Henning Overcomes Obstacles To Become Successful Coach
By Elio Velez
The story of Jim Henning is of a Rockawayite who loved the water so much that he started swimming when he was 7 years old. The story is also of how Jim continued swimming into CYO, high school and New York University. And the story is of a young man who fought through so much adversity to follow his dreams that not even cancer could stop him.
Jim Henning, now 28 years old, was born in Rockaway Beach and moved to Rockaway Park when he was seven. "I was definitely interested in sports in a young age", Henning said. His father Bill and mother Maureen knew of Jim’s interest in swimming and enrolled him in the St. Francis CYO Swim Team. Bill even drove Jim to participate on the Long Beach U.S. Swimming team.
Jim had finished in the top 5 in the U.S. Junior Olympics at 9 years old and he was having the time of his life. But something was wrong. "At 11 years old, I was having severe headaches and it lasted for 3 or 4 months", Henning said. "My pediatrician said I should go get a catscan because it was odd that a 11 year old kid could have migraine headaches." After the catscan, Jim’s fear was answered when an MRI revealed a peach size tumor in the cerebellum in his brain. Jim had cancer at 11 years old.
With surgery and hospitalization for a month at N.Y. Downstate Medical Hospital, Henning’s rehabilitation began. "Because it was surgery on my cerebellum, I had to learn to walk, talk, balance and had to fight off double vision to see clearly", Henning said.
One of the first methods of rehab that the doctors told him to do was swim. The first time he swam, it wasn’t pretty. "I started to drown and my friends had to help me out of the pool." Jim received constant support not only from his parents, sister Kerry and brother Timmy. His teammates at Long Beach and coach Joe Farrell welcomed him back with open arms.
After returning to swimming part time at St. Camillus, Henning went to Archbishop Molloy and got the best news from his neurosurgeon in his last session. "The portion of my cranium where the tumor was taken out had recovered enough for me to swim full time", Henning said. "The doctor told me that there was a 20 million to 1 chance that it would come back."
At Archbishop Molloy, Jim was helped by head coach Norm Sovern and his assistant, Don Green, who had been his coach at St. Francis. Green’s son Keith was teammates with Jim. He set team records in the backstroke and the 100 and 200-yard distance.
He attended Iona College and won the 200-yard backstroke as a freshman in the MAAC Championship. After the swimming season was done, Henning was interested in the water polo program, which was in the top 20 in the NCAA. Henning was always interested in water polo but was afraid that the sometimes-physical nature of play could affect his brain if a blow to head was placed. "I got the clearance to play and the muscles in my back got stronger and I enjoyed it." Henning became captain of the team and team MVP of the swim team in his junior year.
Cancer Appears Again
Things were going very well until cancer appeared again, but this time it was his mother Maureen. Maureen was diagnosed with bone cancer in March of 1994 and was in remission for a year and a half. Illness struck again to Maureen as she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She recovered once again. Cancer seemed to hover like a black cloud over the Henning family.
After graduating with a degree in Mass Communications, Henning taught at P.S. 225 and began as a lifeguard in the summer at Beach 97 Street. As he returned to the beach in the summer of 2000, a woman he had rescued noticed that he was talking funny. Henning had noticed that he had acquired something that caused him to have a thick tongue.
The fear of cancer had risen again. An MRI at Peninsula Hospital revealed that he had a cancerous tumor and this time, it appeared close to the brain stem. "I could never imagine that it can come back again", Henning said. "And If I beat it, I did not want to relearn how to walk and talk again."
Once again, Henning valiantly fought cancer and won.
"I had heard that NYU wanted to start a water polo program and I quickly applied for the job", Henning remembers.
Winning Games And Cancer
Henning was an assistant coach and became head coach of the Mens’ and womens’ team in 2001. Starting the program from scratch was not easy but Henning quickly gathered a team of inexperienced students, undergraduate and graduate students to become a good team.
The NYU Lady Violets won their division and went to Emory University to compete in the NCAA club championships before losing to St. Francis (N.Y). In March of 2002, the Violets were going to compete once again the NCAA championships when the shunt placed in Henning cranium broke. Once again, Henning was placed on an operation table.
"I was in there for four days but I was proud of my team’s support for me after I went and came back from the hospital", Henning said.
The Men’s trip to the Men’s Club nationals for the second straight year in 2002 made Henning the New York Division’s Coach of the Year. At this time, Henning, also the natatorium manager, helped supervise the construction of the new, state-of-the-art NYU Palladium Sports Complex, which was just completed.
The fight of cancer has always been a tough and grueling fight. For Jim, the help of so many and the love of swimming have been so paramount for Henning to overcome what cancer has tried to take from him.
"I have been so proud of what happened medically to me. I’m happy about my teams. I’m happy about my family and friends", Henning said. "I love where I grew up in Rockaway and even if I live in Manhattan now, I always come back to lifeguard in the summer at the Beach 97 shack. I’m happy about everything."