Shawnee Dispatch

Wristen: Kindness will never be forgotten

January 9, 2012

Chances are as you’re reading this I’m running down a trail in the Rocky Mountains, kicking up dirt behind me while sucking down the thin air.

Or maybe I’m tramping through some fresh powder while trying out my new set of snowshoes.

The truth is as I write this I don’t know exactly where this little trip will take me.

Sunday was my final day as Sports Editor at the Shawnee Dispatch, Bonner Springs Chieftain and Basehor Sentinel newspapers. When I finished my work, I left my equipment on the desk, locked the door behind me and headed for the mountains.

Colorado is not a permanent destination, just a quick adventure before returning to Kansas City and moving on to a career outside of newspapers after spending more than a decade as a sports writer.

While I’m leaving the press box behind, there are numerous lessons I’ll take with me that I’ve learned from the kids and coaches whose teams I’ve had an opportunity to cover.

The greatest of those lessons is this: Be kind to others.

Of all the state championships I’ve covered, heartbreaking losses and underdog victories, three stories will stick with me forever. Two have been told in the pages of our newspapers before, and one will be shared here for the first time.

The first took place at the 2009 track and field state championships and eventually received national attention. Reporter’s intuition allowed me to see it unfold, but the credit goes to the four girls involved who quietly followed their hearts and did what they believed was right.

The girls — Maranatha Academy’s Ali Bailey, Bethany Zarda, Mallory Keith and Christa Courtney — won the Class 2A state championship in the 3,200-meter relay. They crossed the finish line second and broke their school record — their goals for the day — but first-place Pittsburg-St. Mary’s Colgan was disqualified after the race.

A Colgan runner collapsed in the scorching mid-day heat, causing her team to fall from first to third, and the anchor runner’s toe crossed the exchange zone barrier while reaching back to grab the baton before ultimately reclaiming the lead. The Maranatha girls learned of the disqualification moments before being ushered to the podium where they were presented with state championship medals. After snapping a few photos, they huddled together, discussed the situation and then disappeared into the crowd in search of the Colgan runners.

The history books will list Maranatha as the 2009 state champion in the event, but the Colgan runners have the medals. Bailey, Zarda, Keith and Courtney chose to give the gold medals to an opponent they deemed to be more deserving. No adult proposed the idea to them, and there’s no “code” in the sport that calls for athletes to give up their medals. It was simply what the girls’ hearts told them to do.

“It’s not really about the medals,” Zarda told me that day. “It’s about how you compete and your mindset and how much you give. If you give it your all, that’s all you can ask for.”

The second story took place in September of 2011. It was early in the cross country season, but the Bonner Springs program was trying to overcome a major loss. Scintila Capalla, the girls program’s top returning runner, had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma — a form of bone cancer — during the summer. Her senior season was over before it started.

A quiet but friendly competitor, Capalla had earned the respect of her opponents during her first three years of high school. Now, a rival program at Basehor-Linwood hoped to return the favor.

BLHS coach Jeff Venema and his team organized a T-shirt tribute for Capalla to take place at Bonner Springs’ home meet. The BSHS coaches invited Capalla to shoot the starting gun for the varsity girls’ race, and when she arrived at the meet she was greeted by 480 people — teammates, opponents, parents and faculty members — sporting white T-shirts that bore an orange heart with the words “We love you Scintila.”

“Distance runners protect their own,” Venema explained on a day where it was clear to everyone that the most important race to be won wasn’t taking place on the cross country course.

The final story hits much closer to home for me, and I still tear up every time I think about it.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer during the spring of 2010. Complications delayed her treatment until late in the summer, and the fight was heating up by the time fall sports practices began. At some point, it came up in conversation while chatting with St. James Academy volleyball coach Nancy Dorsey.

I forgot all about that conversation until about a month later when I received an email from former St. James standout Kelly Kolich, now playing at the College of Charleston.

“I heard about your mother and I just wanted to send a quick email letting you know I will be praying for her everyday,” she wrote.

I was stunned. How did she know?

A few weeks later, an email arrived from current St. James player Sheridan Zarda expressing similar sentiments.

In late November, the day after chemotherapy took mom’s hair, St. James won its third straight state championship. During post-match interviews, seniors Hanna Forst and Molly O’Brien both brought up my mom’s cancer battle and said they would continue to pray for her. The whole team would, O’Brien said.

It turns out, the St. James volleyball program has a prayer list. Dorsey had placed my mom on the list, and her team of fighters — the Thunder have a 174-7 record, four state championships and a national title in the past four years — put their winning know-how to work in support of her.

The St. James players have never met my mom, but I passed their well-wishes along to her throughout her battle. Just like the Thunder do almost every time they step on the court, mom won her fight in early 2011, and she’s doing great today. Her cancer is gone, but the kindness of the people in that volleyball program is something that will stay with my family forever.

The common theme among those three stories is the kindness in the hearts of our local high school athletes. These are the type of people I’ve spent more than a decade talking to and reporting about. These are some of the people that made my job as a sports reporter so enjoyable.

I won’t miss the long hours, late nights and constant stress of the job, but I will miss the people. To all of the athletes and coaches who have tolerated my interviews and trusted me to tell your stories honestly and accurately through the years, thank you for making this job so fun.

It’s been a great ride, but now it’s time for a new adventure.

Happy trails.

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