeding. While the physicians initially believed blood transfusions would fix the issue, Licudine eventually was rushed to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for a second surgery. On Feb. 10, the highly sedated senior went under the knife one final time to close up her abdomen and to make sure there was no other damage.
“I don’t think we realized how serious it was at first,” said coach Zenon Babraj. “Then when we started hearing about major blood loss, it was clear to us that this wasn’t just a question of whether she would return to rowing, this was a fight for her life. It’s moments like that where sports just don’t matter much.”
After seven days in the ICU, Licudine was moved to what she called “a normal floor.” However, she was by no means out of troubled waters.
Further tests revealed that on top of gallbladder disease, Licudine suffered from acute renal kidney failure. She would not only be forced to stay under hospital care for two more weeks, but there was a serious possibility that her rowing career was in danger.
“I don’t think I realized the severity of it until I was out of the ICU,” Licudine said. “There was definitely a period of time when I wondered if I would ever get a chance to be back in the water with my teammates. They were a huge inspiration for me to get better and recover faster than I was expected.”
While doctors and physical therapists worked intensely to try and restore Licudine’s strength and ability to walk, her teammates were not permitted to visit her and only could rely on daily updates from her parents or the occasional text message. Although the team did its best to train without Licudine, the absence of its 2011 captain was noticeable.
After nearly a month in the hospital, Licudine was released in early March. And if there was a decision to be made about her future with the rowing team, the senior put that to rest with a heartfelt email she wrote to her coach and teammates.
“I am extremely lucky to be alive,” she wrote. “I was able to fight through all of this because of what you all have taught me everyday – perseverance and fight. You girls are my family, and you really pulled through when I needed you most. I want you to know that I fully intend to win this season, and I can’t wait to get back in the water with you!”
True to her word, just days after being released from the hospital, Licudine traveled with the team to Sacramento for a preseason training camp. And although there were no expectations for her to accompany the team on the water, Licudine wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“She would just sneak out with her boat,” Babraj said. “I must have caught her at least twice, but she is who she is. You can’t say no to someone with the will to compete like she has. This whole thing only solidifies it even more that she is the ultimate fighter.”
At the end of March, the senior coxswain was back in her customary spot on the team’s vessel at the San Diego Crew Classic. The team took top honors, the Jessop-Whittier Cup, for the second straight year with Licudine’s voice and heart at the center of it all.
“She is our inspiration,” said senior Helen Tinkus. “Even before this happened to her, there is just something so special about sharing a boat with her. She’s a born leader. These last few months have tested us as a team, but it’s made us stronger. And, guess what, we still have Dionne by our side.”
For Licudine, the victory marked the end of a whirlwind two-month journey, one that saw her go from the agony of a hospital bed to the greatest triumph of her life.
“The biggest thing I think I took away from the experience was the love and support I received from my teammates, coaches and USC athletic department,” Licudine said.
“Everyone was sending me messages, flowers and gifts, just making sure I was OK. As much as I wanted to get back for myself, I wanted to get back even more for everyone else,” she said. “Now that I’m back, all I want to do is help us win an NCAA championship.”
One fight down and one to go.