UMass assistant coach walks in support of Elaine Sortino



Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sure it was a long walk. But still it was just a walk, Kristi Stefanoni reasoned. The University of Massachusetts assistant softball coach was a 29-year-old lifelong athlete in terrific shape. She’s run in races before. How tough could a walk be?

Late on day two of the Susan G. Komen 3-Day, a 60-mile walk to raise money for breast cancer research, Stefanoni had a new respect for walking as her legs and feet screamed at her.

“The muscles and ligaments were getting pretty sore. People were really starting to suffer. We walked 21 miles on day two,” she said. “As in shape as I am, you’re body is not meant to walk 20 miles a day for three days in a row.”

Every time the pain threatened to get the best of her, she thought of coach Elaine Sortino, her boss, mentor and friend, who is in the middle of her own cancer fight.

“I thought of Elaine and what she goes through every day,” Stefanoni said. “That’s why I pushed through this walk.”

Stefanoni had never heard of the three-day event. She signed up for the Susan G. Komen newsletter in hopes of finding 5K road races to raise money in a symbolic show of support for Sortino. For the 60-mile event, Stefanoni created a team with fellow alum Jill Andrews and Megan Lemire, whose sister Bridget will be a senior for the Minutewomen next year. Susan G. Komen organizers require each walker to raise at least $2,300 to participate. Between them they earned $13,290.

“A good majority of the money that I individually raised came from alumni and people in the athletic department: Greg Cannella, Judy Dixon, Sam Koch, Jen Brodeur, Robin Wagner, Joyce Hahn. I sent out a big email to everybody in the athletic department saying here’s what I’m doing, with a link to the website if you’d like to donate. A couple players on the team right now donated too. Elaine’s family donated to the cause too. Planet Fastpitch (in Uxbridge) gave over $300.”

Stefanoni waited to tell Sortino, saving the surprise until a few weeks before the start of the walk on July 26. Sortino, who is in year two of her battle with the disease, was floored when she found out.

“I was absolutely overwhelmed by the whole thing. I didn’t really know about it until they told me a couple of weeks ago,” she said. “I can’t believe how much money they raised. It was truly overwhelming. I know first hand how Dana Farber is capable of helping people. The work they do is unbelievable. I understand and know what it means. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by such good people.”

Stefanoni said once Sortino was aware, she got involved.

“As the weeks went she wanted to learn more about it and what she could do for us. She was awesome. She took care of our hotel room in Framingham the night before it started and bought us a bottle of champagne. She was checking in all the time, wanting to know where we were. We sent her pictures.”

The event started in Framingham, looped twice through Waltham, where walkers camped both nights in pink tents, and finished in Boston on Sunday. Even the pit stops were memorable.

“They had water, Advil, Band-Aids, oranges and little notes that said things like, ‘Thank you for walking for this cause. My mother had an eight-year battle with cancer and this means so much to me,’” Stefanoni said.

Stefanoni, Andrews and Lemire got the chance to talk about Sortino to everyone from the horse-mounted police officers to other walkers.

“We made T-shirts that said ‘We Walk for Coach’ and on the back we had our team name, ‘the Cleanup Hitters’. There were 870 walkers there and I think about 300 stopped us and asked who coach was,” Stefanoni said. “We got to share our story about who she is and what she’s gone through. It was an awesome three days.”

Stefanoni said her team’s emotions were affected more than their feet.

“You’re walking for more than just the person you have in mind, but for so many people,” she said. “You don’t even realize it until you get out there. We walked with a team with a guy who had walked 24 times and with a team with an 11-year survivor. Everyone shared stories, laughs and cries. It was pretty emotional.”

The event, which happens in 14 cities this year, won’t be back in Boston in 2014. Stefanoni, though, was already planning on walking in Minnesota next year with former UMass assistant coach Jessica Merchant.

For now she’s glad to be off her feet for a bit.

“I’ve never welcomed an ice bath,” Stefanoni said. “But I got into that thing like it was a jacuzzi.”

NOTE: The team is still accepting online donations through www.the3day.org.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.


 


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