When the final ball landed, it all looked very much like any other championship moment:
There was Jen Keddy, falling to her knees in Tavares, Florida, disbelief knocking her to the sand. There was her unlikely partner, Carly Kan, falling down with her, wrapping her 6-foot-4 teammate in a sandy, sweaty hug. There are smiles. Thousand-watt smiles. Smiles that are reserved for toothpaste advertisements and moments such as this. There is an awkward post-match interview, one in which Keddy could not find the words to properly describe the moment.
Three weeks later, she still couldn’t find the proper word. She leaned on surreal when discussing her first AVP title, a 17-21, 21-19, 15-12 win over Geena Urango and Emily Capers in the AVP Central Florida Open final. For most, surreal wouldn’t be wrong. It was, indeed, the most unlikely victory in a season full of them on the AVP Tour.
Keddy and Kan had never practiced together, let alone competed as a team. When Kan flew to Austin, Texas, to get a few reps in, she ate something awful and was heaving her way through food poisoning. So they practiced once, the day before they’d match up in the first round against Macy Jerger and Kahlee York. Neither had finished higher than ninth in a Pro or Gold Series event on the AVP Tour. So when Keddy joked with Kan, telling her that “We’re going to win,” nobody, even themselves, took it all that serious.
So in many ways, it was a bit surreal when they marched through the field, winning all five matches to claim their first AVP titles. But when Keddy allowed herself to take inventory of what these previous five years have included, it seemed, frankly, quite normal.
Two years ago, Keddy, the 2011 Big West Conference indoors player of the year for Cal Poly, had never truly pursued beach volleyball. She played one youth tournament in Santa Barbara, made the final, and had to forfeit because her partner needed to catch a flight; years later, she played one forgettable season as a fifth-year at Cal Poly.
Three years ago, she had been living in Missoula, Montana, a town that averages more than 40 inches of snowfall per year and is more likely, Keddy joked, to host an event on snow than sand.
Four years ago, Keddy could hardly walk, a symptom of the chemotherapy that had ravaged her nerves and left her feet completely numb.
Five years ago?
Jen Keddy’s life had a singular focus: “My one job,” she said, “was to survive.”
So is surreal really the right descriptor for winning a beach volleyball tournament?
“Well, when you put it like that,” she said, and then she laughed, and it is the laugh of a person who truly knows what it means to be alive.
A tumor the size of a football
In December of 2017, Jen Keddy was two months pregnant. This presented a host of problems, namely that Keddy’s job as a professional volleyball player required the full use of her body, she wasn’t yet married, and the relationship she was in was described by Kensie Gluekert, one of her close friends, as “not the greatest.” It didn’t help, either, that Keddy was living in Munster, Germany, competing for USC Munster, and was one of two Americans on her team (the other was Erica Wilson, an outside hitter from Arizona State).
She was bloated, her stomach didn’t feel well, and she had a mass on her abdomen that looked, Gluekert said, “like she was about 22 weeks pregnant. There was a bump. It was wild.”
Gluekert, being pregnant herself, was a good source for Keddy. When Gluekert recommended she see a doctor, and do so immediately, Keddy obliged, thinking she’d get an ultrasound that might let her know how far along she was, whether it was a boy or girl, a due date, and a recommendation for when she would have to stop playing volleyball.
It was a Tuesday.
“That will forever be seared into my brain,” Keddy said.
Because when she went to see the doctor, and the image of the ultrasound appeared on the screen, it wasn’t a 22-week-old child they saw, but a tumor the size of a football.
The baby she expected to see was, in actuality, stage four ovarian cancer.
“Oh, great,” Keddy recalled thinking, in her usual penchant for understatement. It all happened fast after that. Her German doctor told her that she needed to get surgery immediately, only, due to the socialized medicine in Germany, Keddy couldn’t actually get an appointment for the surgery until the end of January.
By then, she would have likely been dead.
“I was like ‘Wait, what? You’re telling me this needs to come out now and I might be dead in a month?'”
Three days later, she was on a flight home to California to see her father. The next day, Christmas Eve, she flew into Missoula. On Christmas, Keddy and her mother, Susan, drove five hours to see an ObGyn specialist in Billings, who scheduled an emergency surgery on the 26th. At 3 the next morning, the tumor had been successfully removed.
“It was scary. It was weird,” Keddy said. “It was such a whirlwind of fly home, here’s your family, surgery, now you’re in chemo.
“I had to shut everything off and I was simply there surviving.”
Dire as the circumstances were, there were, as Keddy says, “a lot of God Things that happened,” in that week. While the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, the doctor only removed one Fallopian tube and one ovary, meaning that Keddy, should she live long enough, could still one day have children.
The second God Thing Keddy noted is that, as a lifelong athlete, and a young one at that, she was strong enough for doctors to recommend the most aggressive regimen of chemotherapy, one that would would have her in the hospital for six hours a day, nearly every day, for five months as the cancer-killing poison was injected into her veins via a port in her chest.
“Thumbs up,” Keddy told her doctors. “Let’s do it.”
Gluekert accompanied Keddy for her first day of chemo, and “as soon as the chemo was being pumped into her she would just turn so red and her eyes would water,” she said. “I’ll never forget that.”
Sometimes the treatments seemed harder for Gluekert and her mother than it did Keddy herself. There was an oval walking track near the cancer center where Keddy received her chemotherapy. When Susan would pick up her daughter, “she’d make me take her over there and we’d walk a mile,” she said. “And then she’d go ‘OK, mom, we’re going to have to do one more.’
“It was just amazing to watch her fight.”
While Jen was intent on returning to volleyball, Susan would keep herself up all night, racing down the darkest of Google rabbit holes, researching the statistics of ovarian cancer.
“I’d make myself sick to my stomach, wondering and praying: ‘Why, God?’ ” Susan said. It is easy to forgive Susan for questioning the Almighty. Already, she had to bury one daughter, who died in a fatal ATV accident at the age of 16, while Jen’s father, Wayne, died of a heart attack when he was only 65 on the morning after Halloween.
Would she really have to bury one more?
There are photos of that time period of Keddy, from a woman empowerment shoot a friend from high school did.
“She could have gone into a depressed state,” Gluekert said. Everyone else had. Yet there was Keddy, “holding herself with so much grace,” Gluekert remembered. “She was so strong, yet I was the one crying.”
Even with that strength, however, even Jen Keddy isn’t immune to the side effects of chemotherapy. Here was a 26-year-old woman who wouldn’t even take Ibuprofen if she had a headache, “and then of course I’m just bombarding my body with chemo.”
Soon, she began to feel the effects of neuropathy, to the point that “I couldn’t walk unless I was watching my feet take steps because I could not feel my feet.” Headaches wracked her brain. She was as bald as the baby she once thought she was having. And, of course, because this is Jen Keddy, she told her doctor that she wasn’t “going to let cancer prevent me from playing volleyball. I’m going to have a comeback season.”
“I literally could not not play volleyball,” Keddy said. “I had to figure something out.”
When she told her doctor of her plans, he said that it was possible for Keddy to return to the court, with one caveat: She would have to be on medicine for the rest of her life.
“I’m 26 years old, there was no way I’m doing that,” Keddy recalled thinking. “There’s gotta be another way to get rid of this.”
Her options, according to her doctor, were two: It was either medicine or a miracle, and Keddy “just doesn’t really believe in putting that much into your body if it’s not necessary,” Gluekert said. “She thought there must be something else, something else out there to help her.”
Within a week, Jen Keddy had found her miracle.
The healing power of water
There is a well-known story in the Bible, among believers and non-believers alike, in the fifth chapter of the gospel of John. It takes place at a pool in Bethesda, a pool that was believed to possess some type of magical or divine power: When the water stirred, the first to get in would be healed. It was surrounded, then, by all manner of disabled — the blind, the paralyzed, the lame. An invalid had been attempting to get into the water for 38 years. But he never could, and thus remained paralyzed.
The bit that most remember from this tale — and, really, the bit that is intended to be remembered — is what happened next, when Jesus Christ approached the man and asked if he wanted to get well. The answer was obvious, and so Christ told him, simply, to pick up his mat and walk.
And so he did.
That anecdote is referred to in sermons and talks around the globe. Centuries later, millions of people from all cultures and languages believe in the miraculous power of Christ, citing that story as evidence of their belief.
Jen Keddy believes in Christ.
She also believes in the healing power of water.
In her search for an alternative to the life-long medication her doctor recommended, Keddy came across a social media post from a friend of hers. His dad had been diagnosed with cancer and, like Keddy, was going through chemotherapy. But he had learned of something called Kangen Water, a product of Enagic International, which produces alkaline ionizers that, per its website, transforms “the tap water in your home into pure, healthy, electrolyzed-reduced and hydrogen-rich drinking water.”
In layman’s terms, Keddy says, “it is basically a defibrillator for water, returning it to how it’s supposed to be so our bodies can absorb it, properly hydrate, and detox all this stuff we’re putting into it.”
Necessity, it has been said, begets creativity. Keddy was willing to try anything.
“I had no idea what it was, I had no idea what it did, but when you’re on your death bed, you might as well try it,” she said. It wasn’t difficult for her, or her mother, to rationalize the cost of the ionizer machine, which can range north of $5,000.
“There’s no treatment,” Susan recalled. “Just in desperation, [Jen] said ‘Hey I’m probably not going to make it, I’m probably going to die, so at worst I blow five grand on this machine. I’m just going to go for it.’ ”
Keddy had just bought her own personal pool of Bethesda.
Within a week, the side effects of the chemotherapy disappeared. Her headaches faded. The neuropathy that numbed her feet was replaced by the familiar, but now sublime, sensation of wiggling her toes.
Keddy, quite literally, picked up her mat and walked, returning, almost immediately, to the hard-charging, athletic life she had lived for 26 years. She was back in the gym, lifting daily. She phoned her agent and told him to find her a contract. Didn’t matter where. She was ready to play world-class volleyball again.
She also phoned her oncologist, telling him that “You told me I was going to be on meds for the rest of my life! This is crazy! I just started drinking this water and it’s helping.”
“At this point I didn’t really know or understand why it was happening but I just knew that it was happening,” Keddy said. “He shot me down, didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to hear about it. He just was like ‘Nope, not possible.’ ”
It was — and still is — difficult, some would say impossible, to explain. If it sounds far-fetched, many would agree. A Google search for Enagic water will reveal that the second question users most ask is if Kangen Water is a scheme. The internet is rife with accusations of Enagic, and Kangen Water, acting as a multi-level marketing scheme, touting unproven science, jacking up their prices to compensate its ever-growing pyramid of salespeople. (Many of these pieces, it is relevant to note, are written by Enagic’s competitors). YouTube videos such as “Kangen Water EXPOSED” are not uncommon, and the comments section, like most comments sections, quickly devolves into a polarized war of Kangen loyalists and those on the side of Amanda Bobbett, the producer of the video and a former sales rep for Enagic.
“You can Google anything and find anything,” Keddy said. “Many articles you see on the internet about Enagic and Kangen come from people who haven’t tried it. People are also paid to write articles. Here’s what I always tell people: ‘There’s a bully on the playground picking on kids for whatever reason. We know, as adults, those bullies are the ones who are the most insecure and need the most validation; they’re picking on others because they want to make themselves look better and feel powerful.’ The competition spends their money and time bashing Enagic because it’s the only way for them to compare and sadly, they fool a lot of people … Enagic has been around for almost 50 years and is the only company with a legitimate medical grade certification.”
Even Gluekert, who loved seeing her friend’s health being restored, even if by such an unconventional source, was hesitant to support Jen’s new water obsession.
“It was super hard for me because my husband is a pharmacist,” Gluekert said. “‘Are you sure you don’t want these things? We don’t want it to backfire on you.’ My husband was skeptical.”
Regardless of your opinion of Enagic’s business practices, or the veracity of Kangen’s claims of what it does and how it works, here are the facts: After finishing chemotherapy, Jen Keddy could not feel her feet. She had the balding pattern of a male twice her age. Headaches were frequent and debilitating. Until they weren’t.
“She’s drinking the water and she notices a change, and we start drinking the water because it’s at our house so why not? And Jennifer got stronger and stronger and healthier and healthier, and we were seeing effects in us,” Susan said. “It was amazing to watch her health and her growth.”
Look at Keddy now, and what you will see is a 6-foot-4 31-year-old woman with a head full of hair, feet that can feel every grain of sand, an AVP champion who was once diagnosed with a potentially fatal cancer in its latest stages. She rarely gets sick, doesn’t cramp, lifts almost daily and travels the country playing professional beach volleyball.
This past December marks five years of being cancer free.
Those, inexplicable as they may be, are the facts.
“I am,” Keddy said with a laugh, “a water wizard.”
A bold move, a happenstance meeting
Jen Keddy was still two years away, one at the minimum, from being a viable partner for Katie Dickens (then Lindelow). That’s what Dickens was told, anyway, by a friend who had seen Keddy play a few times at a bar in Austin called Aussie’s. But it’s not too often a 6-foot-4 former professional indoor volleyball player makes her way into the Austin beach volleyball scene, and Dickens, arguably the best defensive beach volleyball player in Texas, decided to see for herself.
She had seen Keddy before, at a reverse co-ed tournament at Aussie’s, though all she knew about Keddy was that she was tall, had played volleyball before, and was becoming known around the community as the ‘Water Girl.’
When Keddy moved to Austin, she did so as an independent distributor for Enagic, touting her testimony, and that of others, including Tampa Bay quarterback Tom Brady and the the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, as evidence of its effects.
The side effects?
Hadn’t been felt since.
Within six months of finishing chemotherapy in May of 2018 and running her water through her ionizer, Keddy had signed to play indoor again in Lima, Peru. When her contract finished and she returned home to Missoula, she took a good look around and knew that her bucolic town of 75,000 was no longer big enough for her. She had a story to tell, and a personality, as she says, fit only for the one state where everything is said to be bigger: Texas.
Another event she labels as a God Thing.
“It was like God said ‘Hey you should move to Austin,’ ” Keddy recalled. She was set to move with her boyfriend, and when that relationship didn’t work out, it didn’t slow Keddy in the least. She looked online, found a roommate, and moved there anyway.
“The best thing that I ever did,” Keddy said.
And on her first day in Austin, God continued the conversation, placing Keddy in line at the grocery store directly behind a customer who was wearing an AVP hat. Keddy, never one to be shy of striking up a conversation, asked if she played volleyball.
“I moved there by myself, fully on a whim, just fully how I do things — no planning, reckless — and that’s what I did,” Keddy said. “I met this girl who played volleyball and I said ‘That’s how I’m going to make friends,’ and that’s what I did.
“I played sand volleyball the next day and from there, that’s how I met people and it was the best thing ever. They were just very welcoming, and I don’t know if it’s because I’m 6-foot-4, but they said ‘Hey, come play with us!’ I was shocked, because Austin, Texas? Sand volleyball? What?”
It began at Aussie’s, then in the backyards of individuals who had their own private courts. Word soon spread that there was a giant from Montana, and Dickens recalls thinking
“Wait, for real, who is this girl? Who is this water girl everyone is talking about?”
Dickens still doesn’t remember exactly why she wasn’t playing an open tournament at Aussie’s one weekend in late 2020 or early 2021. But she does remember that she knew Keddy was playing, and that a friend told her not to bother; Keddy was still two years away from being a viable blocker at the AVP level to which Dickens aspired. She went anyway, and “I was sold. I said ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, she doesn’t need two years. She’s very ready.’
“We got her out to practice, just pickup, a few times. She was so legit from the beginning. You know how you can just tell someone is a good volleyball player from the beginning? Their platform is smooth, everything they do is controlled? That was Jen. So I asked her to go get coffee with me one day and if she would be up for training. I told her what a pro beach season might look like, what it costs, and she seemed interested.”
Dickens, a former LSU standout, had played in 13 AVPs and qualified twice, in Manhattan Beach and Austin in 2019. She knew what a fully dedicated season took, with regular practice, lifting, travel, and the financial implications that came with it. Keddy, whose only experience on the beach at that point had been random tournaments at Aussie’s, was, she said, “still in the mentality of ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing, let’s just go play volleyball.’ It was a season for Katie and I to say ‘Let’s see if we can really do this.’ ”
And then they did it, qualifying in their first AVP tournament as partners, winning three straight matches in Atlanta to make the main draw, where they would finish ninth. The remainder of that truncated 2021 season was ill-fated, as Keddy was hobbled by an injury in Manhattan Beach, and Dickens by COVID in Chicago. But the point was made: They could compete at the highest level.
Or could they?
They were exponentially more organized in 2022 than they were in 2021.
“We had a workout regimen, a personal trainer, a diet regimen, let’s train, have a set schedule,” Keddy said. “We got a bit more serious this year and had to set some higher goals because we qualified our first tournament. Definitely approached it with a lot more intention on my end.”
And then they lost. Not by much, but enough to whiff on main draws in both Austin and New Orleans, both times losing in the final match by just two points.
“When I say heartbroken,” Dickens said, “that was a low point.”
“When we lost in the qualifier in San Antonio by two points,” Keddy recalled, “it was a hard moment of ‘I want to quit.’ I was just sitting there thinking ‘I cannot do this.’ I will never forget this. I’m sitting there sulking, as one does after they lose, and a guy comes up to me and goes ‘It’s harder to change when you’re winning. Just remember that.’ I thought that was the most profound thing. It was like God sent him to me. My mindset flipped. I will never forget it. That is my favorite thing I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”
The losses produced the necessary impetus for change, as the two qualified for Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, and Manhattan Beach. When the AVP schedule was initially released, however, the final Pro Series tournament was scheduled for mid-September in Atlantic City. Keddy had a wedding to attend that weekend, so Dickens played the qualifier in Virginia Beach with Carly Skjodt. They finished third, qualifying for Atlantic City, and Keddy was fine finishing her year in August in Manhattan Beach. And then the schedule changed — one last God Thing, perhaps? — and the AVP removed Atlantic City, subbing in Central Florida in early December.
An unlikely late-season partnership
With Dickens already qualified for Central Florida with Skjodt, Keddy was one of the most viable free-agent blockers available. Carly Kan, it so happened, needed a blocker.
Kan, a former standout at Missouri and Hawaii, had enjoyed a career year herself by that point. She had qualified for Austin and made back-to-back finals in Denver and Waupaca, where she beat Dickens and Keddy to win her first Tour Series title. Kan and Kaitlyn Malaney faded a bit after that, playing good but not great. A series of ninths and 13ths prompted a mutual decision to split for the final events in Huntington Beach and Central Florida.
Kan needed a blocker with enough points to get her into the main draw of Central Florida.
Keddy was that blocker.
But Central Florida was, many thought, a race for second. Emily Capers and Geena Urango, and Corinne Quiggle and Sarah Schermerhorn, were considered the heavy favorites, while a smattering of good but unproven and inexperienced teams would scrap it out behind them.
“That was kind of the vibe going into it,” Keddy said. “No one suspected us. Carly and I didn’t either, and I kept saying ‘We’re going to win, we’re going to win’ but nobody was thinking of us as a real threat.”
And why should they? Kan didn’t even have Keddy’s phone number, resorting to direct messaging on Instagram to ask if she wanted to play the event. The two practices they anticipated having were whittled to a light serve and pass the day before the competition, as Kan battled that bout of food poisoning. Not that this deterred Keddy in the slightest.
“As soon as she picked me up, she said ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if the two most relaxed people won?’ Every day on Friday and then on Saturday, she would say it, ‘I’ve been manifesting this win for us.’ That even makes me believe more,” Kan said. “You always think you can win but truly believing it is a different level. The more we talked about it and the more she confirmed her belief in us is when things changed a little bit for me and my own mindset.”
Why not them?
Down went Kahlee York and Macy Jerger. Down went Tiffany Creamer and Iya Lindahl.
They made Saturday.
Down went Skjodt and Dickens, in a close-fought match that was decided in three sets.
They made Sunday.
Carly Wopat and Megan Rice, too, fell before them, and suddenly there were sixth-seeded Keddy and Kan, this Water Girl and a Hawaiian still recovering from food poisoning, in the final against the top-seeded team of Capers and Urango. And then they did the damndest thing: Keddy and Kan won, coming back from a 17-21 first set loss to claim the next two, 21-19, 15-11.
“It was her time. Her voice needed to be heard.”
“It was like watching the doors open for her,” said Susan Keddy, who streamed the match from her basement in Missoula.
“It was her time,” Dickens said. “I think her voice needed to be heard and her story needed to be seen.”
“She has spun cancer into a positive for her life,” Gluekert said. “She sees it as ‘God put me through this for a reason, and this is the reason.’ She’s just come full circle with taking what she was dealt and has made it into a huge positive thing. Some people might get into a depressed state or think my life is terrible because I’ve had so much go on but she’s overcome all of it and she’s doing better than ever.
“I didn’t get to watch the AVP, but once I heard that she had won, it just gave me chills and made me tear up. It’s what she was made to do and I’m just so glad she’s been able to live up her dream to do this.”
So maybe Keddy was a two-year project after all. Two years after Dickens first recruited her, Jen Keddy is an AVP champion, the first ever to hail from the state of Montana.
Then again, what’s two years of playing beach volleyball compared to five years, to the month, of being cancer free?
“Five years ago I was just trying to survive,” Keddy said. “Now here I am. There’s so many crazy things happening on my five-year anniversary that this is just such a God Thing. You just won an AVP championship and you’re about to be promoted in your job. It just all feels surreal. It’s all blending together in the last five years. The word of the year is just gratitude.”