On the surface, Katie Riznyk may appear to be your average free-spirited “hippie chick” as friends may call her, with piercings and bright colored hair, but what many people fail to see is exactly what makes her tick. From her event-filled year as an NFL Cheerleader/ Swimsuit Calendar cover model to her unexpected battle with cancer and everything that happened in between, this 20-year-old “Buffalonian” has quite the story to tell.
Riznyk grew up in Orchard Park, NY about five minutes away from the Bills’ football stadium. She has a 25-year-old sister who is currently attending medical school in Chicago, the same school her father attended. When she graduates she will be a partner at the medical practice her father opened up in Orchard Park, and Riznyk’s mother is the property manager of a medical park. When Katie speaks about her family she can’t help but gleam:
“My mother is one of the most beautiful women I know. My parents are my best friends and I don’t know what I would do without them”. Riznyk graduated from Orchard Park High School with a 95 overall average in the top 10 percent of her class. She was a member of the High School National Honor Society, an editor for the school newspaper, an anchor on the televised morning announcements, played softball and field hockey and held two State Scholar Athlete Awards. Needless to say, she had quite a bit on her plate at the time.
To further her education, Riznyk then attended Buffalo State College, where she is currently working to pursue a degree in broadcast journalism. She currently holds a 4.0 Grade Point Average, is a member of two national honor societies, and will be graduating a semester early. School has always been a top priority for Riznyk. Her mother was valedictorian of her high school, her father was valedictorian of his medical school, and her sister was top ten in high school and now has a 4.0 in medical school.
“My education is something I’m incredibly proud of and it has helped me to be the person I am today” said Riznyk
Katie states that her passionate attitude and passion for her family, friends, work, love and health are her best attributes.
“When you go into a situation with deep passion, your demeanor completely changes. Passion is so beautiful and people want to be around others who give off such a positive, intense energy,” said Riznyk.
When asked what ultimately made her try out to become an NFL Cheerleader, she did not hesitate to respond.
“I was interning at Citadel (the company that owns the Buffalo Jills) and the coach approached me and asked me to try out! I had never been a cheerleader before so it was a complete culture shock. I’m so happy I did it,” said Riznyk.
Throughout her season with the Buffalo Jills, Katie loved all the charity work that came along with the territory. The most meaningful was a benefit for suicide prevention and a family that lost their young son to it. In her lifetime, Katie has lost three friends to suicide, so anything she can do to raise awareness about this rapidly increasing problem, she will.
“The fact that I was able to connect to this family and group of friends, while knowing I made a difference in their life is something I’ll never forget,” said Riznyk.
To Katie, the charity work that the Jills were involved with was the greatest thing she took from the whole experience. She did attribute some of her current successes to having the NFL connection tied to her name.
“Just the title of being an NFL cheerleader and wearing the uniform is awesome. It was easier to gain a sense of legitimacy when you had a title that a lot of people respect. The position opened up a lot of doors for me in terms of modeling and connections to my future career as well” said Riznyk.
Soon after the final team was announced, rookie Katie went on the team Caribbean cruise trip to shoot the famed Buffalo Jills Swimsuit Calendar. Little did she know that before long her face would be gracing the cover on thousands of copies. To make the deal even sweeter, Maxim.com chose her amongst select other teammates to be shown on their NFL Cheerleader showcase. When asked to describe her reaction to learning about both opportunities she wasted no time answering.
“In one word: UNBELIEVABLE. I used to get picked on really badly in high school (pushed in the hallway, “cyber-bullied”, called nasty names). When I left high school I became vegan and lost 25 pounds, dyed my hair from my natural blonde to dark brown, and learned who I was and how to be confident. My whole life changed and all of a sudden I went from the “thick”, nerdy, unpopular girl in high school to a 5’6 120 pound brunette NFL cheerleader. I felt beautiful inside and out and to have that celebrate on a calendar cover and Maxim is just icing on the (vegan) cake” joked Riznyk.
Although being a professional cheerleader held a long list of positives for Riznyk, she was instantly faced with some challenges.
“The first big challenge was going from being a bit of a free spirited hippie teenager to a glamed out cheerleader. I was surprised how easy it was for the most part for me to chameleon into the position. I learned how to do my own makeup, how to act properly in tough situations, and I found the holy grail: hair extensions!” laughed Riznyk. However, she faced an even bigger challenge at the end of the season. Katie lost her grandmother whom she was extremely close with, a friend passed away soon after, and then to make matters worse, a close friend and co-worker was murdered and his father was shot by another co-worker at the vegan restaurant she worked at.
“It was so devastating and unexpected. I really cared for all three of the people involved and my emotions were all over. I didn’t sleep or eat for days and I still, after over a year, have trouble understanding it. I was so lucky to have the other girls on the squad. My email and phone was flooded with caring messages. My coach and some of the other girls even donated their time to come to the benefit we had for his family. I don’t know what I would have done without such a big support system. I’ll never forget how wonderful my squad mates were through all of that,” said Riznyk. A few months after she left the Jills, Katie started noticing some drastic changes in her body and mind. Her skin was beginning to change, she was gaining a massive amount of weight, and she began sleeping all the time.
“I couldn’t find out what was wrong because I didn’t change anything. I let it go for far too long and when I finally went to get it checked out, two doctors told me that I was absolutely fine. It took gaining 35 pounds in a year to finally get everyone on board to figure out what was wrong. When I went to go see a recommended endocrinologist within the first appointment I found out I had a genetic ovarian disease that causes all of the symptoms I was having,” said Riznyk.
Unfortunately that wasn’t all. While at her next appointment, Riznyk’s doctor noticed a lump in her throat and after various testing, she was told she had a large calcified tumor on her thyroid. The doctors feared cancer and within the next week she had to have her entire thyroid removed.
“I’m so blessed that we caught it in time because the doctors warned that my future could have been very bad if we didn’t. It was perhaps the most significant experience of my life and it changed everything for me. I learned a lot about myself, my friends, and my family. I know now how insignificant the petty things are, and how lucky I am to not only be alive, but also to have the life that I have,” Said Riznyk.
Her parents stood directly by her side through the entire process. Between her mom’s persistence and her father’s medical knowledge, she knows that she may have not caught it when it was still manageable. She said that some of the best advice she was ever given was to make your family your top priority, work hard, love unconditionally, treat others as you want to be treated, become vegan, and don’t sweat the small stuff. Given her strong admiration for her parents, it was no question when asked who her biggest inspirations are.
“My parents are my biggest inspiration. They celebrated their 28th anniversary this year and they’re still just as in love as the day they married. A lot of people I know have run into problems in their lives because they didn’t have good influences in their lives. My parents were a great example of an ideal relationship. In my opinion youth today, especially woman, have a skewed view of the way they should be treated and what a real relationship is. I’m really blessed to have had a wonderful example to look up to and two wonderful ex boyfriends that treated me like gold,” said Riznyk.
When asked who she admires most in the world, she instantly said her father.
“My dad didn’t have a lot growing up but he worked hard through college and medical school and gave my family the life that they have now. My father works 12 hour days just so he can take care of my family. He’s so caring and selfless but he still knows how to have a great time (and make all of my friends love him). Even through my terrible teen years he never gave up on me and continued to do what he thought was best for me,” Stated Riznyk.
At the same time, she has just as much admiration for her mother as well.
“She fell in love with my dad and gave up going to college so she could work and support the two of them in Chicago while my dad was in medical school. It shows such faith and love and is something that I hope to find some day. I couldn’t think of a better couple to look up to when it comes to relationships. Most of my friends’ parents are divorced and I’ve seen how hard that could be on a lot of them. I’m so blessed to have two people who love each other unconditionally and made the beautiful life that they now share with me and my sister,” Said Riznyk.
Since the Jills ended for Riznyk, she has finished her sophomore and junior years, successfully completed two internships including Channel 2 in Buffalo where she currently works. She has had some modeling opportunities and has also done some charity work and did a lot of traveling as well.
“I went through some up and downs and an early quarter life crisis but as I write this today I am happy, and that’s really all that matters,” Said Riznyk.
Katie has a clear mind set on where she sees herself in 5 years, but she knows now never to lose sight of what is truly important.
“I’ve always dreamed that by 25 I would be married, living in Los Angeles, and hosting E! News. Even though that dream is still very much alive I’ve learned that things happen when they happen and I’ve learned to have goals but not lose the journey on the way. As long as I am happy and have a lot of love, (in whatever form), my life will be a success. Everything happens for a reason”.