Riley Clark, a rising senior at the University of Maine, battled back from cancer surgeries and chemotherapy to compete at the America East swimming and diving championships nine months before doctors thought he’d be back in the pool. Peter Buehner photo/Courtesy of UMaine athletics

When University of Maine diver Riley Clark surprised his teammates after a practice in February 2021, PhilAnn Dixon burst into tears as she bounded across the pool deck to embrace her best friend. It was the first time Clark had been on UMaine’s campus since the previous August.

Clark’s return was long awaited, for himself, his teammates, and everyone around him.

Riley Clark, 21, was diagnosed with testicular cancer in August 2020. He underwent surgery and four months of chemotherapy, followed by another surgery in January 2021 to remove cancerous lymph nodes from his lower back. Because of nerve damage resulting from the second surgery, Clark lost all feeling in his heels and the back half of both his feet. The doctors told him that the feeling might return in time.

Riley Clark

It has yet to return.

Clark began a grueling physical therapy process to learn to walk without feeling in his heels. Doctors told him it would be a year before he would be able to take up diving again. But just three months later, the Connecticut native returned to competition at the America East Conference swimming and diving championships, where he finished fifth in the 1-meter event and sixth in the 3-meter.

On the UMaine swimming and diving team, Clark’s impact reaches far beyond his output on the diving board. He is known for his positivity and can always be seen cheering his teammates on in both practice and competition.


“He is the most energetic and team-oriented person,” said Isaac Forbes, the UMaine diving coach. “When he is around, everyone just performs better because he has such an infectious energy.”

On Monday, Clark will be one of five college athletes to receive the 2022 Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award, which “honors student-athletes who have overcome great personal, academic, and/or emotional odds to achieve academic success while participating in intercollegiate athletics.” Clark, a rising senior at UMaine, will travel to Las Vegas to receive the award.


Riley Clark’s life changed on Aug. 14, 2020, when he learned of the cancer diagnosis.

“I noticed something was wrong and I ignored it,” Clark said of the preceding weeks. “After a month and a half my friend told me, ‘You need to go to the doctor. That’s bad.’ I couldn’t really walk anymore. I should not have let it go that long.”

Clark took news of the cancer in stride.


“My first thought was, ‘What’s the next step? What do I do? Where do I go from here?'” he said. Soon after, Clark’s doctor helped him set up subsequent appointments, including surgery just four days later to begin his cancer treatment.

For Clark, it all felt nonchalant until he sat in his car to drive home. When he realized he had to call his parents, the weight of his diagnosis began to bear down on him.

“I honestly think (telling my parents) was the hardest part of it all,” Clark said. “I hated telling people. I just felt so bad. I knew it would ruin their day. It’s not news that anyone wants to hear.”

Following the surgery, he started up a four months of chemotherapy that lasted through December 2020. Forbes, the UMaine coach, sent Clark a message ahead of his first round of chemotherapy. The note, while offering encouragement, was a testament to Clark’s personality.

“I don’t know why you’re in this situation or why this is happening to you,” Forbes told Clark. “But I would bet my life that this is because of who you are. You are going to encounter a lot of people who really need some encouragement and I know from the bottom of my heart you’re the person who will give it to them. You are being put in this place right now to help out everyone else at that hospital because that’s just the kind of person you are.

“Take care of yourself and those who are going through this journey with you and, we will be right here waiting for you. We will be here when you are ready to come back.”


On Jan. 11, 2021, Clark underwent his final surgery to remove the cancerous lymph nodes in his back. After the operation, he was officially cancer-free.

The surgeon, physical therapists and Clark’s parents suggested he take the semester off to rest and recover from the surgeries. He was, after all, learning to walk without feeling in his heels.

But Clark knew what he wanted, and it surely wasn’t to wait around. He was back at UMaine in a month and a half.

“I am really stubborn,” he said. “I hate being told I can’t do something that I want to do, so I was not going to start now.”

When Clark returned, his presence at practice was just as exciting for his teammates as it was unexpected. He told no one he was coming back to school, so when he stepped onto the pool deck in the middle of practice, his teammates were in shock.

“We were at practice and I was not expecting it at all. He’s my best friend and we’re so close and he didn’t even tell me he was coming up,” said Dixon, Clark’s teammate. “I immediately started crying and I just ran all the way across the pool deck and gave him the biggest hug. We were all so happy to see his smiling face. Just seeing him on the pool deck was breathtaking. I don’t have any words to describe that emotion.”



When he got back, Clark was ready to get to work. Immediately, he told both Dixon and Forbes that his goal was to compete at the American East Championships in April.

The only problem?

His heels remained completely numb, making the prospect of diving at the championship level even more difficult.

Clark knew the task was daunting, but with support from Dixon and Forbes, it became more and more feasible by the day.

“We knew his limits more than he did,” said Dixon, who has been Clark’s diving partner on the team. “For Riley, he thought (he would) bounce right back to where he was, but Coach Isaac (Forbes) and I knew it would take a little more time.”


Dixon and Forbes started Clark off on the dry board, where he worked on learning how to dive without nerve-function in his heels. Slowly but surely, he continued to improve until he returned to the regular board by the end of March – nine months ahead of schedule.

A month later, he stepped onto the diving board in the American East Championships.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Clark said. “Everybody told me I wasn’t going to be able to do that. I knew I could and that’s all I needed.”

The athletic feat meant far more to Clark than others may have realized.

“Even after I finished my last surgery, I didn’t think I was done. Cancer was still stopping me from doing things I wanted to do,” said Clark. “It wasn’t until I finished fifth and I went back to my hotel room, and was sitting on my bed, when I said it out loud: ‘I did it. I beat cancer right then and there.'”

This winter, Clark finished sixth in both the 1-meter and 3-meter diving events at the 2022 conference championships. He is certain he is in the best shape of his life.

“This past year was amazing,” he said. “It felt like I never had cancer in the first place. That’s honestly what it feels like.”

Following his ordeal, Clark decided to change his major.

“I changed my career choice because of cancer,” he said. “When I re-enrolled in classes, I changed my major to pre-med because … I want to be a pediatric oncology physician’s assistant.”

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