April 22, 2015
By Brad Muller | More Features
Four years ago, members of the South Carolina swimming and diving team tried to bring some comfort and perhaps some inspiration to a four year old girl stricken with leukemia. With eight year old Harper Doughtie now more than a year in remission and enjoying life as a second grader, the Gamecocks have found that they are the ones who have been inspired.
"They really helped us out during a tough time," said Harper's father, Matthew Doughtie. "They really gave us a lot of love and support during her diagnosis and chemo treatments. It meant a lot to me, and it meant a lot to Harper too, especially during the early times when she was undergoing treatments. It was always fun to see her face whenever she would open something up from them."
Harper and her father drove from their home in Tarboro, North Carolina, to join the swimming and diving team at the Relay For Life event on the South Carolina campus on Friday, April 17. The event, which is sponsored by the American Cancer Society, raised more than $164,000 for cancer research, and the Gamecock swimming and diving team had its team of walkers, known as Harper's Helpers, for the fourth straight year.
South Carolina head swimming coach McGee Moody and Harper's mother, Victoria, were friends when they both attended East Carolina, and he was responsible for bringing the two parties together four years ago.
"When I found out about Harper and the struggles she and her family were having to go through, it broke my heart a little bit," Moody said. "I talked to the girls on our team, and they jumped right in. Ultimately what happened was a huge friendship developed, not only with Harper and the girls, but with the team and their family."
"Coach Moody told us about this little girl with leukemia who is stuck in the hospital and can't get out to see people," said senior swimmer Rachel Elliott. "So we started sending her packages with some things we made and some crafts that she could do. It developed into something really cool."
The monthly care-packages quickly turned into weekly letters from team members. When she was well enough to correspond on her own, Harper sent the team good luck letters prior to a meet with Florida. The Gamecocks were able to finally meet Harper in-person at a meet last year hosted by East Carolina.
"She became an inspiration for our team," Elliott said. "We didn't know she was going to be at the meet. Coach Moody sent me to the door and told me I was going to be waiting for somebody, and when you see who it is, you will know. Then we saw her and our whole team got so excited."
"Just seeing her face light up is the greatest and knowing that she is loved from far away," Matthew Doughtie added. "She's touched their lives, and they've touched our lives too."
That mutual appreciation isn't lost on the Gamecocks.
"Swimming is a hard sport," Elliott said. "There are times when you're training so much where you think you are just done. If you're having a hard practice, we'd think about something that this little girl was going through with these treatments and all of that. So when it got hard, someone would yell out in practice to `do it for Harper,' and it became a really big inspiration. Before our meets, we would dedicate our races to her."
Sometimes we get stuck in our own little bubble, and we don't think about the big picture. Sometimes our bad days aren't always so bad. I think she had a far greater impact on our girls than maybe we had on her.
Elliott noted that meeting Harper also helped keep things in perspective.
"It made us realize that we are the lucky ones," Elliott said. "We get to compete like this, and this little girl is fighting for her life. She is such an inspiration. I can't imagine being that young and keeping such a positive attitude in beating such a killer disease. She is such a good spokesperson for childhood leukemia."
"Sometimes we get stuck in our own little bubble, and we don't think about the big picture," Moody said. "Sometimes our bad days aren't always so bad. I think she had a far greater impact on our girls than maybe we had on her."
Harper is a strong and courageous young lady with all of the charm and giggles on display like every other eight year old. This was the first time that Harper was healthy enough to come to the Relay For Life event on the South Carolina Campus. The event and the relationship continued to bring a smile to her face.
"Yeah, it made me happy," Harper said. "It's been fun. They are nice."
After raising approximately $4,500 last year, the Gamecocks are hoping to raise at least $5,000 this year as their fundraising efforts continue through August for the American Cancer Society.
"We have a lot of people on the team who have been affected by cancer in some way," Elliott said. "My brother was a stage four testicular cancer survivor, so I walk in honor of him every year. Everybody has a story and background when it comes to cancer. There have been teammates that have lost their mom, so it's a big deal. To have a common person such as Harper for us all to cheer for and walk for, it's really cool to see the team come together like this."
During Relay For Life events, one team member is supposed to be walking the course for the entirety of the 12 hour event. More than four million people in over 20 countries raise much-needed funds and awareness to save lives from cancer through the Relay For Life movement each year.
Matthew and Victoria are East Carolina graduates, but with Harper proudly donning a South Carolina hat at Relay For Life, the Gamecocks now have a few more loyal fans.
"I've got to admit, even when we went to the swim meet at East Carolina, I had on South Carolina gear," Matthew Doughtie laughed. "I'm a Gamecock for life too."
When asked what she'd like to be when grows up, Harper's answer wasn't a surprise.
"I guess a swimming teacher."
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