1 of 24
Courtesy Leo Hopf
The 12th annual Swing for Life tournament gave high school softball players from around the state the opportunity to help raise funds for cancer research.
When you see a little child like that who hasn’t even had a chance to live, it puts so much perspective when you’re out there enjoying playing. —Kathy Howa

COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — Competing in a two-day softball tournament the weekend before the state tournaments begin should mean that nothing but softball matters.

But for 25 teams, the fact that they’re playing in a tournament dedicated to raising money for the Huntsman Cancer Institute means that softball is both incredibly insignificant and especially joyful.

The efforts of the teams participating in the 12th annual Swing For Life tournament off the field bring special meaning to what these girls are able to do on the diamond. They spend months finding ways to earn a little extra money amid all of their other fundraising requirements in hopes of easing suffering they may never know.

They wash cars, sell candy, auction pink jerseys and pass a donation can hoping their contributions might help find a cure. And until scientists are able to permanently end the suffering that cancer inflicts, these teenage girls and their overworked coaches hope their efforts at least send a message to those battling the disease. That message is:

“You’re not alone. We’re on your team. We’ve got your back.”

The Swing For Life tournament attracts teams from the state’s smallest schools and most rural communities, as well as those who will contend for championships in Utah’s largest classifications. They choose this tournament because, while they love the challenges of facing tough teams in tight games, they also want to remind themselves just how fragile life is, what a blessing good health is, and why it’s important to reach out to those who are suffering.

So they raise money for the nonprofit, which began when a high school softball coach was diagnosed with breast cancer nearly 13 years ago.

Kathy Howa, a coach and teacher at Rowland Hall-St. Mark’s, wanted to do something to thank the doctors who saved her life. She wanted to do something that might allow the girls she coaches to avoid the experiences that changed her life.

Frankly, she wanted to do something to let cancer patients and their families know they’re not helpless, that their struggle is not hopeless.

So she and a couple of other coaches held a hit-a-thon. The next year they added a tournament. It grew until the hit-a-thon became impractical and the tournament an annual tradition. Rowland Hall opened its gymnasium to any team that wanted to save a little money, which led to a massive slumber party, complete with some impressive dance numbers. After a few years, the Salt Lake Bees offered the teams discounted tickets after their final day of competition, where they honored the effort of the girls.

Howa brought in doctors to help educate the young women on preventive health care and cancer risk factors. She brought in vendors who helped raise money and donated prizes.

Howa welcomes these teams every year with a special ceremony that honors any cancer survivor who wants to show up and collect a pink rose and a standing ovation. She plays a softball game (with seriously relaxed rules) with coaches, the media and some of the state’s most beloved mascots.

Everybody laughs at the media and the mascots. Everybody applauds the teams and the survivors. Everyone has a lot to celebrate as Swing For Life has raised more than $1 million in 12 years of fundraising.

This year, Howa decided to dedicate the tournament to two people who are struggling with cancer. They probably won’t ever stand with her survivors and announce how many years they’ve been cancer-free. But Howa hopes that celebrating the way they’ve lived, the way they’ve fought will inspire the participants and their supporters.

Howa met Dov Sporin when the Rowland Hall coach was enduring chemotherapy 12 years ago. He’s still battling colon cancer with an irreverent sense of humor that keeps everyone around him laughing.

The tournament, the weekend’s efforts, were also dedicated to a toddler named Brylee Olson. She has a brain tumor so rare only seven people were diagnosed with it in Utah in 2013.

Brylee has been adopted by the Bingham softball team. They met her when she cheered the Bingham football team with the school’s cheerleaders. They planted a flower garden in her honor this spring, and they stood alongside her when she was introduced with survivors like Howa on Saturday morning.

“It went silent,” Howa said. “It was just so touching.”

Howa has been hosting this weekend of fundraising and education for 12 years, and she rarely gets emotional. This year, however, she couldn’t hold back the tears.

“When you see a little child like that who hasn’t even had a chance to live, it puts so much perspective when you’re out there enjoying playing,” Howa said. “It just breaks your heart.”

Brylee is both an example of what’s possible and why these softball lovers need to keep working.

Bingham coach Mikki Jackson said the team's time with Brylee has been educational and inspiring.

"It's been interesting to watch," she said. "I don't think all of them grasped (the seriousness of her disease)."

The girls read the blog written by her mom and enjoyed meeting her at the football game in the fall.

"When we planted the flowers for her, there wasn't a dry eye," Jackson said. "For them, the biggest thing is how quickly life can change. She looks so different than she did in the fall. (The girls have learned) how much we need to appreciate what we have, appreciating the time you have together. ... Love and live with the time you have."

She’s an example of how to live fully and gracefully, no matter what life brings. She’s an example of what we can do when we take care of each other. And an example of how we are limited in every way except in how we love each other.

And while these girls simply came to play a game they love, they leave with the understanding that life is riddled with challenges and nothing eases the pain of tough times like a hand of friendship.

“The whole atmosphere, the whole weekend was amazing, friendly,” Howa said. “It was really calm and peaceful. I don’t think it could have been any better.”

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com