Somehow, five seniors on Homestead's girls swimming team need a nickname, something like “Sisterhood of the traveling swimming goggles” or how about “The Spartans Sister Swimmers?”
They deserve a moniker because of what they have accomplished in and out of the pool.
In the water, they are going for their fourth consecutive sectional title. Maggie Stock (Miami, Ohio), Lily Kaiser (Bowling Green), Ella Sackett (Indiana Wesleyan), Audrey Crowell (Purdue) and Cora Walrond (Toledo) signed their letters of intent on the same night this month.
But they have an even bigger accomplishment out of the water as they have already helped one of their teammates overcome one of life's biggest challenges.
As a 12-year-old six years ago, Walrond was sitting on the bed listening to her mother's phone call with the doctor's office. For months, the family had suspected something was wrong with the Woodside Middle School sixth-grader, but the tests kept coming back negative. This time, when she saw her mother start crying, Walrond knew it was bad.
“I kind of knew that my life would never be the same after that,” she said. “I remember crying for a while, but it was only a few hours. I think I took it OK, I was just really unsure of what was going to happen next.”
She was diagnosed with stage 4 nodular sclerosis Hodgkin's lymphoma, the most common Hodgkin's disease in developed countries, according to cancer.org, and the most common in teens and young adults. She immediately started chemotherapy treatment at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
When her hair started falling out, she shaved her head with her father and uncle joining in to show support.
“I could see it all in clumps on my pillow and I did not like that,” she said. “Shaving my head was kind of scary, but I tried wearing a wig once or twice, and I hated it. I really did. It was so hot and itchy. When I went to swim, it just went with a bald head and I was OK. I just went with it. It was my little peach fuzz head.”
Though her swimming season was over, her friends and teammates worked to keep her involved and encouraged. They held a raffle to raise money with the chance to shave the coaches' heads as the main incentive. Then they wrote “Cora Strong” in Sharpie all over their bodies and sent her pictures. They also promised to win a big meet and came through.
But where Walrond's friends, particularly the four with help from Cameron Luarde (Michigan) and Spencer Koehrn (IUPUI), really came through is after the treatments were done. Because the chlorine in the pool killed any potential germs, Walrond kept swimming throughout her treatments and also coached little kids during summer workouts.
“You want to be there and support her, but it's hard for you, too, because you don't know how it's going to turn out at the end,” Stock said. “It's just really challenging. She did it all with a smile on her face and still came to practices and did everything she could. I've never seen anyone do it with such a good attitude. It was just amazing to see someone so strong throughout the process.”
But in the moments when she couldn't be so strong, her friends were always there to listen, support and commiserate.
“I probably shared with them a lot more than I shared with anyone else, including my parents,” Walrond said. “I shared with them whether or not I was actually feeling OK or whether or not I was just trying to act strong on the outside. I feel like they did a good job handling the situation. They didn't freak out when I said I wasn't feeling well; they just asked what they could do to help.”
Whenever she struggled at the pool, they would ask quietly if she was OK so no one else knew what was going on. Basically, they treated her as if she was normal Cora until she worked her way back to that. That included bringing any food that sounded even a hint of tasting good, coming over to watch movies and providing lots of hugs. Crowell created short videos to make Walrond laugh.
For a while, they carried her on her way back. They were her own relay team, always offering a helping hand and an extra boost of much-needed energy.
“We were best friends, but honestly, we treat each other more like family at this point,” Walrond said. “I think I see them more than I see my own parents with all the time at the pool.”
Maybe at such a young age her teammates and friends didn't fully understand cancer and what it could do, but they understood that their friend was in trouble and needed their support.
There were times when she was out of breath after walking down a set of stairs, or needed to find the strength to walk back into the hospital for another treatment, but her friends kept her going.
“At the beginning, it was like this was Cora and she's going to get through it, but during the process you saw a more vulnerable side of her,” Crowell said. “We saw a side of her that was just unbelievable, and that drive from her kind of motivates the rest of us to achieve the highest degree of determination that we can. We kind of idealize her strength after what she went through.”
Recently, the friends celebrated Walrond passing five years of being cancer-free. Now that her battle is in the past, they rarely talk about it. It's not forgotten, but there's a senior season to look forward to and then graduation and preparing to attend five different colleges.
Life will be different soon, apart from one another, but they swear their bond will always remain. After eight years as teammates and best friends and now even more, there's so much history to build onto.
“All of us have gotten even closer than we were,” Stock said. “We were all friends back then, but it's been six years since then so we've had a lot of time to get closer.”
Maybe they're simply “The Five Forever Friends.”