‘I wasn’t going to let cancer take this away’

Clark’s summer softball story of sheer determination inspires thousands

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla Humboldt’s Ashlyn Clark is presented her 2019 Female Athlete of the Year honor by Kemna Auto representative Eric Hippen.

Quitting was never an option for Ashlyn Clark.

So many times when facing adversity, people see giving up or giving in as their only way out. This recently-graduated Humboldt High School senior instead became a fighter.

Through her battle with Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma — knowingly or sometimes even unknowingly — Clark has become a superstar in the eyes of many, and an idol to young athletes who have connected with her sheer will and affable personality.

Her story now includes snapping pictures or signing autographs for anyone from 10-year-old girls to Chicago Cubs all-star and world champion Jon Lester.

“I think it’s amazing (being an inspiration to others),” Clark said. “I’m just trying to be myself throughout the whole process.

“I’ve always been strong, but I guess I never realized how strong.”

Even with her cancer diagnosis, Clark fought back and finished her career at Humboldt on the softball field with her teammates.

“I never considered (stepping away from sports) as an option,” said Clark, an Iowa Central Community College volleyball recruit. “I had a lot of things taken away from me right away … I wasn’t going to let cancer take this away (softball).

“My love for the game kept me motivated.”

Because of her grit and determination and sheer overall production as a Wildcat, Clark has been named the 2019 Kemna Auto Female Athlete of the Year.

“It means a lot (to be recognized), because there were so many athletes (in the region) to choose from,” Clark said. “It’s an honor.”

During her treatment schedule, when her body would allow, Clark was either with her teammates in the dugout or in right field — a place she considers “home.”

Clark put together a successful final campaign despite only being able to take the field for select games, earning second team all-North Central Conference honors for the Wildcats. She saw action in 18 games total and had 26 at-bats, hitting .462. Clark scored two runs and drove in nine.

Clark has experienced many memorable moments, but two come to mind above all the others.

“My favorite memories would be making a diving catch against Davenport Assumption at state (in the semifinals last summer), or hitting my home run (last month),” Clark said. “Just because I had so much taken away … the homer (on Senior Night) was a personal win.”

The photo of Clark with her home run ball went viral, attracting hundreds of responses and thousands of views on social media. She went deep on the eve of her 18th birthday and hours before a scheduled round of treatment at the Mayo Clinic. A few days later, Lester saw the picture and invited Clark and her family — as personal, VIP guests — to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.

So much has changed about Clark’s health, but Humboldt head coach Doug VanPelt knows she’s still the same person at her core.

“She didn’t want to be Ashlyn with cancer. She just wanted to be Ashlyn,” Van Pelt said. “She was no different on the softball field. To earn second-team NCC (recognition) in a limited amount of games was an honor. Her production was right there where it was last year, but you can’t put a value on what she accomplished.

“What she did between the fences, while she was dealing with what was going on outside of them … it was a thing of a beauty.”

VanPelt saw no wavering in Ashlyn’s ability or desire to play after being diagnosed in early May.

“‘Will’ is the key word with Ashlyn,” Van Pelt said. “She’s had that in her battle with cancer, and in her will to continue to play. From day one, she wanted to get back and stay on the field. Ashlyn’s story is just unbelievable; a great testament to her perseverance.

“Anybody that has followed Ashlyn and anyone who has dealt with cancer with someone they love believes in a higher power. Ashlyn had to overcome a lot to be at our ballgames. She has touched people’s heart and emotions and inspired so many. It’s truly been unbelievable.”

Through her battles on and off the field, Clark has always experienced unconditional support from her family, her coach and her hometown. There have been fundraisers and rallies in her name across Iowa this summer, with programs like Fort Dodge and St. Edmond joining the cause. Her own school held “Ashlyn’s Night at the Ballpark” in late June, which attracted thousands of people to Humboldt for an evening of fun activity. Former Iowa Hawkeye and Iowa State Cyclone stars made it a headline event.

“Humboldt has been a great community to play sports in. We’re like one big family,” Clark said. “(Coach) Van Pelt has been the biggest influence throughout my athletic career. He had so much respect for us that we just automatically have it back for him.

“My mom has been my been my rock throughout this whole process, and my family’s strength for me … is just breathtaking (Ashlyn told the Messenger in earlier interview). “

After four years of running track and playing basketball, softball and volleyball at Humboldt, Clark will narrow her schedule down to one sport and play for Tritons’ head volleyball coach Sara Horn.

“I’ve known Ashlyn for a while now, and she’s come to our open gyms,” Horn said. “She is a great athlete with a tremendous attitude. Her positivity is just fantastic. She doesn’t let anything deter her. She wants to stay the course and keep moving forward.

“She isn’t going to let anything change who she is.”