I recently re-connected with Austen’s mom, June Leahy as we teamed up with my daughter’s gymnastics team – Emerald City Gymnastics Academy – to adopt the Austen Everett Foundation as our annual supported charity for the gym. The Austen Everett Foundation works to inspire, empower, and improve the lives of children faced with cancer by matching and integrating these special individuals with professional and intercollegiate athletic organizations. Through their mission, the Austen Everett Foundation hopes to liberate children from their illness while raising awareness and funds to fight the battle against cancer. AEF coordinates with the child’s favorite sport team or athlete and give them a once-in-a-lifetime experience to become a professional or intercollegiate athlete for that specific sport and game.
Sandy Flores, the owner of ECGA, is committed to educating our team of young people about inspiring and supporting their community. I am grateful to Sandy and Brian at ECGA for adopting a charity so near and dear to many.
The following speech was made by Austen’s mom, June. The words below, to me, are LOVE at its purest form. Thank you June, for courageously sharing your speech with us about one of the loves of your life, Austen Everett. I am personally asking everyone in our community to check out the Austen Everett Foundation and its mission.
On behalf of the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, I’ve been asked to tell the story of an incredibly remarkable person who in 25 short years gave so much.
Austen Everett was born and raised in Seattle. An avid athlete, in 2005 she was ranked one of the top 5 women’s soccer goalkeepers in the US. During her freshman and sophomore years, Austen played for the University of California Santa Barbara and later transferred to play for the University of Miami.
It was in the spring of 2008, her junior year, Austen began struggling with back pain, which she attributed to the endless hours of diving while in goal. As the pain became intolerable, she underwent exploratory surgery to remove a tumor the size of a small football. Two weeks later, she was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
At that time, she returned to Seattle for intensive chemotherapy and radiation to treat the cancer and was thrilled that the timing of this medical inconvenience was in the off-season. Austen faced her cancer with optimism, humor, and tenacity.
She would get daily feedback from her team of doctors just as she had grown accustomed to doing so with her coaches. She was determined to destroy cancer just as she had against countless opponents on the soccer field. She would prepare herself for treatments just as she had going up against formidable opponents like USC or North Carolina. She would put on her hospital gown as if it said Miami on the front and walk the halls of the UW Medical Center just as she had imagined she would walk out for the NCAA championship.
Austen returned to the University of Miami one week after her last chemo, and resumed pre-season with the rest of her team – bald and in goal. Physically weakened by the effects of her treatment, it was the team and athletic community that gave her the strength and support to continue her battle on and off the field where she never wavered from her “Bring It On” attitude. Austen recognized how empowering their involvement was in her fight, that she decided she wanted to offer that experience to other kids fighting their battles with cancer.
She had a vision – a lifelong desire – to give other kids the same strength and empowerment she gained from her years on the field. It was at that time she developed the Austen Everett Foundation. Her dream was to celebrate and honor these brave children facing cancer and their families, through an alliance with professional and intercollegiate teams throughout the athletic community, and throughout the nation. Austen believed the relationship between athletic excellence and the patient’s struggle for survival is undeniable. Those values fought for in competition bloom effortlessly in those fighting for their lives.
The Austen Everett Foundation provides an experience – a memory – to sick children and their families. At each AEF athletic event, a child is honored; their name is announced as they walk onto the field with the team. They wear the same uniform as the players, sit on the player bench during the game, and experience the half-time locker-room motivational talk. In addition to hosted tickets, each child and their family receives a signed team jersey and a game ball. When a child is too sick to attend a game, the foundation arranges visits to the hospital by a favorite player, or brings signed memorabilia from a favorite team.
Austen believed the energy alone of sporting events is powerful and inspiring. The sense of community blanketing a ravenous crowd is infectious itself. The pandemonium of joy in athletic victory is a not-so-subtle contrast to the heavy cloud of doubt shadowing the patient’s struggle, and the gusts of communal cheers do wonders – even if they only put a smile on a child’s face. For in that moment, a laugh can combat the harsh side effects of their treatments, and a smile may be the most important procedure in their protocol.
She believed there is no struggle too great, no hardship to be avoided, no effort to be wasted, when one works to win the battle against cancer.
Austen would always say, “Given the choice between having cancer or not… I would choose cancer. I wouldn’t want to walk away from it. The beauty that arises as a result is unparalleled, and I am thankful; though, once is enough.”
Hearing the words, ‘Go live your life’ when a remission was confirmed was a blessing. She continued studies at the University of Miami, her place in goal on the soccer field, and furthered her dream to help others through the foundation.
Though her struggles were great, her optimism, her always positive attitude, and her desire to help others caught the media by storm. There was extensive coverage of the bald goalkeeper by the Associated Press, Miami Herald, Fox Sports, Cosmopolitan Magazine… among countless others.
It was at this time a young Euro League soccer player for the Austrian team read her story on ESPN.com and reached out to help her with the foundation, as he had lost his only sibling to cancer. Their online connection proved inseparable. He left the Euro League and moved back to the US to be with her and play in the MLS.
New Year’s Eve 2010, Austen’s Lymphoma returned. Feeling somewhat experienced by now, she never had a doubt; she would ‘Kick Cancer’s Ass’. There were transplants to be had… She was healthy…
And there was unfinished business.
Austen envisioned a place where cancer patients would be embraced; where they could walk into a store and be welcomed, not intimidated, by the exquisite nature of the retail sales staff, who were so unaware of their unique needs.
After all, they were no different. They only had cancer.
She wanted a place they could go to be shown how to apply makeup to enhance their bald head, tie head scarves, choose apparel to cover their chemo ports, and deal with weight fluctuations. Austen would say, “Cancer is an equal-opportunity illness. It knows no race, age, or agenda. Kids still have proms to attend, CEOs meetings, mothers with school events, and children’s weddings to attend.” She wanted cancer to be viewed as just a lifestyle.
So who better to approach with this concept than Nordstrom? After all, they had the national personal styling team in place to execute this concept. And with a little enlightenment and personal cancer insight training by Austen, it would help so many. Nordstrom’s corporate embraced her vision and hired her in their Personal Styling Department – the beginning of implementing this program. Austen worked by cell phone, from her hospital bed.
Although life was good, an auto stem cell transplant was unsuccessful. While waiting for an allotransplant, the lethal dose of chemo administered to control her cancer did nothing to inhibit its aggressive nature. She was taken off the donor list.
So Austen moved to Denver, once again determined to fight this battle. To kick cancer’s ass. This time, differently. This time, holistically. Yet after a month and a half of no pain meds, holistically beating cancer, she lost the battle. But she never lost the fight.
Austen left some amazing and beautiful legacies. Her dreams continue. She did her job here.
She left us all with new jobs, a new awareness, newly defined responsibilities; the unfinished business she so beautifully laid the foundation for; the continuation of these dreams to help other kids with cancer fight their battles through the strength and empowerment of the athletic community – one child at a time.
To the rest of the world, she left a beautiful legacy as well.
That legacy is to find the cure for cancer.