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Mika 2.0

BCA Hall of Famer Mika Immonen insists his battle with cancer has made him both fearless and appreciative of every moment.

By Keith Paradise

Roughly a month before April's Super Billiards Expo was set to begin, Mika Immonen registered to play in the Pro Players Championship 9-ball tournament held in conjunction with the consumer expo.

Competing in the 128-player, double-elimination event was a pretty aggressive objective considering the former world champion and Billiard Congress of America Hall of Famer was less than six months removed from being diagnosed and treated for stage 4 colorectal cancer. He had already gone through seven rounds of chemo and had his eighth treatment scheduled for the week after the four-day long event outside of Philadelphia. Conversely, Immonen did not have a fire to practice or even touch a cue for obvious reasons, putting pool aside to focus on his health.

Regardless, he had some tests coming up to see how the treatment was progressing. If he received good news, he figured why not?

“I was just kind of being optimistic about it,” said Immonen while enjoying some relaxation time in the Hamptons in early May. “So, then I figured in the worst-case scenario I can just withdraw, but I wanted to make sure that I was in the event.”

Before making any definite plans, Immonen had to be cleared through a PET scan two weeks before the event and a colonoscopy the following week. When both tests came back clear, Immonen's optimism paid off and also gave him the inspiration he had been looking for to play.

“I got the “all clear.” Before that I didn't have the mental motivation to play,” said Immonen. “Even though sometimes playing is good therapy, I wasn't able to get down and enjoy it when the future was uncertain.”

During his treatments, Immonen honored his paternal grandmother, pioneering Finnish fashion designer Riitta Immonen, with a tattoo. The next day, he was declared in remission.

With his future now looking more promising, Immonen made his return to competitive play at the Pro Players Championship, winning a couple of matches and receiving many encouraging words from attendees during the weekend of play. Spectators and fellow professionals saw a man who is more slender than he had been, having dropped approximately 25 pounds since the complications started. Immonen is now working on trying to put a bit more weight back on while also building back his physical strength.

Immonen began experiencing symptoms during last summer that he found concerning but initially dismissed these as possibly being hemorrhoids. As summer transitioned into fall, the complications intensified, with his gastrointestinal system fluctuating between constipation and diarrhea. It reached the point that he couldn't play in a match without planning on a timeout in advance for an emergency bathroom break.

“He was in some pain, and you could tell he was a little worried, as anyone would be,” said his close friend Jim Gottier, former owner of Greenleaf's Pool Room in Richmond, Va., who met Immonen almost 20 years ago when the two were living in New York. “He would give me a call in between matches and you could tell he was in physical pain.”

It was at an event in Costa Rica that fellow competitor and friend Naoyuki Oi was worried enough that he took Immonen to the hospital. After a series of examinations and tests over a series of weeks, he was diagnosed with cancer in mid-December and began chemotherapy treatments shortly thereafter in Costa Rica with a former student, Dr. Zenen Zeledon, who just happened to be an oncologist.

“I had hung out in Costa Rica for a few months in 2017 or '18,” Immonen recalled. “And I gave him lessons. The funny thing is, I knew he was a doctor but I had no idea he was an oncologist.

“So, after the diagnosis, I reached out to him to give me some recommendations for doctors and maybe help me set up an appointment. He told me he's been in oncology for 30 years and I should just come see him. All of a sudden, the student was the teacher. It was destiny.”

Immonen made his diagnosis public, sitting down for a lengthy interview on the “Doggin' It” podcast. Almost immediately he was overwhelmed with messages of support — many from people who were survivors of the disease or currently battling the disease themselves. Immonen said they wanted to express their support, to tell him to keep fighting or tell him how encouraged they were by how he was handling his situation.

Funnyman Oi (left) was serious, insisting on taking Immonen to the hospital.

“They drew strength from my attitude, which was really nice to hear,” he said. “I was on a mission. I was on a mission to survive, and I didn't have time to grieve or worry. My mission was I have a job to do, just like I was preparing for a tournament.”

“You know, I never really saw him worried,” said Gottier, who texted his friend messages of support frequently. “I saw him like, ‘Okay, I have a job to do and I'm going to do this job.' He's a very mentally strong person.”

One of the people who reached out to provide comfort during his battle was fellow BCA Hall of Famer and cancer survivor Jeanette Lee, who had been through her own battle with ovarian cancer. She traveled to see Immonen in Costa Rica shortly after Christmas and the two of them were part of a group that spent New Year's Eve together. Lee also made a $10,000 donation to Immonen's GoFundMe account, which has raised over $103,000 for his medical treatment — which he is incurring out of pocket.

“She really went out of her way,” said Immonen. “I was speechless.”

The idea of playing or practicing had not really been on his mind in recent months given the diagnosis and chemotherapy that came with it. He wanted to focus on his health before putting any concentration into getting his game back together. But with only a few days in between the test results returning and the Expo beginning, there wasn't much time for Immonen to try and get into stroke. He had used tournaments to play his way into stroke in the past. This time, he didn't have much choice.

The good news was that he wasn't too focused on the results.

“I wasn't really concerned about how deep I went in the event,” said Immonen. “I just wanted the test, and I figured the event would be good practice for me. I would get to hit a lot of balls and it was going to be me just getting back into the groove.”

Immonen opened play with an 11-0 decision over American Lucas Taylor, took down Nathan Childress, 11-9, then defeated Puerto Rico Open champion Konrad Juszczyszyn of Poland, 11-8, before losing to Brandon Shuff, 11-6. He headed to the one-loss side of the bracket where he had an opportunity to qualify for the final 16 with a win. He battled young American upstart Lukas Fracasso-Verner before falling, 11-9, finishing in a tie for 17th place.

“I was happy that I was able to go out there and play,” said Immonen. “I played a few good rounds. I beat Konrad and he's a higher-rated player, so that was definitely a good test and a good test of character.”

Anyone who expected Immonen's battle with cancer to mellow him at the pool table is probably going to be disappointed. As he faced Fracasso-Verner in the Expo's pro arena Saturday night, any billiard ball which didn't obey his command during an attempted run out or safety exchange was met with Immonen's familiar facial expressions and other various gestures of frustration.

Diagnosed in Costa Rica, Immonen had no idea that his former student, Dr. Zeledon, was an oncologist, who immediately began treatments.

“Yeah, my instinct is to have that,” said Immonen. “I'm an intense player and I'm going to have my game face. But inside, nothing is going to faze me. I have a different perspective on life. Pool is my passion and it's been a big part of my life, but I've also been through a ringer, and I was uncertain about if I was going to be around or not.”

Many people came up to him at the event to utter words of encouragement as well, an event that is equal parts trade show and annual reunion. Some approached him and expressed how glad they were to see him out and competing again, and a few mentioned how proud they were of how he tackled the illness head-on with the same determination that he showed in winning a World 9-Ball championship and back-to-back U.S. Open 9-Ball titles. Other times, people made eye contact from across the room and gave him a knowing nod. He also reconnected with some old friends that he had not seen in a while, which offered its own host of emotions.

“I could tell that they knew what I had been through, and they were happy to see me,” said Immonen. “Through this experience, I definitely feel like I have a little bit more compassion.”

Although his disposition in competition has remained unchanged, Immonen admitted that he has evolved away from the table. He's referred to this new lease on life as “Mika 2.0,” a fresh slate that is a bit more fearless but is also living in the moment instead of taking things for granted. Immonen said the old Mika was so focused on what he was working towards that he may have forgotten to enjoy the “power of now” as he called it.

“I'm still trying to figure it out,” he said. “In a way, I'm super thankful for this experience because it has opened my eyes to different things and different perspectives.”

Longtime friend and fellow cancer survivor Lee surprised Immonen with a hefty donation and NYE visit to Costa Rica.

Even Immonen is unsure of what Mika 2.0 will look like. Clearly, the new version still has the same drive to win that the original version exhibited, but the new software also can absorb and then let go of a loss a bit easier, which he did after being eliminated by Fracasso-Verner in Valley Forge.

A couple of weeks after his return to play and his final round of chemotherapy, Immonen was on a plane to China to promote his Taom brand at another expo, the Guangzhou Billiard Exhibition (GBE) in Guangzhou. While working at the event in China, Immonen posted on Facebook that, four and a half months after his diagnosis, he was essentially in remission and now being monitored for the cancer in short intervals.

“I'm just here, I'm real, I'm raw and I'm going to be around,” he said in the post.

One person offering guidance on Immonen's journey will be his paternal grandmother, Riitta Immonen, now immortalized in tattoo form on his right bicep and shoulder. “I wanted to commemorate her legacy,” he said. “She inspired with her story as a lady who carved out an incredible career as a couture designer, designing the wardrobe for Miss Univers, Armi Kuusela, in 1952 and dressed two different First Ladies of Finland. She was a maverick.”

Immonen took down a few big names in his return to action at the Pro Players event. (Photo By Erwin Dionisio)

Immonen was hoping to be around for June's World Pool Championship in Saudi Arabia and has been pleading his case to event promoter Matchroom for a wild card spot. He thinks it would be the ideal way to announce his return to the game. At minimum, his clean bill of health has taken him from having no interest in playing at all to openly lobbying to participate in a world championship, which might be as much a sign of his progress as those scans before the Expo.

“I don't think I would have made it without the community support,” he said. “Everybody played a part with prayers and whoever manifested good energy. I'm thankful and I felt like, okay, maybe I've done something right in my life to be in that position.”