By Dustin Luca
---- — ANDOVER — For anybody watching the Hurricanes Swim Team practice at the Andover/North Andover YMCA, 16-year-old Maria Splaine is hard to miss. She’s the only girl not wearing a cap, revealing the telltale sign of ongoing chemotherapy — no hair.
Despite being five cycles into her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Maria refuses to miss a Monday practice, never mind take a break from competing.
That fierce determination has led some of the youths on her 200-member swim team to declare the start of each week “Maria Monday” in celebration of their teammate and her courage.
Splaine, a junior at Presentation of Mary Academy in Methuen who lives in Merrimac, was diagnosed with the treatable form of cancer in mid-October.
She knew something was amiss when her athletic strength took a dive, just as lumps started forming on her neck, she said.
“I could train, but I couldn’t race as well anymore,” she recalled. “I didn’t feel sick. I actually didn’t mentally feel like this was real.”
The news was like “a punch in the gut, completely out of the blue,” her father, David Splaine, said.
“She had always been really tough, really healthy, and she would have been the last person in the world you would have thought would have this,” he said.
Just before Thanksgiving, Splaine began her first of six, month-long cycles of chemotherapy. While each round of treatment initially takes her out of the pool, within days she’s back in the water. regaining her strength and remaining competitive, her coaches say.
Yesterday, one day before she was scheduled to begin her final round of treatment, her coaches offered a powerful show of support.
They gave Splaine an electric trimmer and bowed their heads.
“I’m kind of nervous. I’m sorry if I screw it up,” said Splaine as she began the task at hand.
Within minutes, Hurricanes’ head coach Dan Reilly and assistant coach Carlton Cronin were bald, both feeling their heads and laughing.
Cronin said he arranged for the buzz cuts to show that he and Reilly care about Splaine, and to “let her know that she’s loved by many people.” The coaches are also making a $500 donation to the Jimmy Fund in Splaine’s honor.
“It means a lot to me, seeing Maria here and not missing practices, and I know it means a lot to the kids, too,” Cronin said. “You take kids for granted — and you can’t.”
Reilly said Splaine’s teammates have taken notice of her dedication from the moment her treatment began. He called her “an inspiration to the team.”
“That’s what you look for. You look for someone working hard in the pool every day as a motivator,” he said. “If one of the other girls stops swimming, I point to the other lane and say, ‘Look over there. Maria is still going.’”
But Splaine hasn’t only helped her team through this process.
“The courage Maria has shown has helped her parents,” Reilly said. “Her mom called me in hysterics when it first happened. We both commented, ‘Maria seems to be really calm about it. I think we need to follow her lead.’”
Lucy Frey, an 18-year-old teammate from Andover, said the Hurricanes are “like my backbone, best friends.” And together, the team has lent its support to Splaine.
“I was so glad she had somewhere she could come, even if it was just to talk to us or swim, just to get everything out there,” Frey said. “I’m happy she has all of us to help her through it.”
Next month, Splaine will undergo testing to see if the chemotherapy did its job. In time, she intends to continue putting her young athleticism and never-quit attitude to use as she pursues her dream of becoming an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
But until then, she has the Hurricanes — and two hairless coaches — by her side.
“It’s really touching. I love my coaches so much and they mean so much to me,” Splaine said after putting the finishing touches on the buzz cuts.
“I think Dan’s came out a little better than Carl’s,” she added. “I may need to practice a little more.”