In January, a blog post written by popular LDS singer Hilary Weeks went viral. The post, titled “Carolyn Can,” was a tribute to BYU’s director of sports medicine, Carolyn Billings.
Weeks had recently received letters from people who were given copies of her CDs by Billings, who is battling cancer for the fourth time. The letters detailed how Billings’ kindness blessed the lives of the recipients, some of whom joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There's a reason why Billings, a former college athlete, shares the CDs. She believes the music once saved her.
This is the rest of the story.
Finding God in a song
Billings left San Diego State to come to BYU after her college basketball career ended two months into her freshman year. She had been hit on her bicycle by a car that ran a red light. A doctor told Billings that he didn’t know if she would ever be able to run again.
In the year that followed, Billings accepted that she would never play basketball again and felt compelled to pursue a career in athletic training. She transferred to BYU and immediately felt peace in her decision.
“I can visually still see,” Billings said. “I’m walking out on the old practice field, first day of fall camp and I knew I loved it. That’s where I was going to work. I loved athletic training.”
Not long after arriving at BYU, Billings began to experience a crisis of faith. A member of the LDS Church, Billings had already battled cancer once and lost her college athletic career to the biking accident. Then, a close friend was killed by a drunk driver.
“I was like, ‘There is no God. This is bullcrap. You can’t convince me. No God, in the vision of what we think God is, is going to do this,’” Billings recalled thinking. Still, as a student and later an employee at BYU, she went through the motions, going to church to be social.
“I played the game. I just did what I needed to do to have an ecclesiastical endorsement,” Billings said. “It’s not like I was praying or reading my scriptures. ... It’s not like I’m really paying attention because I was like, 'this is hogwash.'”
This continued for seven years and Billings says it was no coincidence that the Lord kept her at BYU.
“The Lord was protecting me, because I think if I’d left, there would’ve been no way,” she said. “But I hit a point where I was frustrated and I was done and I was like, ‘I’ve got to leave. I can’t do this anymore. I can’t pretend.’”
The year was 1996, the year Hilary Weeks released her first album. Billings’ mom, who her daughter calls “the most stalwart person in the world,” gave the CD to her daughter as a gift.
“When any of my siblings or myself have struggled, she’s always just answered it with the gospel,” Billings said. “I still don’t think she knew how bad I was.”
The CD soon found its way into a pile of stuff Billings planned to deliver to a thrift store. However, before she dropped the items off, she went skiing. On the way up the mountain, she lost radio reception. It was static or nothing.
But as she turned a curve, Billings said the Hilary Weeks’ CD slid to the front passenger seat floorboard. She decided to pop the CD in and randomly turned on the song, “Be Still.”
The song expressed exactly how she felt. She listened to the song over and over again, all the way up the canyon.
"That started my way back,” Billings said. “That’s when I realized the church was true. I couldn’t deny it and that’s when I came back to the church so that’s what connected me originally to Hilary. That’s why I like to share her music, because it helped save me.”
The bartender of sports
Billings, who is now the director of sports medicine at BYU, has become a staple on campus and in the lives of the athletes she works with on a daily basis.
Hannah Clark, a current soccer player for BYU, says Billings' impact is undeniable, adding that her teammates joke that “it’s a bummer when we’re healthy (because) we can’t spend more time with her.”
“My experience at BYU would be completely different if it wasn’t for her,” Clark said. “She’s given me opportunities and helped to shape my career path and she’s truly been a friend to me. I can’t imagine my experience at BYU any different.”
Billings, who is now 48, has been part of the BYU experience for hundreds, if not thousands, of athletes and students over the past 22 years. She calls athletic trainers “the bartender of sports,” because she hears about the good and bad going on in everyone’s lives.
“I’ve learned over the years that what I really treasure are the relationships,” Billings said. “(In) athletic training, and I’ve always viewed it like this, I’ve got to take a negative situation such as an injury and I’ve got to make it a positive for them in their life. I’ve got to help them overcome it and be stronger as the result and that’s what I’ve put into it. I think that just helps me build the relationship with them. I love watching them grow.”
According to Billings, Weeks' daughter McKenzie was a huge fan of soccer and of BYU All-American Katie Larkin. It was through her work with the BYU women's soccer program that Billings met Weeks, the woman whose music once helped her regain her faith in God.
Now, that faith is "everything" to Billings.
“Once I could come back and understand that and I was committed, then it’s full faith in understanding that the Lord is mindful of me and that he has a better vision and I need to follow his path and so whether it was picking my career or whether it was accepting that I was not getting married and (wouldn’t) be a mom but he had a path. He had something that he needed me to do.”
Go forth to serve
Billings has found that purpose in serving athletes at BYU but also in looking for opportunities to serve those around her. Paige Barker, who was a senior on the BYU soccer team this year, says Billings epitomizes the BYU motto, “Enter to learn, go forth to serve.”
“She has made that her life story,” Barker said. “Everywhere she goes, she serves and when she does serve she brings it back to praising God and her testimony of that, which is what BYU stands for.”
The actions described in the emails sent to Weeks are just part of Billings' nature, according to BYU associate athletic director Liz Darger, who specifically pointed out one of the accounts of how Billings helped a single mom in the airport, who was traveling to her father's funeral. The woman, whose name was Tanya, told of how Billings helped get her two kids to the gate, bought all three of them lunch, entertained the children and talked to her the whole flight.
“I think a lot of us feel like we do that for our friends and our families and our co-workers, and she certainly does but to do that for strangers that she may never see again but has that in her heart that she wants to make their lives better, to me that’s incredible and that’s what sets her apart,” Darger said, adding that she is “pretty sure she was on a soccer trip when she helped the woman in the airport and to think that she had the BYU 'Y' on her chest when she did that makes...all of us at BYU so proud.”
Billings says this desire to reach out to others was learned by watching the example of her father and is part of her belief that “people are important.” It is also a result of her desire to serve a purpose in this life, to be of use to God.
“I have this list to do and often it doesn’t get done because I’m like, ‘You tell me who needs help and I’m going to help them.’ Because that’s what I feel like the goal of the day is,” Billings said.
So when Weeks asked Billings why she suddenly received multiple emails detailing Billings’ acts of kindness, Billings explained that the emails were the answer to a prayer.
“She said that she had been praying to Heavenly Father to know if her life mattered,” Weeks wrote.
Billings was diagnosed with bone cancer for the fourth time in July. Unlike her previous bouts where the cancer was contained in various bones throughout her body (her spine, her ribs and her fibula), this time the cancer has metastasized into her lymph and her lungs. Billings remains hopeful and optimistic, but the prognosis brought her to her knees.
She explained that this prayer was not due to a lack of self-esteem or self-worth, but rather a question of whether her work on this earth was finished.
“For me, the question is if I truly believe this gospel and I know what’s on the other side, why stay?” Billings said. “This wasn’t meant forever. This isn’t our end goal so as great as this life is and as awesome as I love being here, I’m like, ‘But I’ve been told (there is something) better.’
“My thought was, ‘Why fight it? Why not just let me go? I’ve had a good life. I’ve done awesome things. Let’s move on to the next step.’ And I think that’s what I needed to know was do you have more that you want me to do here?”
The answers came through the emails sent to Weeks but also in the letters and emails that came flooding in after Weeks’ blog post. God worked through people of all kinds to communicate a clear message: “He still wants me to help,” Billings said.
“There are still people on this earth that need my help to get through their life...I’m not done yet.”