South County lacrosse standout Charles Rygiel won’t let cystic fibrosis keep him down


South County senior Charles Rygiel is a key contributer despite living with cystic fibrosis. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)
May 28

There’s a board in the South County weight room that honors the Stallions’ strongest players, and senior Charles Rygiel’s name is supposed to be on it. As soon as his coaches get a chance to update the “1,000-pound Club” board, it will be.

Statistically, Rygiel’s name isn’t supposed to be on that board at all: Children with cystic fibrosis aren’t supposed to grow up big and strong — let alone lift 1,000 pounds squatting, dead lifting and bench pressing, which is what earned him his spot in South County weight room lore.

Rygiel is a long-stick midfielder for the Conference 7 champion Stallions, who will host Yorktown in Thursday’s 6A North region quarterfinals. He also is an anomaly. Just reading his name on the roster, let alone that board, means something to him.

“It’s a little bit more of an achievement to me than someone else because I’ve had to do so much more just to get to that 1,000-pound mark,” Rygiel said. “It’s a little bit harder.”

Cystic fibrosis affects about 70,000 people worldwide, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and causes the body to produce a thick, sticky mucus that builds up in various organs. That mucus can coat the lungs and restrict breathing, often limiting cardiovascular stamina.


Cystic fibrosis causes the body to lose salt, which forces Charles Rygiel to be vigilant about hydration during lacrosse practices and games. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

The disease also inhibits the pancreas, causes the body to lose salt and prevents natural enzymes from breaking down nutrients. Gaining weight is difficult, so maintaining muscle mass is, too. But Rygiel stands shoulder-to-shoulder with his teammates while matching them pound-for-pound, boasting the same chiseled arms and barreled chest and often out-lifting them in the weight room. Rygiel’s ailment is hardly visible to those who don’t know to look for it — especially beneath the cover of his lacrosse pads and helmet.

“I’m proud of being able to keep up and do everything the rest of my team is doing,” Rygiel said. “That’s hard, and most CF kids can’t do that, so just being able to keep up with them is a pretty big achievement for me.”

Rygiel chases down opponents and runs sprints in practice, just like his teammates. Sometimes he can’t quite keep up when distances mount. Every once in a while, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound midfielder will lose his breath and start to wheeze, and his vision will blur. But those moments are rare: he has needed to come out of practice only once this season.

Rygiel wakes up each morning at 5:30 for an hour’s worth of treatment: 30 minutes on a machine that “massages” his chest, as he explains it, using percussive movements to loosen mucus that gravity drains to where it can be coughed away. He then spends another half hour in a similar machine, one that also moves his body to loosen mucus.

Lacrosse was Rygiel’s second choice, one that provided little consolation on that day in middle school when doctors told him football was too dangerous, too prone to hits to the stomach or chest.

But once a friend persuaded him to play in seventh grade, Rygiel was hooked. He was captain of the Stallions’ junior varsity team as a sophomore, then moved up to varsity last season. This year, he has started some games and come off the bench in others. He’s a “solid” defender who understands his job and most often does it, according to South County Coach Dave Nalls.

“As far as his health, it’s amazing what he goes through,” Nalls said. “He’s talked to me a little bit about it, the regimen he does, just to get ready to go. Sometimes we take for granted how easy certain things are. For me, it’s a testament to his courage and desire to play lacrosse.”

With lacrosse, homework and treatment, Rygiel’s schedule includes little flexibility, so downtime and a social life have to squeeze their way in.

“Oh, I have no free time,” Rygiel said through a smile. “It’s a little bit of a hassle, but I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve been doing it for years.”

Preserving his health requires sometimes-limiting adaptations. One summer Rygiel headed to a lacrosse camp at a local college. When he walked into the dorm room where he was supposed to be staying, he could smell mold, which could infect his lungs to a potentially devastating result. Without fuss, he left the camp.

He also understood when doctors told him moving away to college could endanger his health. Cleanliness isn’t a constant, and new pressures could derail him from his daily regimen. Without complaint, Rygiel made the choice to live at home and attend Northern Virginia Community College in the fall.

Rygiel doesn’t let the future bother him, either. Cystic fibrosis patients have an average life expectancy of 37 years, which is actually a vast improvement from the time he was born, when it was nearly a decade shorter.

“I just take every day one step at a time,” Rygiel said. “If you start thinking too far ahead, you start getting confused, start getting worried about it. If you stay in the moment, that’s the best way to go about it.”

Rygiel knows his parents and younger brother, Matthew, worry about him. He worries about them, too. As his even-keeled approach takes over, his strength inspires them: His mother, Becky, who recently had multiple sclerosis diagnosed, finds pride and hope in her son’s every stride on the South County turf.

“To see what he does, to see the strength in him when he’s doing it, every moment he’s out there, I’m proud,” she said. “I wish I could be half as strong as he is. I’m not nearly as strong as he is. But I don’t think he feels he’s fighting it. It’s just his life.”

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