Sophie Pettengill flailed her arms through the water as she crawled her way across Blodgett Pool. She began to slow, and her teammates yelled out encouragements from the deck. In response, she lifted her head out of the water, nodded, and began to thrash through the water with renewed resolve.
When all was said and done, Sophie had completed her first collegiate race at an age before which most girls learn how to swim. But the 25-yard sprint at Harvard’s intrasquad swimming and diving meet two weeks ago was a relatively minor task for a five-year-old who has defeated cancer.
Sophie, who was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in April 2010, became the youngest member of the Harvard women’s swimming and diving team this year through Team IMPACT—a New England-based non-profit that matches collegiate athletic programs with children battling life-threatening illnesses. Now hoping to achieve long-term remission after her doctors declared her cancer-free in June, the toddler from Concord, Mass., will follow the Crimson throughout its season.
THE WILL TO SWIM
Since her diagnosis, Sophie has had 25 serious medical procedures under sedation, including intrathecal chemotherapy and bone marrow aspirations. Through the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, she followed an aggressive, 25-month chemotherapy and steroid regimen that concluded this summer.
Yet in the midst of intense treatment, Sophie possessed a stubborn determination to learn how to swim.
“Sophie’s extremely competitive. She has been since the moment she was born,” said Sophie’s mother Julia Pettengill, who swam competitively through high school as a German native growing up in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. “She’s very driven, very physical…. Shumba [which is Shona for lion cub] has been her nickname through treatment because she was so resilient, courageous, feisty, and strong.”
During the summer of 2011, the three-year-old Sophie, still bald and swollen from her medication, set her sights on making the swim team for which her older sister Ava swam. Pettengill considered swimming an important skill for her children to learn, but she worried at first that Sophie would over-exert herself. She and her husband Mark emphasized to Sophie that she did not need to learn how to swim so soon. Their little Shumba, however, kept jumping in the pool.
In June 2012, a bone marrow test revealed that Sophie was free of any trace of leukemia. The happy news in many respects signaled a return to normalcy for the Pettengills. That same summer, Sophie tried out for her sister’s swim team.
Still very young for a competitive swimmer, Sophie could not quite swim the required two lengths of the pool to make the team.
But the same day that Sophie learned that she would not be on her sister’s team, the Pettengills received a call from Team IMPACT. Harvard swimming was ready to offer Sophie a spot.
A TEAM FOR SOPHIE
Founded in May 2011, Team IMPACT has created a network of hundreds of college athletic programs across the Northeast. Men’s soccer was the first Harvard team to “draft” a child, and the Crimson’s baseball, softball and men’s hockey teams are involved in a similar non-profit, Friends of Jaclyn, which finds collegiate teams for children battling brain tumors.
With the help of junior men’s soccer midfielder Kevin Harrington, junior swimmer Deirdre Clute communicated with the Pettengills and Team IMPACT over the summer. In September, Clute organized a leadership committee of three swimmers from each class to host a draft day for Sophie to welcome her onto the team.
During the draft day, Clute became worried at first as the wide-eyed little girl remained reticent as the swimmers talked to her about the team. Then, Sophie suddenly came out of her shell.