BIG SANDY – Charna (Ophus) Seibert is one of the most well-known players in MSU-Northern women’s basketball history.
After leading Big Sandy to an undefeated season on the way to the 1986 Class C state championship, she enjoyed an incredibly successful career with the Skylights, making four trips to the NAIA Div. II tournament and claiming a 1993 national championship – the first and only in program history.
Seibert is the all-time leader in assists for the Skylights and was inducted into the MSU-Northern athletics Hall of Fame in 2015.
That was also the year she was first diagnosed with breast cancer. After several rounds of chemotherapy, the disease went into remission.
But in June of 2018, Seibert learned that her cancer had returned and had advanced to stage IV, spreading to her bones. She received a terminal diagnosis.
Through generous fundraising from Montana and beyond, Seibert travelled to Germany last fall with her husband Jordan and her son Marcellus where she received treatment at Infusio Frankfurt.
The Seibert family lives in Las Vegas where Jordan works in the Air Force. Earlier this month they were back in Big Sandy to celebrate the 80th birthday of Charna’s father Lyle where we caught up with the Skylight great for a Sunday Conversation.
MTN Sports: Thanks for speaking with us Charna. Being back home in Montana has to be healing for the head and the heart right?
Charna Seibert: “It really is. When I was a kid I wanted to get away because it was tough up in the country and with a big family we were kind of poor and stuff. Now when I get away, I’m just like, ‘I can’t wait to get back’. I love that big, giant family, living the good life in the country. It’s like heavenly to me to come back but it took me a little bit of growing up to realize how blessed I was originally.”
MTN Sports: What was life like growing up in the Ophus household? (Charna is the sixth of 11 children)
Seibert: “Oh my goodness. So I’m the middle child, I have lots of good stories. Five older and five younger. We’re all pretty competitive and we’re all pretty opinionated. But underneath it all we have a tremendous amount of love. We fight tough, but we have each other’s back in all scenarios too.”
MTN Sports: How big of a role did sports and basketball play in your life?
Seibert: “For me it was an opportunity to make my way out to the world. We grew up as a big farm family, but my parents didn’t have money for us for college or anything. So I knew if I put my head in the books and really worked hard on the court, I’d earn a scholarship. For me that was my goal. I worked really hard and I got the full-ride scholarship at Northern and it changed my life. I got to travel all over, I got to see a bigger perspective, I got my degrees and it’s been good ever since.”
MTN Sports: After you led Big Sandy to the 1987 state title were there a lot of college opportunities. Tell me about your recruitment. Did you consider other options or did Northern have the upper hand being so close?
Seibert: “I was so naive at the time, I didn’t even understand Division I, Division II, NAIA, NCAA. I had all of those schools looking at me but really my deciding factor at the end was if I would have went farther away my family wouldn’t have been able to see my games and not only that I wouldn’t have been able to see my little siblings’ games. So for me to get to Northern was like a super win, because my family could get back to see me and I could get back to Big Sandy. A great deal both ways. And then coach Loren Baker was who recruited me and he was an awesome, fun coach. So he had the vision and the fire to win a national championship. I think there was a lot of fun there too because he was fun and exciting and had a run and gun style, which is what I was interested in.”
MTN Sports: What memories do you have from that 1993 national championship?
Seibert: “Of course the first year we made it to the national tournament when I was a freshman, sophomore year we won a game, junior year we won two games and that senior year I really think we knew from the beginning we were going to win it. It was a challenging road to get there, but we had five seniors on our team, and we had worked so hard for so long that we were just going to make it happen regardless, and so it was a wonderful way to go out.”
MTN Sports: Do you stay in touch with your former teammates?
Seibert: “Not all of them from that time, but there sure are several. Those times are blessed times because we form a sisterhood. And so even the ones I don’t stay in constant contact with, when we get back together it’s just wonderful. But some of them are my best friends, like today I got to spend time with my friend Kim Perkins, she was a year older than me and also in that class. Sheila Green Gerding is my best friend to this day. So many of the teammates, I got to see Kari Filius over the weekend at Northern and I love those girls. They’re good, legit, great Montana women.”
MTN Sports: I’m sure getting inducted into the MSU-Northern Hall of Fame must have been a really special honor in 2015. But that was shortly after your first breast cancer diagnosis correct?
Seibert: “It was right before that actually, I hadn’t been diagnosed yet, so I was glad for that because then I would have thought it was a sympathy vote. It was 22 years after we won that national championship that I got inducted into the Hall of Fame. I don’t remember what month it was but shortly thereafter, I got my diagnosis. So it was a special honor and sometimes you think, ‘Wow, does that mean I’m going to die? I get this nice honor. Is that what’s coming next?’ Who knows what’s around the corner, but it was a beautiful thing and a great tribute that I really appreciated. That community was so good to me, Northern Nation is pretty incredible, and those are amazing people on the Hi-Line. When I go back there to this day, I feel a love in that community, it’s a really special bond.”
MTN Sports: Last Friday you got to spend some time with the current Skylights and I saw they honored you with a pink jersey. Tell me about that moment.
Seibert: “It was so good to be back in the gym and to see familiar faces. A lot of those faces were still running the clocks and everything when we were there. All of it was wonderful, to see the players especially in their little cute pink uniforms. I just really enjoy the community, so it’s always good to get back in the Northern gym.”
MTN Sports: (Skylights coach) Chris Mouat seems like he does a really good job of keeping you and other former players connected with the Northern program, doesn’t he?
Seibert: “It’s been truly incredible. Coach Mouat did the fundraiser for me to help me get to Germany to get the Infusio treatment, that holistic treatment. It was really humbling and beautiful and moving for him to do that with the floor that we played on and doing that fundraiser. Coach Mouat is an amazing human being. I can’t say enough good about him, and those girls that play for him are very lucky to have a wonderful man to coach them and he just does so much for the community. But the whole community got involved in that fundraiser. And besides helping me get the treatment, it did a treatment to my heart, because it was really sweet.”
MTN Sports: What degree did you receive at Northern and what did you do professionally after school?
Seibert: “I did a little bit of everything. I’m one of those kids that’s still deciding what I want to do when I grow up. But I had a communications degree and a computer science degree and I had my master’s degree in counseling, and I’ve done a bit of everything. Sales, marketing, counseling, and the last 10 years prior to having my son I was working in the banking industry. My favorite thing is what I’m doing now, though. I love Christian ministry, so that’s really where my heart is right now and I’m really happy doing that.”
MTN Sports: Your son Marcellus has got to be 3 or 4 years old now?
Seibert: “He just turned 4 years old, and that little kid is a handful. (Laughs) He’s a spitting image of me except in a boy, but he’s got that fire and he’s got that feisty personality and tons of energy. All of those attributes that I love but it’s funny to see them in a young 4-year-old. He’s giving me a run for my money, for sure.”
MTN Sports: How would you describe yourself as a player?
Seibert: “I spent a lot of hours in the gym. I lived in the gym up until I graduated from college, but my biggest attributes I think were definitely my mental toughness. I think I had a tremendous will to win and to conquer anything really that you put in front of me, any goal. And I think I have the ability to bring people together for a common cause. And so with our team, I feel like I could bring out the best in them. So I might not have always been the most gifted athletically, but I could really get to believe in themselves and do what they do best and really help our team shine.”
MTN Sports: Do you take that same will to win into your current fight with cancer?
Seibert: “I think so. I think if you have a positive attitude and a confident mentality that you can tackle something, you can get a lot accomplished. And with cancer it’s tricky, because you could do your best – like I’m on a crazy strict diet right now – and you could still die. But you can go out with a smile on your face and fight every inch of the way. That’s my plan.”
MTN Sports: If I recall, you were in Montana when you heard the news that your cancer had returned?
Seibert: “One of my nephews was getting married and we were literally at baggage claim and I got that phone call. And you know it’s bad, so I had already broken out in tears knowing my cancer was back. Why else would the doctor call me on vacation? So it was tough. But it was also a blessing because I had my whole family there to support me. When you get a terminal cancer diagnosis you instantly think you’re going to be dead. And you don’t know how much time you have so it hits you hard at first. So we had to keep a smile on to get through that wedding, and then I had a breakdown. But I was able to regroup pretty fast and say, ‘OK, we’re in the ring again. Let’s go for it.’ And I’m doing great right now, I feel wonderful and so I feel like who knows what God has planned for me but I’m going to live each day to the fullest until it’s time to go home to heaven, and heaven won’t be a bad spot, either.”
MTN Sports: You’ve called your terminal diagnosis a blessing? How is that?
Seibert: “You know, I think it’s funny, because for me – I always had a few dreams still up my sleeve that I hadn’t accomplished yet. So when I got that phone call, the first thing I thought was, ‘God, really, am I going to die now?’ because I feel like parts of my life were adding up to a point where I could get to utilize them now, especially in Christian Ministry. It was heartbreaking for me, but then right after that I had some friends give me some ideas that came to them in prayer about what God had for my future and I think instantly it turned. I had inspiration that ‘You know, this isn’t the end of your story yet, you still got a few chapters to write,’ and I’m really excited about these last chapters because God has prepared me to be in a place where I’m really excited to be where I’m at right now.”
MTN Sports: I admire how you share your story on social media and there are plenty of other folks around the state that really get inspired by your updates. Is that important to you? Sharing the good and the bad?
Seibert: “I’m kind of a private person, which sounds funny because I’m very open. But I had to join Facebook because I didn’t know what was going on in the world. But then with cancer, it’s been helpful because so many people want to check in with you but you don’t really have enough hours in the day to answer people individually, so it’s a way to tell the story. And I thought maybe it would be a way to encourage people to follow along the path. It’s actually been a blessing to me because so many people that I have lost touch with, when they hear that ‘you might die,’ they reach out to you. So I’ve been able to reconnect with a lot of people and social media is funny that way. I have friends all over the USA that I’ve been able to reconnect with. It’s been kind of a blessing.”
MTN Sports: Can you tell us a little about the Infusio treatment you received in Germany?
Seibert: “They have treatment options there that aren’t FDA approved. So I had the dendritic cell therapy there and Immunotherapy there and it was a tremendous opportunity, but something that wasn’t covered under insurance. I have great insurance with my husband as a pilot in the Air Force, but this gave me another way to attack the cancer that isn’t available in the U.S.”
MTN Sports: I’m sure it was pretty humbling when the donations came pouring in to help fund the travel and treatment?
Seibert: “It’s a big thing to pull off because it costs a lot of money for that treatment so you’re there for like six weeks. A lot of people from all over, I mean everywhere, friends of friends of friends, people I don’t know who they are were donating. And that whole trip was covered by fundraising, so it was amazing to me. Just mind-boggling and beautiful. And the experience to get to go to Europe, too, was great. We got to do a lot of pilgrimage, on the tail end of that trip. It was a very holistic cancer treatment but it was also a spiritual journey for me, too, so it was really lovely.”
MTN Sports: What does the future of this fight look like?
Seibert: “I have no idea, but I can tell you everyone knows my favorite number is 22. The No. 22 was the jersey I wore, and 22 years later was the Hall of Fame. We got married on the 22nd, and now I get my next PET scan on Feb. 22. So I’m excited to see what the future does hold. Who knows? I had tremendous improvement from one PET scan to the second one and now this one. Our goal is to have it be undetectable on a PET scan. When you’re Stage IV, terminal, they say you’re never cured, it’s always there. But we’re trying to starve out the cancer with this crazy strict keto diet and so we’ll just see what happens.”
MTN Sports: What knowledge would you impart on anyone facing something like what you’re going through?
Seibert: “More than that is, we’re all going to die sometime. There were a few things in my life where I feel like I needed to make amends with some people. Either I had hurt feelings or I had hurt someone else’s feelings. And so when you get a diagnosis like that, you don’t want to leave anything on the table, you want to take care of it. And so I took care of a bunch of those things and it felt really good to have that weight lifted. And some people reached out to me with things from the past. And it wasn’t all over negative things, a lot of it was positive, too, just people that reached out and said, ‘You made an impact in my life,’ the good things. And I did the same thing, too, for people that really touched my life. And I want to thank you. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another opportunity, but I want to thank you for who you were in my life. I would say that any person, whether you’re facing cancer or not, knowing that any day could be your last, it’s a great opportunity to think about, ‘If I were to go out today, what would I want to say? Do I have any unfinished business I wanted to take care of?’”
MTN Sports: Thanks again for the time, Charna. Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
Seibert: “If anyone is watching this all over. I just want to say thank you for who you were to me and the goodness that you showed to me in my life and I treasure the people of Montana. I love you all.”
Reported by Tom Wylie/MTN Sports