May 24, 2016
By Brad Muller | More Features
Rachel Elliott wasn't planning on becoming a teacher, but when her mother was diagnosed with throat cancer, the former South Carolina swimmer dove into an opportunity that just may become a career. It's not the first time that Elliott and her family had been dealt a difficult hand.
"It was a shock," Elliott said. "When she told me, I flashed back to my brother having to go through all of that. We lost my dad my sophomore year of college from a sudden heart attack. So it was really shocking to have something else happen to my immediate family. I knew that from the experience with my brother and other family members, the best thing I could do was tell my mom that we're going to get through it, and we're going to beat it. My mom is the strongest woman I know after everything we've gone through."
Her father, Phillip, passed away the night after she had arrived home for Christmas break during her sophomore year, and her older brother, Erik overcame testicular cancer and is now cancer-free.
After graduating last May with a degree in public health, Elliott was coaching a summer league team in Columbia when she received a call informing her that her mother, Cheri, had stage four throat cancer.
"When she started her chemo, we knew she wasn't going to be able to come back to school, but she had already been assigned a class," Elliott said. "My mom has taught for over 40 years, and I wanted to keep at least one thing off her mind. She was so worried about the kids she teaches, and since I was going to move down to Naples (Fla.) to help with her care, she suggested that I get my license to be a substitute so I could sub for her class until she came back. She thought this would be a good way to stay on top of how her kids were learning so she could still be in contact with them, and then when she came back, it wouldn't be like someone new was coming in."
The two Elliott women were confident that Cheri would recover in time to return after the fall semester at Manatee Elementary School in Naples, but things didn't go as smoothly as they originally hoped.
"It hit her pretty hard, and she had to have a feeding tube put in, plus all the other things that go along with radiation and chemo," Elliott said.
She is an example of what the University of South Carolina athletics department is about when we talk about developing quality young people to go out in society and make a difference.
Regulations stipulated that substitute teachers were required to have a teaching certificate if they were going to fill in for more than a semester, so Rachel did the necessary work to earn her certificate while staying on the job for the spring semester as well. That led to the school's administration recently keeping Rachel on as a full-time teacher for next year as well, while Cheri is now able to return to her class this fall, allowing for "Team Elliott" to each have their own third grade classes in the same school.
"I never could have seen myself doing this when I graduated last May, but now I'm absolutely in love with it," Elliott said. "Manatee is a Title I school, and that means more than 90% of the kids are on free or reduced lunch. Some are living in Habitat for Humanity Houses, and some may come home from school and not have a parent at home until two or three in the morning because they work night shifts. My mom has been working there for about six years now, so you get used to the families and how important a teacher is to the kids. That was the first thing my mom thought about when she got sick. Who was going to care for these kids?"
Elliott noted that her family's faith has been a key to their perseverance, and she is thankful for the support she received from many people, including her Gamecock family.
"My family is a firm believer that God always has a plan," Elliott said. "I couldn't have asked for a better support system that God put in my life. I truly believe there was a reason I chose to go to South Carolina. There was a reason that (South Carolina head coach McGee) Moody became my coach. Even after my dad passed away, all my coaches there were my biggest supporters. Moody would find something to encourage me any time I was having a bad day.
"I am really lucky to have people like Moody, who especially during my college career, showed that he was always going to be there for me. He was the first one I talked to about it. You stay strong by saying, `OK. this happened, but what do I still have?' I still have family members that love me. I still have people here to support me. I still have a purpose in my life to do great things. My dad was my biggest supporter, and he never would have wanted me to quit."
"She has already gone through more than some people have to go through their entire lives," Moody said. "She is an amazing young lady. She never felt sorry for herself. She is an example of what the University of South Carolina athletics department is about when we talk about developing quality young people to go out in society and make a difference. That's her. It was an honor to have her here, and it's a privilege to have her still be part of us. Once you're here, not just with swimming, you are always a part of this. To watch her grow through all of this has been inspiring."
While Elliott's family members continue to serve as a source of inspiration, Elliott found additional ways to be inspired and to try to inspire others while at South Carolina. She and her teammates befriended a young girl named Harper, who was diagnosed with leukemia at age four. The Gamecocks became pen pals with Harper and raised money for the American Cancer Society in her name through the annual Relay for Life event on campus each year.
"Cancer has impacted my life in such a big way," Elliott said. "When there is something that has that big of an impact on your life, you want to do everything you can to help other people fight it."
Now that she has found what may be her true calling as a teacher, Elliott is not done inspiring others while also drawing inspiration from them as well.
"You have to just shine a light on someone every day of your life," Elliott said. "It can be little things. You have to take into consideration the lives of those around you. Yes, I lost someone really important to me and things kept popping up that my family had to overcome. I have kids in my class who overcome things every day. They might be worried about what they are going to eat that night or where they are going to sleep. You have to be a humble all the time. Bad things happen all the time, but there is always somebody who has it worse. There is always something you can do to help them."
It may not have been the career she thought about when she first went to college, but now she can't imagine doing anything else and seems to have found a calling after a difficult time.
"I love the kids," Elliott said. "I have never experienced a group of kids like the ones I had this year. Every morning they have something new and exciting to share with me. They challenge me every single day. They truly appreciate what you are doing for them. I never thought I would be teaching. I absolutely love it. I love going in every morning and being the first person they see when they come in each morning."
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