‘Let them pour strength into you’

Jeffco athletes rally against cancer in gyms and fields across county

Posted 10/24/16

In Golden, cross-country athletes are running for their coach, who recently battled breast cancer.

In Lakewood, a girls’ volleyball team — inspired by their coach’s fight against a rare cancer — used one of its matches to spotlight the …

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‘Let them pour strength into you’

Jeffco athletes rally against cancer in gyms and fields across county

Posted

In Golden, cross-country athletes are running for their coach, who recently battled breast cancer.

In Lakewood, a girls’ volleyball team — inspired by their coach’s fight against a rare cancer — used one of its matches to spotlight the importance of curing all cancers.

And in Wheat Ridge, the football team’s annual Pink Showdown honors people fighting the disease, survivors and those working for cures.

Across Jefferson County, youth in athletics are using sports to focus awareness on cancer and other illnesses in shows of support that often reach well beyond their teams.

With October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, many events showcase that disease, such as the Oct. 1 Think Pink Invitational Gymnastics Meet at Lakewood High School. Here are three other glimpses into how the athletic community in Jeffco schools is celebrating survivors, lifting spirits and educating the community.

Letting the strength pour in

In the most difficult moments through her battle with breast cancer, head coach Jennifer Byrne pictured the Golden High School cross country team with smiles on their faces, running around in their pink shirts.

“They give me reason every day to fight,” Byrne said.

Byrne, 40, was diagnosed with breast cancer on June 14. She underwent two surgeries, one on July 21 and another on Aug. 4, then was back on the field coaching for the first official practice on Aug. 11.

“Knowing what she’s going through makes everybody stronger as a whole,” said Mary Fox, 16, a sophomore on the team. “We’re fighting hard and doing our best for her — and each other.”

For the entire cross-country season — which goes from mid-August to the end of October — the 45 Demons on the team wore pink shirts at every meet in tribute of Byrne.

“It was heartbreaking,” said sophomore Danny Ridley, 15, of the moment when the team found out about Byrne’s diagnosis. “None of us expected it to happen.”

But the pink shirts also serve as an awareness tool for the importance of getting screenings and building a support group early on, said Ethan Conroy, 17, a senior on the cross-country team.

“Breast cancer is a disease that can affect anyone,” he said. “The more people who know about it, the more who can search for a cure.”

As a survivor, Byrne counts her blessings and feels great to be “out running with the kids” again, she said.

But in the midst of her own battle, Byrne also summoned strength for another person — her sister Dani, who is 31, was diagnosed with breast cancer two months before Byrne.

Both came out of it with bilateral surgery and reconstruction, Byrne said, meaning neither had to go through intense chemotherapy or radiation.

Early detection was key, Byrne said. “Be super aware of your body.”

And should there be a diagnosis, Byrne said, reach out to loved ones — as she did her team.

“Let them pour strength into you.”

Beyond the pink

It’s not uncommon for people to assume that youth already know the importance of cancer awareness, and how to cope if a loved one is diagnosed, said Kelley Morrison, head coach of the Green Mountain volleyball team.

“But sometimes they need the door opened,” she said. “These are not things you hide — they’re the things you speak up about.”

Morrison is a survivor of a rare cancer called myxoid round cell liposarcoma. She underwent surgeries in April and May, then radiation treatment in July.

Since the beginning of volleyball season, which started in October and extends through the early December, the team has been witnessing Morrison’s recovery.

Morrison also is dealing with another hardship — her mother has stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Metastatic means the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, and there is currently no cure for it, Morrison said.

But, she said, “the good thing about sports — and volleyball — is that it lets you take a time out.”

“Every cancer patient deals with their cancer differently,” Morrison said, adding it is important for everyone to have a support group and an outlet to help keep the focus off the cancer and on “the important things in life.”

On Oct. 4, the volleyball team took on Standley Lake for its cancer awareness match. The team decided to go beyond the pink, and themed its awareness night Cures Needed for All!

“No one cancer is more important than any other,” said Alexis LaLiberte, 17, a senior on the team. “Cancer is a major issue. It’s important to find a cure for all of them.”

LaLiberte would encourage everyone to attend a cancer event. They spread positivity and lift the spirits of those who have been affected by cancer — whether it be a survivor or a family member, she said.

In preparation for its Cures Needed for All! match, the volleyball team gwhile preparing ribbons for anybody who wanted one at the game. The ribbons were available in all the different cancer awareness colors. Attendees who wanted to donate monetarily were able to, and the funds went to American Cancer Society.

“It is rare that someone in our gym hasn’t been affected by cancer in some way,” Morrison said. “We opened it up to everyone who had been impacted.”

The boys in pink

Three years ago, Wheat Ridge High School began its Pink Showdown, a football game with the purpose to bring awareness to breast cancer.

“There’s quite a few kids in our locker room who have been affected by cancer in general,” coach Stacy Coryell said. “It touches everybody.”

One inspiration for starting the Pink Showdown is ESPN’s SportsCenter reporter Shelley Smith — a graduate of Wheat Ridge High School, Coryell said.

She now lives in California, he said, but has come home to attend all three Pink Showdowns.

Smith loves football, said her nephew Jerrell Terry, 17, a senior on the football team. “She tells me she wishes she could make every game.”

Terry is proud he has played on the team that started the Pink Showdown, and after he graduates, he plans on coming back to cheer the team on.

It’s a tradition now, he said.

The players look forward to it every year, and the team they play against also gets into the spirit of it, Coryell said.

The Pink Showdown is an avenue to honor people who are fighting cancer, the survivors and those working hard for a cure, Coryell said.

And that inspires the football team to go out and do its best, he added.

“It’s a way for us — as a team, a school and a community — to be a part of the solution,” Coryell said. “We let them know we’re there to support them.”

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