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VOLLEYBALL: Bemidji State coach Kevin Ulmer leans on faith, community to face cancer

Bemidji State volleyball head coach Kevin Ulmer was diagnosed with cancer in December 2021, yet he's embraced 'God's plan' as he fights with the added strength of widespread support.

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Bemidji State volleyball head coach Kevin Ulmer was diagnosed with cancer in December 2021, yet he's embraced 'God's plan' as he fights with the added strength of widespread support.
Madelyn Haasken / Bemidji Pioneer
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BEMIDJI — Kevin Ulmer has wrestled with it. He’s fought through it, and he’s coped with it. Yet he never questioned it.

Cancer.

“I don’t know how anybody could have dealt with that kind of news without having the grounding of, ‘Hey, this is God’s plan,’” said Ulmer, the head coach of the Bemidji State volleyball team. “So as hard as it is on days -- and there were some hard days -- this is what he has for me. And I believe that.”

Ulmer has been diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a disease where cancerous plasma cells accumulate in the bone marrow and crowd out healthy blood cells. Ulmer began experiencing minor back discomfort in August 2021, which progressed into sharp pain and ultimately a biopsy revealing cancer on his spine in December 2021. A tumor had deteriorated about 80% of his T9 vertebra.

But in the midst of life-altering news, Ulmer relied on his foundation. Instead of crying “Woe is me,” he focused on how God can uniquely use him because of this.

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“Ultimately, the only thing that gets you over that fear is hope and faith and stepping into (a mindset of) ‘This is where God has us right now,’” he said. “It sucks, but I believe this plan has been laid in place.”

‘It was a miracle’

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Bemidji State head coach Kevin Ulmer watches as the Beavers take on Southwest Minnesota State on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021, at the BSU Gymnasium.
Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer

By all accounts, last fall was business as usual for the Ulmer family.

Kevin headed the BSU volleyball team with help of his wife, Kate -- a volunteer assistant coach for the club. Ulmer estimated he hit about 20,000 volleyballs during the season, and he also took on some physical therapy to deal with his back discomfort. Heck, he was even water skiing over the summer.

As it turns out, any of those activities could have paralyzed him.

“For it to be as bad as it was, it’s just shocking that I made it through,” Ulmer said. “The doctor, when he took out that chunk of tumor, said the rest of that bone was really strong. He felt like it was a miracle that I was not paralyzed.

“They were worried, and it freaked us out in those first couple days.”

Yet it wasn’t the first time his family has experienced such a scare.

Ulmer’s mother had breast cancer in the 1990s, while his father was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2020. So Ulmer’s highs and lows stretch far beyond the past five months.

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“It’s sort of a family history thing unfortunately,” he said.

Ulmer first had a singular tumor, but it’s since progressed to multiple locations. He finished 20 treatments of radiation in March and is currently on a four- to six-month chemotherapy cycle. There is currently no cure for the disease, only treatment.

Ulmer has kept forging ahead, as he’s working fairly normal hours at work right now. He has seen parallels in his personal trials and in the team he coaches.

“BSU volleyball, we’re working for something different than a lot of other schools in our league,” Ulmer said. “It’s a hard road ahead. That’s what we tell every recruit that comes here. You need to have a chip on your shoulder. You’ve got to get after it, and nothing’s going to be easy.”

A community in his corner

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Kevin Ulmer, back right, and his wife Kate have three children. They are, from left, Hailey, Elliette and Autumn.
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Thankfully for Ulmer, this is not a battle he faces alone.

Primarily, his gratitude extends to his wife and their three girls: Autumn, Elliette and Hailey. But they represent just the tip of the iceberg.

“The support that we’ve had has been tremendous,” Ulmer said. “It’s cool to have that support, not just at BSU but across the country. There’s been a shocking amount of response.”

Ulmer’s circles at Bemidji State and in the church have rallied around him, but so too have “perfect strangers.” Ulmer said volleyball recruits who opted for other schools took time to reach out with well wishes. A GoFundMe in his name has raised over $18,000. A neighbor even coordinated a jet ride home for him and his family after a surgery at the Mayo Clinic.

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And then there’s perhaps the most heartwarming anecdote.

A fourth-grade student at Gene Dillon Elementary heard the news of Ulmer’s cancer through his teacher, who was sharing a lesson about empathy and generosity. The story resonated with the boy, because he approached his teacher after class and said, “I want to give some money to Kevin.”

The boy donated $8 of his own cash -- certainly a gesture of goodwill worth far more than face value.

“You want to be a giver, not a taker,” Ulmer said. “Sometimes it’s hard to even just receive gifts and generosity. It’s overwhelming. It’s really humbling. But it also expresses the love that (humanity shares).

“Even without knowing each other… to feel that little piece of sunlight in a dark moment is amazing.”

Micah Friez is the sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he joined the Pioneer in 2015 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing. Follow him on Twitter at @micahfriez for Lumberjack and Beaver updates.
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