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Former IU rower was upbeat, had much to give

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It’s a Dutch word meaning strength, commonly used as an encouragement for those facing a personal struggle.

Until Thursday, it was the last word you would expect to find on the Facebook page of Indiana University graduate student Karlijn Keijzer (pronounced “Car-line Kite-zer”).

Certainly, Keijzer was Dutch, and no doubt the word was part of her vocabulary, especially in pushing and prodding former teammates on the IU rowing team to be better or in supporting classmates in the school’s chemistry research labs.

For the athlete turned cancer researcher, though, sterkte was out of place. Everything was going great for the vibrant Keijzer.

“Academically, she was a straight-A student, so she was outstanding there. But her biggest strength was her personality on the team. Any picture she you see of her, she was always smiling or happy or joking around with someone,” IU rowing coach Steve Peterson said.

“She was extremely supportive of her teammates and had a tremendous enthusiasm. She was exactly the type of student-athlete any coach would want on their team.”

Yes, everything was going great. Until Thursday.

Keijzer, 25, had returned to the Netherlands from Bloomington for summer break and was flying to Indonesia for a vacation with her 29-year-old boyfriend, Laurens van der Graaff. Their trip required a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, an eight-hour leg from Amsterdam.

Together with 296 other passengers and crew, they took off on schedule. Many of the passengers were Dutch on holiday, like Keijzer and van der Graaff. Others were en route to an international AIDS conference.

Three hours later, over eastern Ukraine, an otherwise uneventful day became unforgettable.

In the coming day and weeks, we will sort through the tragic events that led Malaysia Air Flight MH17 to be shot out of the sky.

We will condemn those responsible — militants who know who they are but are too cowardly to own their actions. We will fret over the randomness — why this plane at this moment? And we will grieve for those lost, even though our connection is remote.

Sterkte. Be strong.

We will most feel the sting for Keijzer, a young woman whose athletic talents took her to Bloomington but who stayed there to pursue a career as a cancer researcher.

Before taking a brief break from her work for her ill-fated vacation, she was preparing a computer simulation on bryostatin, an anti-cancer drug and a promising drug candidate for treating Alzheimer’s disease.

Yes, Keijzer was going to make a difference in this world. Indeed, she already had.

“Karlijn was a bright, talented doctoral student, a diligent researcher and a dear friend to all of us who worked with her in our research group,” recalled Mu-Hyun Baik, associate professor of chemistry and informatics and Keijzer’s doctoral advisor.

“She was a kind, happy young woman full of ideas about the future. She inspired us all with her optimism about how science will make Earth a better place.”

Out on the IU rowing course at Lake Lemon, things already we better because of her.

“She came to us for one year as a graduate student (in 2011) and truly wanted to pursue rowing,” said Peterson, who recalled Keizjer’s talent as well as her unbound enthusiasm. “That year was the first year we really started to make a mark with the First Varsity 8 boat, and she was a huge reason for it.”

It wasn’t just what she did, but how she did it.

“We’d be in the locker room at 5:30 a.m., it would be windy, rainy,” teammate Jaclyn Riedel, told Time magazine. “But she was kind of leading the charge, cheering everyone on. She was just infectious.”

The Amsterdam girl took to Indiana, calling herself a “Dutch Hoosier.” To fit in, she came to one party dressed as an ear of corn. “She wore black spandex, a long yellow shirt with frayed edges and her hair was green,” said Riedel.

A Dutch Hoosier. One of our own.

It makes an already senseless tragedy all the more incomprehensible.

It’s not fair, it’s not right. It also is forever.

A young woman who had much to give the world was taken much too soon, a victim of random violence.

Sterkte. Be strong.

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