Elk Grove students rally around coach with breast cancer
Last week's water polo games between Elk Grove and Rolling Meadows high schools drew a standing-room-only crowd -- and yet it was hard to tell which fans were which.
Fans and players alike were all were wearing the same T-shirt, which read: "Rivals united for a cause."
For one day at least, the two teams -- which share the Elk Grove High School pool -- came together in support of the Lady Grenadiers' 28-year old varsity coach, Alexa Rodheim, who is battling a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer.
Rodheim played water polo at Hoffman Estates High School and still holds the record there for most goals scored.
Members of both teams, and their coaches, organized a fundraiser at the senior night game for the Elk Grove boys. They sold T-shirts, accepted donations at the door and even offered specialty items at the concessions stand, including a pink breast cancer symbol made out of Rice Krispie treats.
The game drew live coverage by the local cable access channel, EGTV, with play-by-play announcing by volunteers Bill Beaupre of the Elk Grove Rotary Club and Elk Grove Village Mayor Craig Johnson.
"In the past, these two teams have been bitter rivals," said Matt Feikes of Rolling Meadows, whose daughter, Maggie, plays on the Mustangs' polo team, "but this really brought them together."
Proceeds were earmarked for the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation, which is the type of cancer Rodheim has and which affects between 15 percent and 20 percent of breast cancer patients.
"She told us at our first team meeting," said senior Neda Semsarieh of Elk Grove, who is one of the Lady Grenadiers' main drivers. "Everyone was in shock."
When the shock wore off, and the team realized that Rodheim was going to continue to teach and coach through her treatment regimen, Semsarieh and her teammates resolved to support her.
They started by designing specialty swim caps, which they wore at all of their home games this season. The caps featured the breast cancer symbol on one side and this inscription on the other: "We play for Rod."
Word of the illness spread fast at school, where Rodheim is a popular English teacher and last year was named a Teacher of Distinction by the Golden Apple Foundation.
When school officials held their St. Baldrick's Day fundraiser to raise money to beat childhood cancer, Rodheim drew the biggest response when she stepped forward to have her head shaved during the all-school assembly.
"She's an inspiration," says Marc Popovici, a substitute teacher who fills in for Rodheim. "Sometimes when she's out because she's having her chemo, she returns later in the day for practice."
Her players describe Rodheim as affirming and upbeat in their huddles, even though they have won only one game this season.
"She encourages us a lot," Semsarieh adds.
Last week's game was their turn to encourage their coach, and they achieved it with the fundraiser and the huge turnout of fans, all sporting breast cancer-related attire.
"I am so honored that they put this fundraiser together," Rodheim said. "This is why I am able to tolerate my treatment so well -- because all of the love and support from my students and colleagues."