Sarah Sumpter was 25 years old and it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Young, elite athletes fly through space as if their bodies are structural steel wearing a jet pack. They throw or run or jump or collide and they never lose their breath, those well-developed muscles insulators against fragility.
Later they can get old and join the rest of us, when a reach for fallen car keys is not a quick grab but a pre-meditated thought. It’s the natural order of things in sports, the young inspiring the old, revealing the dynamic possibilities of the human form.
That Sarah will never get to be old, I want to shout at the perpetrator who caused this, for her to die from that cancerous brain tumor at 4:15 Monday morning. Bad luck just doesn’t seem to cover it. Yes, life is unfair. It’s not a new concept. Ask anyone about fairness who’s been affected by the Valley fire. Yet, when it happens, and when it’s especially cruel, a strange psychology takes place. It feels as if it’s happening for the first time.
Consider the battle.
On Sept. 10, 2010 Sarah was first diagnosed. For the next five-plus years Sarah was NOT on chemotherapy for only eight months. Remember that when you read the next paragraph.
Sarah was a three-time Big West Conference (BWC) All-Academic athlete at UC Davis. Sarah was the BWC Track Athlete of the Year in 2012. In 2012 Sarah was named UCD’s Female Athlete of the Year. Sarah was UCD’s top women’s cross country finisher in all six races she ran in 2011. Oh, and she earned a degree in psychology.
“When Sarah was first diagnosed,” said Shawn, her mother, “a well-meaning social worker told her that maybe it would be best if she went home and stayed with her family. Sarah’s response? ‘But what if nothing happens and I miss college and I don’t get to run and I don’t get a degree?’ Sarah just wouldn’t give in.”
To phrase simply — Sarah Sumpter earned a bachelor’s degree in college and was her school’s most decorated women’s cross country runner while on chemotherapy.
Chew on that one for another second, if you don’t mind.
Sarah knew the odds. Surgeons were only able to remove 80 percent of the tumor back in 2010. Twenty percent had wrapped itself around a cord that affects motor function. Would have been too dangerous to go any farther. Yet, she never asked for pity. Instead she went in the other direction.
“Got a gerbil inside my head,” she told me once.
Sarah displayed James Forni-type of courage, Casa’s basketball coach who also succumbed to cancer after a long struggle. This is the kind of courage that comes from a place so deep inside it can’t be revealed by answering the simple naked question, “How did you find it in yourself to do this?”
Sarah was that 250-pound NFL running back hitting the hole at full speed, except it was cancer waiting to tackle her and she weighed, on a good day, about 104 pounds. When I spoke at The Press Democrat’s 2008 high school awards banquet, I mentioned how inspired I became covering high school athletes after 40-plus years covering the pros. The last person I mentioned and the only person I asked to stand up to take applause was Sarah.