The Women's Swimming and Diving team has their eyes set on a big event coming up, but it's not a swim meet. In a few weeks they will participate in Relay for Life on campus, with a very special motivation for their walk.
Her name is Harper Doughtie, a seven-year-old girl living in North Carolina who they have never met. Harper was diagnosed with leukemia on September 9th, 2011. The form of leukemia that Harper has is very rare, attacking her immune system. While she is undergoing chemotherapy, her immune system is so weak that she isn't allowed to have visitors.
Head Coach McGee Moody and Harper's mother, Vickie Doughtie, were friends in college and he learned through Facebook about her daughter's illness. Moody thought that it would be a good idea for the team to support her and Maryn Bieganski (left) and several other members agreed. Bieganski said that the idea of helping Harper really "hit the hearts" of the team. Over the last six months, Moody says that "Harper has become an integral part of our women's team and they talk about her often."
According to Moody and Bieganski, it was senior captain Mallory Cage who really organized the effort and assigned members to send Harper cards, games or books at least four times a month. Bieganski said that for every holiday the team would send a basket of crafts they made or activities for her to do. Doughtie said the team "took the ball and ran with it," that the women all of a sudden started sending letters to cheer Harper up. Doughtie knows it's hard for Harper, who isn't able to be around children her own age, to be cooped up at home all the time with her and her dad. Doughtie said that the team has been "really great," and that "she [Harper] loves getting her packages in the mail."
The team made a video to send to Harper as an introduction. Moody said it was "nothing major, just an introduction where they all talked for a second, said hey, and let her know they were sending some gifts." Bieganski said it was a chance to let Harper know they were "praying for her and fighting for her." The team also sent Harper a swim team shirt that Doughtie notes has become her favorite nightgown.
From Harper's Facebook page: "Harper in one of her t-shirts from the Univ of SC swim team - she loves to wear it as a nightgown. Thank you to the ladies swim team for all the support for Harper! We really appreciate it!"
Doughtie remembers one package specifically; it came around Thanksgiving, right when Harper got sick again and had to be admitted to the hospital. The package was full of hand-drawn turkeys made from the team's handprints. Doughtie said the best thing about it was being able to see Harper smiling and laughing because the team took time to make them. She loves that the things Harper receives from the team aren't generic. They "take time to make it personal; that's what's so cool."
"Anytime anybody takes interest in your child and does anything to make your child happy when they're going through something so tough, I can't even express it. It just means a lot," said Doughtie.
Moody believes that Harper has given the team some perspective of what is really important. Bieganski noted that the team comes to practice every day a little bit happier.
"Our situations aren't as bad. You could be having a bad day at school, you could have a bad exam, but you aren't in quarantine," said Bieganski. "It's something you really have to think about."
For Bieganski individually, Harper has really come to mean a lot. Bieganski shared that she thinks about Harper daily because she has loved ones with cancer, some of whom have passed away. Bieganski said it affects her and helps her be "grateful to be able to go through daily life without complications like that, and to be thankful for all that I have."
Bieganski and teammate Rachel Elliot organized a Relay for Life team in Harper's honor and have chosen to name themselves "Harper's Helpers." They have designated the money they raise to go toward research in the field of childhood cancers.
Moody and Doughtie both hope to be able to bring Harper to a meet in the future once she is well enough to travel. Doughtie was enthusiastic that there was "no doubt" about whether they would come down.
"[Harper] can't wait to make it down there and give all of them hugs," said Doughtie. "They've got to be a pretty special group to do this for a little girl that they've never met."
Even though they live in Tar Heel country, Doughtie says they've become a whole household of Gamecock fans.