In her prime as an Indiana University track and field athlete, Caitlin Engel Kochheiser stood just 5-foot-2 and weighed 107 pounds.
“She was good at any sport,” said Chuck Engel, her father. “She had the hand and eye coordination. She had the balance. She had the foot speed. She had the intelligence where she knew what she was doing. She had the drive and determination. The only thing she lacked was a lot of size, but all those other things made up for that. She had a heart as big as you can get.”
Although a good sport, Caitlin also hated to lose at anything.
“But that’s what made her such a good fighter with this disease,” Engel said of his daughter’s cancer. “She out-survived what the doctors thought by many months. By May (2021), they thought she would make it to August or maybe her birthday, Oct. 15. She made it to Jan. 25.”
Caitlin died Jan. 25 at age 32 of cancer that started in her appendix.
“The world became a lesser place the day she died, and heaven is greatly enriched,” Engel said. “She was an absolute joy.”
The Carmel resident was diagnosed with the rare cancer in July 2018. She had surgery and then underwent chemotherapy, starting in December 2018, and was declared cancer-free in May 2019. The cancer returned in late 2020. She had another surgery and underwent chemotherapy, but she decided to stop treatment when doctors felt it would do little good. She chose to make the most of her remaining time and married Brian Kochheiser in July 2021.
Caitlin was a top athlete in track and field and soccer at Zionsville Community High School. She walked on at Indiana University, competing in cross country and track and field. She finished third in the steeplechase in the Big Ten Championships in 2011. After graduation, she became a wellness teacher at Clay Middle School in Carmel and became an assistant coach in girls track and field and boys cross country at Carmel High School.
Greyhounds coach Aaron McRill said Caitlin’s positivity in handling her cancer battle served as an inspiration.
“She was an elite athlete, but she never talked about herself,” McRill said. “She wasn’t the type of person to brag about what she did. She was more invested in the kids than herself. She had a great way of connecting with the girls. They looked at her as an older sister that knew a lot more than they did.”
Sydney Haines, a 2020 CHS graduate, said all the girls on the track team gravitated toward Caitlin.
“Coach Engel was the type of person that everyone wanted to be best friends with, and in fact everybody was,” she said. “I would find myself rushing to practice early and staying after practice later just so I could hang out with her and catch her up about everything that was happening in my life. We would talk about reality TV, prom dates and everything in between. This wasn’t just the bond I had with her. She was very good at seeking out each athlete and connecting with them. She was the type of coach that led with positivity and encouragement and always made it her mission to make others laugh, even when she was diagnosed.
“She was always so great at keeping things upbeat and showing us that we are tough no matter what life throws at us. She still continued to help us with our struggles and be there for us even throughout her battle with cancer.”
Anna Morozov, a 2018 CHS graduate and Purdue senior cross country and track competitor, said the life lesson Caitlin taught the girls had the most lasting impression.
“She taught us to never take life too seriously and have no regrets,” Morozov said. “It’s too short to take for granted. Make someone smile, do something that makes you uncomfortable and embrace the hard parts because those moments can be the most beautiful in the end. I hope to live my life influencing people the way I know she influenced my teammates and me.”
Morozov said Caitlin found the balance between hard work and fun unlike any coach she ever had.
“She loved and cared for every single one of her athletes like her best of friends,” she said.
Caitlin and Kochheiser were a romantic match from the start. They had their first date at the Indianapolis Zoo in October 2016.
“From our first date, we really clicked,” he said. “I knew she was special from the first date. I could tell she was one of if not the kindest person I ever met. It grew into a wonderful relationship.”
Knowing Caitlin didn’t have long to live, the couple married on the beach in Marco Island, Fla., in July 2021. The wedding was put together in a short time.
“She tried to fit in as much as we could and we did,” Kochheiser said. “We tried to take advantage of every day we could.”
While in hospice, Caitlin wrote birthday cards for her niece, Sloane, 4, and her nephew, Charlie, 1, for each year until they turn 21. She also wrote yearly Christmas cards and high school graduation and wedding cards for the children of her brother, Chris.
“She created a really cool memory book for each kid,” Kochheiser said. “She loved those two kids. She was very determined. She’s been that her entire life. When she was writing the cards, she said I’m not going back to sleep, I don’t know if I’m going to wake up. She willed herself through that process. Her mother (Missy) and I were there to help and support her.”
Kochheiser knew that determination well.
“She loved to beat me at anything we did,” he said. “She had that competitive nature that we all loved and will miss.”
A celebration of life will be held from 2 to 6 p.m. March 5 at Laurel Hall in Indianapolis.