Matthew Stankus has always been a guy that the Cherry Hill West swim team could depend on.
There’s no one event that’s been his specialty, but coach Christie Robertson would confidently plug him in wherever and whenever he was needed in the lineup.
For that reason, his teammates voted him to receive their Unsung Hero award after his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons. And heading into his senior year, they also voted him a captain.
Life for Stankus and those around him took a dramatic turn just before practice began in November, when what was at first thought to be a virus was instead diagnosed as rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Instead of readying himself for his final winter of swimming for the Lions, he was enduring multiple operations and beginning an aggressive chemotherapy/radiation plan.
“I was ready to go,” he said. “And then all of this happened.”
Matthew’s story goes much further, however. His illness has kept him away from school, but not from the swim team he loves. And, as he has most definitely learned, his teammates — and also the close-knit South Jersey swim community — love him back.
His mother, Kathleen, explains what has happened.
“It’s not a normal situation for kids to be faced with,” she said. “There was a concern for me. When I talked to Matthew’s friend’s parents, I was worried about how they would handle it. When somebody gets cancer, it affects everyone, and this was it happening to their captain.”
“I recall talking with a cancer survivor in the early weeks,” she said. “She spoke of this being a lonely road. Matthew’s team has simply not allowed him to feel alone. I think one of the greatest gifts they give him is normalcy. He has a couple of hours where he doesn’t focus on on being sick. That is a treasure. He comes home from meets so hyped up and energized. He’s a quiet warrior. He said he was not going to miss any West meets.”
One of his best friends is fellow captain Jack Zeigler. When Matthew needed to shave his head, Jack was at the Stankus home to do the honors. And in a show of solidarity, Jack had Matthew shave his head as well.
“He’s someone with a great sense of humor,” Zeigler said. “He’s never been someone who has made his problems anyone elses problems. He’s a great guy.”
“I was taken aback when I found out,” Zeigler said. “You hear stories about this, but always about distant people. But here it was happening to someone close.”
Aside from being his high school coach, Robertson has known Matthew since he was 5, first as a local swim coach, and then as a middle school guidance counselor. He considers her as almost a second mom.
“Matthew is an amazing person and an amazing swimmer,” she said. “He’s an all-around great kid. This was supposed to be his year, and it has still been his year. We’re helping him get through all of this. He’s an amazing kid. He’s very quiet. It’s never about him. It’s always about the team.”
What makes Matthew’s story truly special is the way his peers have offered their support. It’s only natural that those around Cherry Hill West would rally around their pal. But the support has stretched way beyond his own school.
Cherry Hill East was first to get involved, by buying and wearing bandanas as part of a fund raiser for teens with cancer.
Then came the team’s first meet, against Eastern. When Cherry Hill West arrived at the pool, they saw that Eastern had decorated it in purple - the CHW color. One of their swimmers, Nidheesh Phadnis, shaved his head in support. The team also presented the Stankus family with a gift card to use over the holidays.
“In speaking with their coach, she made it clear it was the all the kids’ idea,” Kathleen Stankus said.
Next up was Shawnee, and another Purple-out followed.
“I just don’t know if the kids get how such a seemingly simple act had such a powerful impact,” she said. “One of the fastest teams in the state just showed our team major respect. Then they followed up with a donation to a benefit that is being run for Matthew in February.”
Other schools, including Voorhees and Cherokee, also made gestures of support.
Then there was the meet on Tuesday night against Cherry Hill East. There was a capacity crowd at the Camden County Tech Pool in Sicklerville, and almost all of them were wearing special shirts sold for the occasion. On the front, the design featured the colors and logos of the rivals, and a large purple ribbon. On the back, was the Stankus name.
Cherry Hill East won both the boys and girls meets, but before exiting the deck, they let out a cheer that ended with words of support for Stankus. Both sides then gathered for a group photo, with Matthew in the front.
“It’s been incredible,” Matthew says. “l never expected any of this. Pretty much every school we’ve gone up against has done something. It’s a little surreal. The whole season has been been something to look forward to.”
“It’s been incredibly humbling to be on the receiving end of all of this attention, kindness, compassion and generosity,” said Kathleen Stankus, who was cheering on the Lions on Tuesday alongside Matthew’s older sister Kailey and younger brothers Tommy and Ryan. Together, they are swimming family, and their involvement with the sport has helped them navigate the situation.
“I am also left with such a sense of pride to be a part of this swimming community,” Kathleen Stankus said. “The parents have been absolutely phenomenal. And kids these days are often spoken about in a negative light on how they can’t connect with one another. Or it is said that kids are selfish and entitled. Let me say this - swim friends, and swimmers we never met - have felt a connection this season. They selflessly took on an opposing team’s colors with pride. They did all of this because they wanted to, not looking for a thing in return. These kids are full of compassion.
“It seems that in our darkest hours, we can find the brightest lights to help us through,”
she said. “These young swimmers have been truly inspiring. My promise to them is to help Matthew continue his fight so that he can be cancer free. But then I want to pay forward their kindness. South Jersey swimmers have been a total inspiration. Swim family is a strong family.”