Waterford's Marissa Walker to receive CIAC's Spirit of Sport Award

Waterford's Marissa Walker, a cancer survivor, is honored by softball coach Andy Walker, Marissa's uncle, during the Play4TheCure softball game this spring against Stonington High School. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Waterford's Marissa Walker, a cancer survivor, is honored by softball coach Andy Walker, Marissa's uncle, during the Play4TheCure softball game this spring against Stonington High School. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Marissa Walker read a letter of recommendation that her uncle, Andy, wrote to nominate her for the Michael H. Savage Spirit of Sport Award, given annually by the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference.

“I’m happy I have that nomination forever,” Walker said. “I sent that to some of my colleges. … How he made me sound. I actually dealt with all that. I forget sometimes. Of course, that was awesome, but we didn’t really hear anything. I wasn’t even … I mean I thought my story isn’t as big as someone else’s out there.”

On Monday, Andy Walker, Waterford High School’s softball coach, found out his niece and next season’s senior captain, Marissa, won the Spirit of Sport award, which she will receive in May at the CIAC’s Scholar-Athlete Banquet.

Marissa Walker, eight years cancer free on Nov. 8, still struggles with unthinkable pain that has come with an expandable prosthetic inserted into her left leg. Originally diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2009, at the age of 9, Walker underwent surgery twice this summer and will endure yet another in January to reinsert a component into her tibia.

She’s uncertain if she’ll be able to pitch this spring but is determined to, one more time, before she goes on to college with the intention of forging her way into the field of pediatric oncology, where she has so much hope to offer.

Following is a portion of Andy Walker’s letter:

“I remember how incredibly gifted she was and the athletic potential she possessed … any sport she wanted to play she could have made her own and excelled. I have witnessed her struggle up close — the tears, the heartache, the pain, the disappointment, the frustration — gutting out bullpen sessions fighting through the pain, but she never let anyone see it. Marissa did not want pity and still doesn’t. Her inner strength and resilient spirit is what makes her so special.

“… Cancer may have taken her ability to run like the wind as she did in third grade, but it couldn’t touch her soul, her spirit or her heart. In fact, it has only magnified character traits that existed prior to her diagnosis, courage beyond her years and a quiet intensity that always results with her conquering the next obstacle or challenge in her life.

“Marissa Walker is a winner, even if she never steps foot on the field of play again because her ‘spirit of sport’ can never be taken away; it is a permanent part of her.”

Andy Walker isn’t ashamed to admit he cried as he summed up his niece’s bout with cancer.

And so Monday, when informed by athletic director Dave Sousa that Marissa won the award, Andy Walker made her his first phone call. She just happened to be in civics class at the time.

“He’s like, ‘Can I call for a second?’ I said, ‘I’m in school,’” Marissa Walker said. “I call him going into my English class. I’m standing in the classroom. He’s like, ‘I wanted to let you know you won.’ There’s kids in class, my hands are, like, shaking, and I’m standing there smiling and I don’t know who to tell. I asked the teacher, ‘Miss Thibeau, can I go to the bathroom and call my dad real quick?’

“I was just in awe.”

Marissa hopes to play this season — she has pitched and won in each season of her high school career — if anything in the Lancers’ annual Play4TheCure matchup against Stonington which honors the fight against cancer.

“I think I deserve to be out there,” she said. “I’m so determined. I want to go out my senior year. We’re getting new uniforms and I really want to wear one.”

If not, there are other lessons to be learned from being around Walker, who will now be a finalist for the National High School Spirit of Sport Award in Region 1, encompassing eight states, and perhaps for the national award.

“Be humble, we’re blessed to be playing the game. I can teach them that,” Walker said of what she can bring to the team as captain.

“I grew up around competitiveness, with an athletic family. I needed to be invested in it. It hit me hard when I went through what I went through. I thought a piece of me was missing. But I still have the spirit of sport. I wake up every day knowing I’ve been through hell and back, but whatever I put my mind to, I can do. I’m blessed. I can’t feel sorry for myself. Even if I’m in pain, I’m doing it.”

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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