What constitutes a champion? Physical gifts like speed, strength and coordination make up part of the equation. Intangibles like work ethic, confidence and leadership complete the winning formula.

Renee Kunkel and Liza Gabrek, student-athletes who recently graduated from Riverside-Brookfield and Lyons Township high schools, respectively, share another sign of championship mettle — keeping it all in perspective.

Both have been affected, and afflicted, by personal and physical adversity and they shared their perspective with approximately 40 guests as co-recipients of the Most Inspirational Athlete of the Year (MIAY) at the Wednesday Journal/Riverside-Brookfield Landmark Sports Awards night on June 17.

In a room full of championship teams, athletes and coaches, along with family and friends, Kunkel and Gabrek stole the show by sharing their stories of triumph.

Presented last in an impressive array of award winners, Kunkel spoke first, then Gabrek, in accepting the MIAY award.

Kunkel, a three-sport athlete and honor roll student while attending RBHS, had life-saving open-heart surgery in 2013. She is also missing thyroid gland, which was removed in eighth grade to cure thyroid cancer, discovered during a routine physical exam. Despite those scary setbacks, Kunkel stayed upbeat and rebounded beautifully in her final year of high school.

“I’ve learned so many lessons — I have a little journal of them,” Kunkel said. “I would say a positive attitude is number 1. I don’t think I would have gotten through what I have without a positive attitude.

“I never like to show that something is bothering me. I never let it get me down. Like, OK, I have to have open-heart surgery. I’ll make the best of it. We’ll get through this and make it a learning experience.”

Gabrek, who played soccer at LTHS, suffered a major stroke during a Pepsi Showdown game her junior year. It was caused by a rare congenital condition called MoyaMoya disease, in which blood vessels in the brain are abnormally small and clustered together.

In a coma for several days, she underwent four hours of neurosurgery, during which her skull was cut open and the blood drained from the affected region of her brain. Although the operation was a success, it was just the beginning.

Her ongoing recovery, which could take up to five years, is already nothing short of remarkable. Paralyzed on her left side, she could not walk or talk. After a five-week stay at Loyola, Gabrek spent 14 weeks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Eventually, she returned to school, taking two classes at LTHS and others through home tutoring. She graduated on time this year. Though she was unable to play soccer, Gabrek remained a co-captain and attended all LTHS games and practices.

“One thing I’ve learned is that life definitely isn’t a guarantee,” Gabrek said. “One day you can be all happy and playing soccer for one of the best teams in the state, then the next day have a stroke that could be the end to your life.

“[My advice] is don’t give up. The don’t-give-up factor is probably the biggest component to recovery. When you give up, that’s probably the easiest thing you can do, but when you don’t give up, that’s when you recover.”

The Wednesday Journal/Riverside-Brookfield Landmark Sports Awards night was unique, memorable and fun with ambient sports-themed decorations and music, delicious food provided by Winberie’s and Bua Hana restaurants and the presence of elite teams, athletes and coaches proudly representing OPRF, Fenwick, RBHS, LTHS and Trinity.

The party attendees also received an unexpected parting gift, a lesson, courtesy of Kunkel and Gabrek. These special young ladies reminded them that it truly doesn’t matter whether you win or lose but how you play the game ­… of life.




Riverside-Brookfield Landmark Sports Awards

Team of the Year: RBHS boys basketball

Male Athlete of the Year: Sam Johnson, RBHS boys basketball

Female Athlete of the Year: Stephanie Lin, LTHS badminton

Coach of the Year: Brendan Curtin, RBHS football

Most Inspirational Athlete of the Year: Renee Kunkel, RBHS girls basketball; Liza Gabrek, LTHS girls soccer