Strong Like Nora

By Maddie Veneziano ’20, September 26, 2019
Ithaca College Field Hockey’s newest teammate inspires athletes on and off the field.

As the Ithaca College field hockey team starts off its season this fall, the players have a new teammate cheering them on. The Bombers recently “adopted” Nora Zelko, a 3-year-old battling cancer.

Nora and the team were paired through the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, an organization that connects children with pediatric cancer with high school and collegiate sports teams in order to provide them with love, support and friendship. Nora has stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare form of cancer commonly found in the adrenal glands.

Head coach Kaitlyn Wahila reached out to the foundation after she saw colleagues from other colleges adopt younger children with cancer. She thought it would be something her team would enjoy.

On August 17, the first full day of preseason, the team met Nora and her family — older brother Jackson and mom Ashley Bailey — and officially “adopted” her as part of the team. The day started out with Bailey telling the team about Nora’s journey with cancer. The team showed Nora her personalized locker in the locker room, equipped with her own field hockey stick signed by the team and a backpack for her first year of preschool. Then they went onto the field and played games like duck-duck-goose and red light, green light.

A toddler hits a ball with a field hockey stick

Nora gets a field hockey lesson from some of the Bombers. (Photo provided)

Bailey said that on the day of the adoption ceremony, Nora was overwhelmed by the attention and support she was receiving. “I still think she’s trying to take it in how many girls are actually there for her,” Bailey said.

First-year player Arla Davis said the adoption ceremony was a special moment for everyone involved. “We always thought about her before we met her, but then when we finally did get to meet her, I think … it was so much more real for them,” said Davis. “They were so touched by her positivity and just pure joy and curiosity to be with us and see more about us.”

Since then, Nora and her family, who live in nearby Horseheads, New York, have been able to attend two of the Bombers’ home games. After the games, Nora and Jackson have the chance to go on the field, congratulate the team and practice their own field hockey skills. Even when Nora can’t make it to games, the team is always thinking about her.

“Before every game, we always write a little saying on our arm,” said senior Kendall Keil. “The word is something to motivate the team for the game. We wrote ‘strong,’ and our reasoning was if Nora can fight neuroblastoma, we can fight through this game. We can push ourselves to our limits.”

Bailey said that when she’s not able to bring Nora and Jackson to games, she tries to send videos of her kids wishing them good luck. The Bombers also send Nora motivational messages before she goes to medical appointments.

“I think this is exactly what being a student-athlete is all about. You have the opportunity to help inspire and motivate Nora and her family through this challenging time in their lives.”

Kaitlyn Wahila, head coach of the Ithaca College field hockey team

“When we went to New York City, shortly after we met the girls, she was going to have a really rough day,” Bailey said. “And the girls had sent her a video saying that she’s got this and they’re there behind her, so it really helped her. She played that video all day, like a hundred times. And she would get a big smile on her face.”

Nora has also been an inspiration for the team to bring greater awareness to childhood cancers. For Childhood Cancer Awareness Month in September, the Bombers and Susquehanna University teamed up for the second straight year to raise money for the cause with Lace Up 4 Pediatric Cancer. Last year, the team raised around $300 dollars. This year, the team has raised $1,940 dollars. Wahila said the difference between this year and last comes from the impact Nora has had on the team.

Two toddlers and a mother in a locker room

Nora stands at her locker with her mother, Ashley Bailey, and brother, Jackson.

“We have Nora this year, so the awareness that we want to bring to childhood cancer is so much more vibrant,” said Wahila. “Our players, they want to do anything they can to help Nora and her family. So I’m really impressed that we raised that much money.”

Davis said she thinks it is important for student athletes to show younger generations that not everything is all about sports. “There’s so much more going on in the world that’s bigger than ourselves and it’s so important to be part of that,” she said.

Wahila agreed, saying that this experience has taught everyone how to be not only good teammates, but good people.

“I think this is exactly what being a student-athlete is all about,” Wahila said. “You have the opportunity to help inspire and motivate Nora and her family through this challenging time in their lives.”

Bailey said this experience has been beneficial for everyone in her family. Nora and Jackson love to play field hockey together and to cheer on their newest supporters.

“It’s just been really nice, and it’s inspiring for me to know that my kids have such amazing role models in their lives.”