By: Griffin Marsh
Sometimes the events of life are larger and more important than any sports result and our sporting communities take these as opportunities to show support and care for one another.
For the McMaster women’s basketball team, the CIBC Run for the Cure, held on Oct. 1 this year, has come to represent something more than their basketball and university lives. It now represents family, community and strength.
This story begins in 2015, when head coach Theresa Burns was diagnosed with breast cancer and was forced to spend part of the season away from the court, fighting an entirely different competition.
Today, the cancer treatments are all finished. Coach Burns and the team are coming off a 2016-2017 historic season, finishing the regular season ranked first in the country and narrowly missing a trip to the U Sports National Championship in Victoria, B.C.
But this past weekend, that was all put aside as the team and the wider Hamilton basketball community came together as a sign of strength and resilience for those who have been touched by breast cancer or cancer more broadly. This year, the team raised $2,500 for the Canadian Cancer Society, with donations coming from players, family and alumni far and wide.
For coach Burns, this event means a lot more than basketball to her. It is about giving thanks and remembering her own journey and the journey of those who may not be able to share the walk with them anymore.
“The sad reality is that you could not go down our roster and not find a person whose family has not been touched by cancer in one way or the other,” said coach Burns. “I think we are all going to have lots of different people in our minds that day when we walk, and it is a chance to celebrate those special people in your life, pay some special attention to them and think about them.”
On the support that she receives personally from the Hamilton and Canadian basketball community, coach Burns was humbled and overjoyed.
“It is an amazing feeling, it is actually kind of overwhelming to be honest. Last year and the year before there were so many people to do the walk, we had this huge group picture with everyone who wanted to walk with our group. It is really truly very humbling,” Burns reflected.
Coach Burns was quick to add that the participation in this event is all athlete-driven. The players organize and share their excitement for the event, and coach Burns just follows along for the ride.
For Erin Burns, a fourth-year guard on the team, the event gives the team a chance to give back to their coach.
“I think that this run brings our team together on a deeper level in our shared respect and love for our coach,” said Burns. “For the past four years coach Burns has mentored all of her players both on and off the court. Coach Burns takes time to support each and everyone of her players whether that be regarding one’s education, basketball or life, so by our team participating in the Run for the Cure, it is just a small way our team can reciprocate that support for her.”
The time and impact that coach Burns puts into her players and her teams does not go unnoticed, as she as been awarded various coaching awards and guided her teams to Ontario University Athletics and National Championships on numerous occasions.
The appreciation for coach Burns does not end on the trophy shelf though as her current players echo an appreciation for coach Burns that she has heard throughout her career.
“[Coach Burns] exhibits strength and compassion, confidence and humility, kindness and tenacity. She is an extraordinary woman that inspires those around her to want to be the best version of themselves,” said Hilary Hanaka, a fourth-year guard and co-captain of the team.
“I believe Coach Burns is successful because of her outstanding character revealed through her honesty, leadership, her patience, her trust in each of us and her courage,” added Hanaka.
While coach Burns acknowledges that her battles off the court influence her message on the court, she works extremely hard to shape what that message is.
“It is just the idea that it is a challenge and people have to attack and face challenges and find ways to get through them,” reflected coach Burns. “It gives life a different perspective and I have always been someone who tries to appreciate the big picture and have some perspective in life about where sports lies. I think this just sharpens that point a little more and makes your perspective that much clearer.”
Moving forward, the season looks different but still very promising for the team. While some key members graduated following last season, coach Burns sees many players primed to step into a new role and lead this team forward.
While the disappointment of last year may still burn in this team’s belly, the walk forward continues. The unity that was exhibited at the Run for the Cure was just an early step, but this team is motivated and excited about the season and challenges that lie ahead.