Editor's Note: Northwestern women's swimmers Jackie Powell and Megan Goss spearheaded the inaugural "Breaststroke4BreastCancer" relay to raise funds for local cancer research. In an incredible display of support and organizational prowess, the first-time event filled 17 lanes at NU's Norris Aquatics Center with more than 150 swimmers who combined to tally 70,000 yards (or 39 miles) of swimming in just one hour. NU's Beta Fraternity won a trophy with the most total yards: 5,350. In addition, special guest Joan Zielinski, a Northwestern professor and invitee of Wildcats' junior swimmer Becca Soderholm, shared her experience with breast cancer with the crowd during a fun, education and powerful evening. Read on for Kristin Scharkey's perspective on how much the event meant to her team and one softball Wildcat in particular.
On October 24, dozens of Northwestern student-athletes swam in Northwestern Women's Swimming and Diving's fundraiser "Breaststroke4BreastCancer." Our own team swam over 4,000 yards in one hour, raising money for breast cancer research and contributing to the university's final total in which the swimming program more than doubled their target goal.
But that night, we weren't just swimming for the millions of women affected by breast cancer every year. We were swimming for one in particular: a brunette-haired woman who sat in the stands with smiling eyes under a pair of thick glasses as she watched us go from one end of the pool to the other.
Every participant wore a pink swim cap, but it wasn't difficult to distinguish one teammate in particular as her head bobbed up and down beneath the water. Just two days before the incoming class moved into their dorms this past September, freshman Bri LeBeau found out her mother, Susan, had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
"I found myself wanting to go out there and just swim," LeBeau said. "I was getting excited for my next lap because even though I was tired, it was in no comparison to what my mom went through."
Even though she'd only been on campus for four weeks, LeBeau and her family had already become "part of the fabric of our program," head coach Kate Drohan said. The LeBeau's never missed a football or a softball tailgate, and settled right into the Northwestern Softball family like they'd been around for years. When the team found out about Susan's diagnosis at practice a few days before she went in for surgery, we were devastated.
"All the stress of being a student-athlete; the class we sat through that day, the homework we knew we had to start and finish, and the mistakes we were trying to fix at practice that day came to a screeching halt," senior Emily Allard said. "Everyone in that dugout was silent. We all knew that our problems in that moment had become miniscule to what Bri and her family were going through."
The shock and silence in the dugout ended when senior Meghan Lamberth walked over and enveloped a teary-eyed LeBeau in an embrace. One by one, the rest of my teammates followed with murmurs of: "Anything you need, Bri," "You are not in this alone," "I know I've only known you for a month, but you're just as a part of this team as anybody else. We're here for your mom." After everyone had given the 5-foot-11 freshman a hug, Drohan announced to the team that we'd be participating in the Breaststroke4breastcancer.
"Susan LeBeau has the strength and the grace of a real champion, and she has certainly been an inspiration to our team," Drohan said. "Our team jumped at the chance to "Swim for Susan" and show our support in her fight against breast cancer."
Susan had been dealing with breast lumps since after Bri was born, having had four tumors removed in the last 18 years. When she went into the doctor for a problem with her arm, the last thing she expected was to find another tumor, let alone one that was malignant.
"I was totally blown away. I couldn't believe that it happened to me. But I remember feeling selfish," Susan said, "Because when you say how could it happen to you, it could happen to anybody."
Susan went in for surgery on a Saturday early in October, but not before convincing Bri that she needed to go back to Evanston for the team's fall ball games that day. "Brianna is called to compete," Susan says. "It's the most phenomenal thing to watch." With the rest of the extended family at Susan's side, Bri, her father and her sister made the trip back to school in order for her to play in the final two games of the program's undefeated fall ball season.
"She didn't even want me to come home," Bri said. "She wanted me to be at Northwestern doing my thing. She knew I had the games. She made it very clear that she wanted me to be at those games and playing the sport I love."
During Susan's surgery, doctors found two different types of cancer. Another six months, they said, and the disease would've spread to her lymph nodes. By catching it in time, however, the doctors were able to remove every bit from Susan's body and declare her cancer free. With two wins under her belt, LeBeau hurried back home; the first thing Susan wanted to know was how the games went.
"Even in her darkest moments and her weakest moments, my mom is very strong for everyone else," LeBeau said. "Family has always been a super important thing in my life but this just made it that much more important."
The Breaststroke4Breastcancer fundraiser was just a few weeks after Susan's surgery, and despite the pain of the recovery, she was there in the stands to cheer on our team as we swam. "We were fortunate enough to be graced with Mrs. LeBeau's presence at the event," junior infielder Marisa Bast said. "She is our inspiration, and her being there served as a true motivation."
"To watch Brianna and even all the girls in the pool swimming; they were swimming for the cure and they were all just loving what they were doing," says Susan. "Just being a part of [the fundraiser] was a really moving experience because it really opened up my eyes that I'm one of the fortunate ones that have survived, but there's so many other people that don't."