By Cayce Troxel
When University of Virginia student Mary Willetts and her father first emailed roughly 40 college crew coaches across the country, asking for their support in 13-year old Katie Carr's fight against cancer, they were only hoping for "something uplifting" to pass along to the young rower from Jacksonville, Fla.
What they got in return far exceeded even their greatest expectations.
"From the responses I got, I realized that many of these coaches had forwarded the letter to team members, friends and alumni," said Willetts, who also hails from Jacksonville and learned of Carr's situation through her family. "I talked to her sister today and she told me that it seems like every day Katie is receiving another letter or t-shirt from [crew] teams around the country."
While rowers of all ages and abilities, even recent Olympians, have been eager to extend their "get well" wishes to Katie through signed team photos, stuffed animals, and various other gifts of encouragement, one program in particular has gone above and beyond the rest to offer its support.
The Virginia rowing team just happened to be heading back from its winter break training trip near DeLand, Fla., when Willetts' email reached the inbox of head coach Kevin Sauer. Upon reading of Katie's plight and passing her story along to the rest of the crew, it became obvious to everyone involved what needed to be done next.
"Stopping at the hospital in Jacksonville on the way back to Charlottesville seemed like a no-brainer," senior team member Victoria Burke said. "I would hope any other team in our situation would have done the same."
"I don't think not visiting her really occurred to us," added senior co-captain Lauren Hutchins. "As soon as Kevin found out we would all be able to go see her, it was just a matter of when."
After learning of the hardships Katie has been forced to endure over her 13 short years, it's easy to understand why the Cavaliers were so quick to respond.
Born in China, she lost her biological parents at an early age. After shuttling back and forth from her grandparents' home to various foster homes, Katie relocated to the United States to live in Jacksonville with her adoptive parents, Pat and Karen Carr, and their daughter Elizabeth, now a student at the University of South Carolina.
Everything seemed to be finally falling into place for Katie until last year, when a series of tragedies suddenly struck the Carr family. First, Katie's mother died of cervical cancer; soon thereafter, her father was diagnosed with cancer, as well.
"Katie's story blew me away," Sauer said. "So much so that I thought the email might have been some sort of scam since the things Katie has gone through were hard to believe."
The bad news didn't stop there, however. As a middle school student at The Bolles School, a prep school in downtown Jacksonville, Katie turned to rowing as a sanctuary from the emotional rollercoaster her life had quickly become.
"The one thing that helped Katie cope with the loss of her mother was her desire to row and be an active piece of a successful Bolles crew team," Willetts said. "Even in middle school, Katie has proven to be a strong rower with great potential."
That all changed late last year.
During a practice row Katie heard a crack in her upper arm and was forced to visit a doctor for screening. The results that returned were, as the Willetts relayed in their email, "a young rower's and woman's worst nightmare." Katie had sarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissue and cartilage, and would need to undergo chemotherapy in an attempt to save her arm-and more importantly, her life.
"No one should suffer; cancer is a terrible disease," senior co-captain Jennifer Cromwell said. "When I learned about her family, her history, and where she had come from, I was in disbelief and shock. I was deeply saddened by the whole situation and felt an overwhelmingly strong urge for our team and myself to help her in any way possible."
And help is what they did.
Somehow maneuvering a 12-foot oar signed by each of the Cavaliers up the hospital stairwell, the team lifted Katie's spirits with its oversized present and impromptu visit. Although the 40 girls could only stay for 30 minutes, chatting and posing for photos, they nevertheless made a lasting impression on the young rower. While the signed oar now occupies a place of prominence on Katie's bedroom wall, the team itself holds an even greater significance in her fight against cancer.
"She looks back on that moment in time frequently and is still amazed at the outpouring of love and support she received from the Virginia crew team and its coaches, and in particular, Coach Sauer," said Pat Carr, Katie's father. "The team's visit really began a tidal wave of support from other college crew teams and rowers from around the country. I don't think there is any question that there has been a positive and continuing impact upon Katie."
The Cavaliers insist, however, that it's really the other way around.
"Katie is dealing with so much right now and enduring the biggest fight of her life, but she is strong and we could sense that," Cromwell said. "We were, and still are, so inspired by Katie and our visit we had with her."
Since its January visit, the team has kept in touch with Katie by posting messages on her CaringBridge account, an online blogging site used by cancer patients to post updates and keep in touch with loved ones and supporters. The Cavaliers also put together a Valentine's Day package and are hoping to arrange for Katie to attend their April 3rd regatta against Ohio State and Michigan at Lake Monticello.
"She is a very special girl who deserves it," Cromwell said. "We all wanted to take part as a team because we know that what she is going through isn't easy, so being able to have that kind of support is encouraging."
While the Cavaliers have participated in numerous outreach projects in the past, including Habitat for Humanity builds and blood drives, none have been as rewarding-or as reflective of the rowing community as a whole-than their most recent visit.
"Crew teams are bonded over a number of things across the country," Burke said. "One of them is the fact that it's not a common sport, and I think we take pride in helping each other out."
Katie will continue to draw on that support as she undergoes her final sessoins of chemotherapy. While she has been responding well to treatment and the swelling in her arm has decreased slightly, a meeting with her doctor will determine whether her arm can be salvaged or whether amputation will be necessary. Surgery is tentatively scheduled for March 18.
"There are moments when [Katie] is tempted to think 'why me?' or to think that she is somehow alone in navigating her way through these troubled and unsettled waters," Carr said. "It is in those times that she need not look any further than the mail and the blog entries on her CaringBridge web site to realize that even though there are many questions she cannot answer now-and may never be able to answer-she does know with incredible certainty that she is part of a team."
The Cavaliers couldn't agree more.
"There is no question that we are all 'pulling' for Katie, figuratively and literally," Cromwell said.