- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEW YORK -- Surrounded on a field by members of the Columbia women's soccer team on an otherwise unremarkable damp autumn evening in Manhattan, Ashley Gankiewicz looks like a typical 6-year-old girl. ("Six and a half," she'll eagerly supply if she's in earshot.) Her steps grow hesitant and her head bobs bashfully as a phalanx of players, holding posters adorned with her name, jog across the field and engulf her small frame. Her body language seems to suggest she's a lucky contest winner suddenly struck shy as she becomes the center of attention under a stadium's bright lights.
"She got really shy when we walked her over," said senior keeper SaraAnn Bennett, who waited in the stands with Ashley until they were summoned onto the field to join the rest of the team before a game against Cornell. "I think she was a little overwhelmed with all the attention. But when I was over sitting with her, she was bubbly, she was asking about the team, she was so excited. She was like, 'I think we're going to win today.'"
Winning a contest wasn't what earned Ashley not only the undivided attention but also the obvious adoration of two dozen players moments before the Sept. 26 game. And good fortune certainly wasn't at the root of the journey that brought her to the field. As much as she might look from the stands like a typical little girl, she is anything but.
To begin with, she's unofficially the youngest member of Columbia's team. But more important, she's also the most remarkable member of its soccer family.
Before her first birthday, Ashley was diagnosed with an aggressive form of neurofibromatosis type 1, a genetic condition marked by rapid and unpredictable tumor growth. At 3 years old, she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, one of an astonishingly lengthy list of possible complications linked to the condition.
There is no cure for neurofibromatosis type 1 and, in the words of Stacy Mariano, Ashley's mother, no rhyme or reason to how it progresses. Treatment essentially amounts to triage, managing the complications that arise on a case-by-case basis. In Ashley's case, that included 60 weeks of chemotherapy for the brain tumor. (Since the chemotherapy, she has been stable for the past three years.) She also is prone to tumors developing at nerve endings throughout her body, has undergone multiple surgeries for vision problems related to her optic nerve, suffers from early-onset puberty and has balance problems.
Columbia assistant coach Kate Galante didn't know anything about those specifics this past spring when she opened a departmentwide e-mail from Columbia associate athletic director Bill Ebner. The message was about Friends of Jaclyn, a program for children suffering from pediatric brain tumors that was founded by Denis Murphy -- a friend of a friend of Ebner whose own daughter, Jaclyn, contracted a brain tumor when she was 11. One of the means by which the program raises awareness and provides a boost to children currently afflicted is to pair them up with college athletic teams in the manner in which Jaclyn had been adopted by the Northwestern women's lacrosse team.
Motivated to act on the e-mail, Galante made the initial contacts with the Friends of Jaclyn program and learned about Ashley, who lives in the same Rockland County area where the coach grew up. She arranged with Mariano for Ashley to meet the team at one of its spring practices.
Usually when you talk about community service for student-athletes, it's just another way of saying, you know, 'I can put this on my résumé.' Whereas for these girls, they took it to a whole other level.
A 2005 Columbia graduate, Galante got an early start on a coaching career while still an undergrad after knee problems ended her time on the field. That she's already head coach Kevin McCarthy's top assistant (and a head coach in her own right for an under-16 team in New Jersey) speaks to a certain single-minded focus when it comes to soccer. But as someone still in the same age cohort as the players under her charge, she also inherently understands the challenges that come in maintaining not only a sport-study balance but also a larger sense of the world outside both the lecture hall and the practice field.
"For me, I lost touch with the world, not only with my community but my own little circle of friends," Galante said of her playing days. "I would end up becoming a hermit at times."
Galante recalled that it took Ashley a few minutes to come out of hiding from behind her parents at that first practice this past spring. Neither parent had a soccer background, so for Ashley, the encounter introduced dozens of strangers in a strange setting. But if sport at the major college level is a dauntingly complex creature, designed to weed out all but the smallest fraction of participants and demanding enough to potentially leave some of its practitioners time-starved hermits, it also remains grounded in more universal roots. When kids first play soccer, the emphasis is always on the verb.
It didn't take long for the bouncing ball to make introductions all around.
"We had her come out and kind of join our passing circle, and then from then on, she really got into it," senior co-captain Rebecca Taylor said. "I think she really does like soccer, and she loves the sport and being involved with that. And literally feeling like she was part of the team, playing with the ball really brought her out. And then she was just running around like crazy, running through the locker rooms and making friends with everyone."
It quickly became apparent this would not be a onetime visit. Galante joked that the only difficulty that first day came in convincing the players of the need to carry on with a more structured practice when all they really wanted to do was kick the ball around with Ashley. Of their own initiative, the players went about putting together a gift box for her next visit. Stretching dollars is no small task for college students living in Manhattan, but everyone pitched in whatever they could -- stuffed animals, candy, stickers and even some blue nail polish for the newest Lion in honor of the school colors.
"We ended up having way too much stuff to fit in the box, but we crammed it all in there. And we brought her over after our scrimmage and gave it to her," Taylor said. "As she went through -- she was so cute; she was like, methodically taking out everything. She was like Eeyore with the honeypot, putting the balloon back and forth."
Perhaps because Ashley has spent so much time in the company of the doctors and medical personnel -- she currently sees nine doctors -- or because perhaps it feels more normal to be the odd one out in the company of adults than with her peers, Ashley is more socially at ease around older figures. Adding so many new big sisters provided a new world of comfort for her. And the family metaphor is more than just a literary convenience. When Ashley, an only child, talks to people who don't know about her association with the team, she's likely to insert a matter-of-fact mention of her 20 sisters.
"And then everybody looks at me," a decidedly young-looking Mariano said with a wry smile.
The captains -- Taylor, Sophie Reiser and Alana Presslaff -- remained in touch with Mariano and Ashley via e-mail and went about getting Ashley to come to the Cornell game the last week of September, her first official Columbia game. They also recently learned from Mariano that learned Ashley has started playing soccer herself. (She made two saves in goal her first game a few days before the Cornell game.) With McCarthy's support, the players are trying to set up a game for Ashley's team on Columbia's field, giving them a chance to flip the script and act as her cheering section.
Although the relationship began with an administrator's e-mail and an assistant coach's initiative, the players seized it and continue to make it something unique for Ashley.
She had been to the doctor the day of the Cornell game to receive the first round of shots to offset the early puberty associated with her condition. Her mother had selected that morning specifically, knowing it would be easier for Ashley to get through the visit on a day that also offered a chance to see her sisters play in person. Indeed, by nightfall, all that was on her mind was what topped her wish list -- having the players teach her some "moves" she can use on the soccer field (and maybe a Columbia jersey, too).
"For me, it was more than what I had expected," Galante said. "Usually when you talk about community service for student-athletes, it's just another way of saying, you know, 'I can put this on my résumé.' Whereas for these girls, they took it to a whole other level and really embraced the whole culture and the whole mentality of being more than just a team to be around. It was more like a family that they created."
When it comes to Ashley's long-term prognosis, Mariano can only shrug with the tired helplessness of someone who spends every day contemplating the unanswerable. There is simply no way to know what the future holds for her or how much future there will be.
"She's an amazing kid," Taylor said. "Hearing from her parents what all those kids have to go through, and especially what Ashley's been through, it's amazing how energetic and excited and what a happy kid she is. I know she has all these completely unusual and horrible things she has to go through, but at the same time, she still manages to be a kid and do normal kid things and completely act like a real little girl. And it's amazing she has the willpower and peace of mind to be able to fight back against something like that."
Standing on the top row of bleachers while his daughter and wife went for a closer look at the players, Adam Gankiewicz soaked in the scene before the Cornell game. A retired NYPD detective who worked in the same precinct that's home to Columbia's outdoor athletic facilities, he's a New Yorker through and through -- a Giants and Yankees fan who coaches little league baseball in the league he helped form, named after a fallen partner. He knows what it means to lend a hand.
"It wasn't so much surprising," Gankiewicz said about the depth of the support the Columbia players have offered. "It was overwhelming."
Looking out over the field, he offered up a wish that seems to have everything to do with what it would require of reality outside of the stadium's fences. It's the wish that one day, years down the road, the girl who forever will be a part of the Columbia women's soccer family will have a chance to take her place on the field for the Lions.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. For more information on neurofibromatosis, visit the Children's Tumor Foundation.