Taylor Ritzel poses during the WNBA Inspiring Women Luncheon in New York City on Sept. 10, 2012
For Taylor Ritzel, the battle against breast cancer is personal.
The disease took her mother, Lana, almost two years ago at the age of 54. Taylor and her younger sister, McLane, have missed her every day since.
Although Taylor felt her mother’s presence in London this summer as she helped the U.S. women’s eight row to an Olympic gold medal, she missed sharing that triumph with her mom, who had steered her into the sport after high school.
“My mom was the reason I got into rowing, and she gave me that gift,” Ritzel said. “(Rowing) ended up working for me. I hope that she was there.”
Now Taylor and many of her fellow Olympians from London are doing everything they can to make certain that other bright, wonderful women aren’t taken from their families by breast cancer. It is the most common cancer among women in the United States, and the American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 227,000 American women will be diagnosed with the disease in 2012 and that more than 39,000 will die.
Several other Olympians are also active in the cause. Among them are Olympic gold medalist soccer player Alex Morgan, whose boyfriend’s mother is a breast cancer survivor; swimmer Ariana Kukors, whose mother is a breast cancer survivor, who regularly participates in breast-cancer awareness events; two-time Olympic archer Brady Ellison, inspired by a coach who died of cancer, contributes to Susan G. Komen and since 2010 has had a program called X Out Breast Cancer in which he contributes money to fight the disease based on his performance in competitions; and gold medalist basketball player Maya Moore works for breast health awareness with the Minnesota Lynx Foundation, which is affiliated with her WNBA team. Carmelita Jeter, a gold-, silver- and bronze-medal winning sprinter in London, has also been involved with breast cancer events. Earlier this year, she participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on the Dodger Stadium parking lot.
Jeter’s grandmother and cousin both died of cancer, and, on Oct. 15, the track star appeared on a local NBC affiliate segment that honored an aunt who passed away. Jeter has also donated the lime green Nike spikes she wore in London to a Susan G. Komen auction on eBay, and is set to attend a number of events in the coming weeks -- including a Children's Hospital Gala in support of children with cancer on Oct. 20.
Since her mother’s death, Ritzel has worked to raise awareness about the disease and spread the word that it can be fought through education and fundraising for research.
She sees all the pink ribbons being worn in October as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and the NFL players wearing pink on national telecasts and knows it helps. She’s so grateful for the work people all over the country are doing — in local and national groups — to raise money to eradicate the disease.
“The numbers are (staggering) … the people affected by cancer and especially breast cancer,” said Ritzel, 24. “And it’s good to see that people are doing something about it.”
Ritzel has worked with the Get In Touch Foundation, based in Milford, Conn., and founded by Mary Ann Wasil Nilan, a breast cancer survivor.
Get In Touch provides educational materials to elementary and middle school-age girls and boys all over the country that focus on the importance of youngsters knowing their bodies and self-examination.
In addition, Ritzel has been a big supporter of Laces for Lana, a drive started by two Yale rowing teammates who watched Taylor and McLane — also a Yale rower — cope with their mother’s fight. Laces for Lana sells bright pink shoelaces to raise money, which goes to the Get In Touch Foundation. Laces for Lana began on the Yale campus but now has spread nationwide. Often collegiate crews across America can be seen wearing the shoelaces.
Ritzel said for a while after her mother died she was filled with mixed emotions and backed away from working for breast cancer awareness.
“But then I came out of that funk,” she said, and got involved with the Get In Touch Foundation, inspired by Wasil Nilan and her story.
“It’s a great, great cause and I know the founder personally, and she’s an incredible human being,” said Ritzel.
Get In Touch provides an item called the Daisy Wheel that encourages young women to learn more about their breasts and know warning signs.
“The idea is to learn about breast health, learn your body, and at a young age,” Ritzel said. “Her (Wasil Nilan’s) thinking is, if we can get the girls in schools to really go for this, they can bring it home to their moms just to begin conversations, so it’s a lot about health awareness.”
The Laces for Lana drive by her teammates at Yale, she said, was incredibly touching to her. To know that her fellow rowers cared enough to start the drive — and to wear pink hats when they rowed in competitions — was “incredible,” she said.
Since coming back from London, Ritzel has been in Connecticut, winding down from her training and the Games. She will be reunited with some of her fellow Olympic teammates this weekend at the Head of the Charles regatta in Boston, and she’s already thinking about working to make the U.S. Olympic Team for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games.
She said one of the reasons she’s taking some down time now is to devote extra attention to the Get In Touch Foundation and to work with a breast-cancer research center in Boston.
Though she misses her mother, Ritzel said her mom was an inspiration. She was the one, after all, who suggested Ritzel switch to rowing in college after swimming in high school — and even contacted college rowing coaches to let them know about her daughter.
Then, just days before Lana Ritzel died in 2010, her daughter promised her she would make the U.S. Olympic rowing team in London.
“If I am lucky enough, I’ll do whatever I have to do to try to make it for you,” Taylor said she told her mother in a Denver Post story earlier this year.
She kept her promise, joining a veteran eight crew that had won gold in Beijing in 2008.
Then, throughout the Games in London, she said she felt her mother’s presence. Although she said it sounds “kind of corny or hokey,” she felt connected to her mom.
“I really chose to be open to those thoughts and emotions,” she said. She recalled that just before the final race, she heard a song that she hadn’t heard in quite a while that she always had associated with her mother.
“It was kind of playing in the background,” she said. “Just little things like that. … You sort of let yourself believe.”