Faced with a mother’s worst nightmare, Tracey Scheppach turned to triathlon and found a powerful platform to help other families.
January 1, 2013, was supposed to be a day ripe with promise and optimism for the new year ahead. Instead, Tracey Scheppach and her husband, Ray, found themselves in the Chicago ER facing a grim diagnosis for their oldest son, Ryan. Then 7 years old, he’d been frequenting the pediatrician a lot—for a flu that wouldn’t go away, then a bump on his neck that turned out to be a swollen lymph node. On this day, he complained of a worsening stomach ache that couldn’t go unchecked until the next morning’s doctor’s appointment, so his parents drove him to the hospital.
“They checked his spleen, and I think they knew,” says Tracey. A nurse drew blood, and within an hour an oncologist told them Ryan would need to go into surgery immediately. A bone marrow biopsy revealed that 99 percent of Ryan’s marrow was packed with leukemia, and 68 percent of his blood contained the cancer. He was ultimately diagnosed with high-risk pre-B acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a blood cancer that affects about 2,900 kids annually.
“Within two weeks of his diagnosis I knew I had to do something to have some outlet and level of control in a situation that was so overwhelmingly scary,” says Tracey, a veteran advertising executive. She had picked up a flyer in the hospital about the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program, the world’s largest charity sports endurance training enterprise that, since its founding in 1998, has had 650,000 participants raise more than $1 billion for research into treatments and cures for blood cancers. Sitting in an informational meeting just days later, she knew triathlon would be the ideal release and platform, and immediately signed up for the 2013 Chicago Triathlon. “Life changed for me in that moment,” says Tracey, who had zero triathlon experience.
She recruited a few friends—also first-time triathletes—to join her, and under the guidance of a Team in Training coach began training “just enough to get to the finish line,” squeezing in workouts around Ryan’s hospital visits and care. Her son’s treatment protocol was brutal—he has endured more than 1,700 doses of 14 different chemotherapy drugs and was admitted to the hospital 10 times because of his ravaged immune system. Ryan has also undergone 29 spinal taps and 19 blood transfusions.
“As a mom you want to show the way, so I started to swim, bike and run to show my family that we can overcome,” says Tracey. “The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and Team in Training basically saved my life by giving me an opportunity to do something positive. I wasn’t a good athlete when I stepped up to do this, but it’s about putting one foot in front of another.”
She named her fundraising group “Team Bright Side” as a tribute to her son’s positive attitude throughout his medical ordeal. (When told his treatment was affecting his heart and he would need to see a cardiology specialist, Ryan saw the look of worry on his parents’ faces and said, “Now we get to see another floor of the hospital!”) “He never once said, ‘Why me?’” says Tracey. “He showed us one of life’s greatest lessons—you should always look on the bright side.”
Team Bright Side raised $50,000 that first year and grew to “a motley but motivated crew” of eight for the 2014 Chicago race. Last year, the team was 77 members strong, and included Ryan and his little brother, Sean. Collectively, more than 120 teammates (all finishers) have raised more than $600,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Last year the team was the eighth-highest fundraising team of about 1,000 TNT teams, and Tracey was able to earmark the funds for pediatric cancer research, specifically toward groundbreaking work in immunotherapy.
Ryan, who completed his treatment in August 2016, needs to go another year without relapse before he can be called a “survivor.” But instead of dwelling on his cancer status or journey, the now 12-year-old just wants to be a “normal” kid living his life. But what doesn’t exactly qualify as normal, though, is the popularity of his YouTube channel, RyRyTheGamingGuy. One of his videos—a series of sports trick shots he filmed with YouTube celebrities Dude Perfect via Make-A-Wish—has received more than 5 million views.
Tracey expects Team Bright Side to only continue to grow in numbers and impact, and for the 2017 Chicago Triathlon, race organizer Life Time Fitness has designated Team Bright Side the official charity of the kid’s race. (TBS will have 50 kids on its team.)
“We are committed to doing this until we can’t do it anymore,” says Tracey, who created the Twice As Bright tri club last year. “We are in it for the long haul—and so are my kids.”