Fighting sarcoma with hope and grit
The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer
Star struck: Ava Gamello shakes hands with ultrarunner Landon Cooper, who greeted each member of Pine Bush Elementary Charity Committee by name except Lauren Avellino, next to Ava, who was too tongue-tied to give hers. “We’ll call you Miss Blue,” he said. “I think I know your favorite color.” Lauren was wearing blue from head to toe. Next to Lauren is Emma Motler and beside Emma, Kate Chorbajian. “It’s nice to help people,” said Ava of her committee work.
GUILDERLAND — Landon Cooper got a rock-star greeting Friday morning from fifth-graders who had spent the week selling drawings of sneakers to schoolmates for a buck a piece to raise funds to fight cancer.
“It was fun,” said Nick Rigosu. “We had a big crayon bucket. We’d keep a tally when someone bought one.”
“Looks about right,” said Cooper as he held one of the brightly crayoned sneakers against his own.
The kids giggled.
Their faces turned serious, though, when he told his story.
“Ever since I was your age,” he said, referring to his Alabama boyhood, still a vivid memory for him at age 34, “I loved running...I ran away from trouble on the playground. It created this outlet for me.”
He went on to play soccer in high school and college where he won an NCAA championship.
After graduating, he played six seasons of semi-pro soccer. Ooohs and ahs could be heard, coming from the upturned faces of the children who sat on the floor before him as Cooper named some of the far-flung places he had played.
“I decided, at 30 years old, it’s odd to be semi-pro,” he said, with a shrug, and spoke of his career managing bars in various locales like Palm Beach, Las Vegas, and New York City.
Then, one day, everything changed. “One of my employees — she was the rock star, someone I could trust — one day, she couldn’t pick up her foot,” he said.
Ashley Davis was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer found in soft tissue and bone. Under treatment, she began to lose weight, to lose her hair, to lose her eyelashes, said Cooper.
To honor her, Cooper ran in a marathon relay with three other guys; they wrote “AD” on their faces. “We wanted to show her love,” said Cooper.
He told the kids that, although she was skinny and without hair, Ashley Davis was beautiful, but didn’t want to leave the house.
“It was the first time I hung a medal on somebody else’s neck instead of my own,” Cooper told The Enterprise.
“When I hung that medal around her neck, I knew what I had to do with my life,” he said. It was no longer “me, me, me.”
Because sarcoma is so rare —about 12,000 Americans are affected each year — research on curing it is limited, said Cooper. He founded Miles2Give to raise funds.
“I quit my job; I moved to Utah,” he said. “I spent three months training in blizzards, running on frozen lakes, developing my foundation.”
On Valentine’s Day in 2013, Cooper and two other committed runners, Ryan Priest and John McKay — he called them “three vagabonds” — left from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to run across the country.
They lived out of an RV they named “Life Elevated,” the motto for Utah, each running for an hour-and-a-half at a time, one relieving another, sometimes for 12 hours a day.
In 157 days, they ran 3,187 miles, ending in Ocean City, N.J.
Cooper told the kids, it’s all about “redefining possibility.” He added, “Possibility is limitless.”
The hall was pin-drop quiet as he advised, “Whatever it is you love doing — painting, running, studying the dictionary...do it but do it to better your world: your school, your home, and your community.”
He also said, “Once we hit the Atlantic Ocean, that was just the beginning.”
Cooper went on to talk about how the presidential commitment to landing on the moon was reached must faster than the one to cure cancer.
“When you trigger inspiration,” he said, “when there’s action, change happens.”
Cooper and his fellow “vagabonds” will begin a new journey on April 15, the anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, in New York City’s Times Square.
“We’ll run around the country, ten-and-a-half thousand miles,” he said. The goal is to raise a half-million dollars to benefit a research center in Salt Lake City. The Huntsman Cancer Institute will match up to $120,000 for research
When Cooper’s talk and a video about his foundation were through, the kids had plenty of questions.
One of the most poignant was posed by a girl who asked, “Did Ashley survive?”
“She passed away a year later,” answered Cooper. He said of the 270 people the cross-country run honored, “By the time we got to the other side, we lost four more people.”
He calls those 270 people and others battling cancer “warriors.” Cooper said, “When you talk about cancer, there are no victims, there are no patients, there are only warriors.”
Fifth-grader Molly DiCaprio was Cooper’s link to Pine Bush Elementary School. The two hugged when they saw each other.
Molly’s father, Matthew DiCaprio, is the director of Orthopaedic Oncology at Albany Medical Center.
“Her dad ran with us in Denver and Chicago,” Cooper told Molly’s classmates. He supplied expert support for the team.
“It was fun,” said Molly of her family’s visit to Chicago. “We slept in the RV.”
This weekend, Molly, who is 11, will be part of a 24-hour ski event to raise money to fight cancer. “I’m going to try to stay up all the time,” she said.
Dr. DiCaprio had visited Molly’s class earlier in the year to talk to the kids about bone health.
“In fifth grade, we study the human body,” said Molly’s teacher, Elizabeth Whiteman, who is a runner herself, having completed a half-marathon.
Whiteman was moved by the Miles2Give story and arranged, through DeCaprio, for Cooper to visit the school and speak to the entire fifth grade. “It’s inspiring,” she said.
Whiteman told the kids, as she introduced Cooper, “We invited him here today to show you how one person and his team can make a difference.”