I don’t think I’ll ever forget where I was a year ago today. In the living room of my apartment, watching the Mighty Ducks on TV with two of my friends. It’s funny how certain things will stay with you – I remember my phone vibrating and not wanting to check it, thinking it would be something I could get to later. The text message wasn’t even that urgent – just asking me if I had been on Facebook yet.
I met Mandi Schwartz when I started grade nine at Notre Dame College, in Wilcox, Saskatchewan. Mandi was a year older than me, in the same grade as my brother. She was the kind of person you were immediately drawn to – she was incredibly smart, kind, and beautiful. As a quiet 14 year old, my first year away from home, I looked up to her – she seemed so sure of herself, with a quiet, humble confidence that I hoped one day to emulate.
We played different sports – Mandi was an all-star in everything she did, though most notably hockey. She was so good she made me wish I still played. We got the chance to work together when we both injured our knees. Our physio appointments in Regina coincided for traveling purposes, and we worked with the same therapist, so we ended up doing all the same exercises. That was the first time I really got to see Mandi in the way her teammates saw her – the hardest working, most determined girl you’ve ever met. Mandi was always pushing our therapist for some more challenging exercises – upping our limited weights, doing a couple extra reps, balancing for just a little bit longer. She pushed me to get better faster – and I’d like to think I pushed her too, though she never needed that extra push. Mandi’s determination and positivity came from inside herself.
After finishing our physio, we returned to our respective sports – Mandi, back on the ice, and me on the pitch. And before you knew it, Mandi had graduated with a scholarship to play hockey at Yale. She had one of the highest averages coming out of grade twelve, so it was a perfect fit for her. At Yale, she played 73 consecutive games, scored 28 points, and earned ECAC All-Academic Honours.
Something went wrong during the 2008-2009 season, however. Mandi started feeling tired, and she was unable to perform on the ice like she always had before. So, in typical Mandi fashion, she started putting in extra workouts to try to get her fitness back. Eventually, she went for tests, and in December of that year, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia.
The day I heard she was diagnosed is another day I won’t forget. There were four of us Notre Dame grads going to university together, so we all got together and called her. She still sounded the same – her positive attitude could be heard across the phone, along with a ‘don’t worry about me,’ attitude, as she asked me if I was ready for my December finals. She seemed surprised that we had all gotten together to call her – Mandi was so humble, she would never have expected or asked for all the attention her struggle brought her.
The next two and a half years were filled with ups and downs for Mandi, her family, and her friends – the cancer went into remission and she returned to Yale, the cancer came back and she needed a stem cell transplant. Her younger brothers both attended Colorado College on hockey scholarships. A stem cell donor was found, but her cancer had come back too strong and the surgery had to be rescheduled. Her youngest brother was drafted in the first round by the Blues. She and her boyfriend got engaged. She had her stem cell transplants in September of 2010 and the cancer went back into remission. She watched her youngest brother play for Team Canada at the World Juniors. And then her cancer came back.
A year ago today, I found out my friend had finally lost her fight. I won’t forget that day, but more importantly, I won’t forget Mandi. Her strength of character, her positive attitude, and the way she put everyone first even when she was at her lowest points all attest to the amazing individual she was. Mandi brought the hockey world together in her search for a donor. She brought hope to so many people – young girls playing hockey, thousands of individuals who were also searching for a donor, and everyone she ever talked to.
I won’t forget our first drive together to go to Regina for physio either. It was a sunny, beautiful fall day, and there was country music playing on the radio. Within the first couple minutes of being on the highway, Mandi turned to me.
“Do you mind holding the wheel for a second? Just make sure it stays straight.”
I held on to the wheel as she pinned her hair back.
“Ok,” she said, smiling at me. “I’m ready to work.”
You inspired me then, Mandi, just as you inspired me throughout the rest of high school, your time at Yale, and your battle with leukemia. You will always be my inspiration, and an inspiration to everyone who had the privilege of being part of your life.
-Melissa McKay & Women in Sport International