AS SHE LEFT for the airport, the sun poked through the fog, just as it did so many California mornings when she used to hit volleyballs on the beach at Rio del Mar. Tianna Valdez must have taken this as a sign. Everything was getting back to normal.
Forty-plus weeks of cancer treatments were over, her scans were clear, and her hair, once so long it flowed all the way down her back, was growing back in soft little wisps. "Baby hair," her little sister, Leilani, liked to call it.
It was the summer of 2012, and Tianna had two dreams: to wear her coveted blue club uniform again, and to hang out with three-time Olympic gold-medal volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings. And one of them was just about to happen.
Make-A-Wish had called a few months earlier and presented many enticing options for a 15-year-old. She could go to Disneyland, throw a party with her friends, or go on a shopping spree. None of that appealed to Tianna. She wanted to spend time with Walsh, a fellow Northern Californian and her idol.
So Tianna's parents took her to an Olympic send-off rally in nearby Saratoga, California, that summer, and Tianna was so happy just to get a seat in the crowd. She had no idea she was there for the surprise reveal that her wish had been granted. When Walsh called her on stage, Tianna thought her heart might pound out of her chest.
She would be the subject of an ESPN My Wish feature. The plan was to fly to Los Angeles the following week and train for a day with Walsh and her beach volleyball partner at the time, Misty May-Treanor. Tianna was so excited she burst into tears. Before they parted ways in Saratoga, Walsh handed her an autographed volleyball with her phone number and email.
"Call anytime," she told Tianna.
Walsh didn't know that Tianna would wind up inspiring her. The girl with the dark wig and never-ending smile was the most positive person anyone in the Main Beach volleyball club knew. "Don't worry," she kept telling her teammates during her chemo treatments. "I'll be back."
In June 2012, Tianna felt so good that she was about to start working with a trainer. She was walking, even jogging, along the beach with her mom, Claudia. On June 22, the day before she left for L.A., she walked three miles, then went home and packed her brand-new workout gear into a suitcase. Her old clothes, before cancer, were now way too big.
But none of that mattered now because Tianna was back. She had a 10 a.m. flight and the future in front of her. She was too excited to sleep.
June 21, 2012
It's Tianna. I wanted to ask you if I could please take a picture with your gold medal along with Misty's.
I want to thank you for this amazing opportunity and for taking time out of your schedule to spend time with me. That means the world to me. You truly are a genuine, admirable and inspirational athlete.
I can't wait to see you and Misty!
See ya soon,
THE VALDEZES HAD two daughters. Claudia's father sang to both babies while they were in her womb. The younger one, Leilani, used to move and kick to the music. But Tianna stayed still.
The couple's first six years of parenthood seemed way too easy, because Tianna was as mellow as a Sunday morning on the beach. She did not cry or make a fuss at dinner or the movies, even as a baby.
She was quiet, shy and clung close. When Claudia would stop to get gas, she would have to unhook the toddler from her car seat. Tianna had to stand right next to her mom. For six years, it was just the three of them, and then came Leilani, who couldn't be more opposite.
They would not have a quiet dinner out anymore, not unless the couple got a baby sitter. Leilani scribbled on walls, cleared out entire cabinets, and made enough noise for both of the kids.
But boy, did Tianna love her little sister. When Claudia and Diego brought the baby home for the first time, Tianna scooped her up in her arms.
"You don't know how many years I've been waiting for you," she told her little sister.
Claudia was determined to get Tianna involved in sports. The little girl tried gymnastics, taekwondo and soccer, and none of them seemed to stick. Volleyball was a different story. She loved the camaraderie and energy in the gym. Before her first club tournament, she was up at the crack of dawn, ready to go with her gear, waiting at the door -- four hours early.
Volleyball erased much of her shyness. It allowed her to be herself. She played libero, which is a defensive specialist, and hurled her body all over the hardwood floor. Main Beach is one of the best clubs in the area, and Tianna quickly became one of the team leaders. She made everyone on the floor feel comfortable.
"She just worked so hard," her club coach, Jan Furman, says. "It's just like anything you love. She would play at home; she'd lay in her bed setting a volleyball. She couldn't get enough of it."
In 2011, at the beginning of her freshman year, Valdez made the junior varsity team at Aptos High School. She was moved to setter, which is essentially the quarterback of the team, and was thrilled to take on more responsibility.
Then one morning, she woke up and couldn't see. The doctor said she had a sinus and ear infection, no big deal. But then Diego called her to dinner the next day, and when she turned her head, her right eye wouldn't move past the midline.
Claudia had a horrible feeling it was something much worse than a simple infection. A year before that, Claudia had battled brain cancer and was finally in remission. Because of her own experiences with cancer, she pressed for an MRI for her daughter. The test was supposed to take an hour, but nearly three hours passed. Doctors pulled her aside and said Tianna had a tumor in the middle of her head.
The diagnosis was rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that develops in the connective tissues of kids and young adults.
Tianna was sedated as the grown-ups huddled together, giving Claudia time to cry and scream and figure out what she was going to do. She and Diego would tell her together. Eventually, confidence prevailed. They'd been through this before, kicked cancer good, and knew Tianna could do the same. "Don't worry, Mommy, I can do this," Tianna said.
But then she looked at her parents and asked the question they knew was coming.
"Am I going to get to play volleyball?"
THERE WAS NO WAY Tianna Valdez could play volleyball in the fall of 2011. She couldn't go to school, either. She faced chemo and radiation and nausea and fatigue. The foods she loved tasted terrible now. Claudia didn't think her daughter would lose her hair -- Claudia didn't lose hers during her chemo the year before -- but 10 days into treatment, Tianna's hair started falling out, and it was traumatic. For years, she'd taken such pride in braiding it. She'd tug on it during tense moments on the court.
She missed volleyball more than anything. Her club team had tryouts in November. When Tianna and her teammates were younger, she used to promise them that they'd make it to junior nationals. That year, they put her No. 6 on their jerseys and bags and qualified for the big tournament without her.
They sent her texts and teddy bears, anything to include her in the ride. Tianna never let on how much it hurt not to be with them.
"When we first heard about the diagnosis, we thought she'd be fine," says former club teammate Elle Rogers-Garcia. "Every time I saw her, she said, 'Don't worry. Everything is going to be OK.'"
There was plenty of reason for hope. Valdez was diagnosed with the embryonal type of rhabdomyosarcoma, which, according to her doctors, had a favorable diagnosis. Her tumor shrank immediately, and by January 2012 it was barely visible on an MRI.
Dr. Erin Breese, who was a fellow at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at the time, says the vast majority of patients with Valdez's type of tumor respond very well to treatment and go into remission. That's what everyone thought was happening to Valdez in the summer of 2012. She was feeling good, and started hitting volleyballs with her mother on the beach in June. And then her shoulder started hurting. Claudia and Diego figured it was because she was working muscles she hadn't used in so long.
Maybe Tianna was too excited to think about it much. She was about to meet Walsh. The family flew to Los Angeles for the Make-A-Wish trip on June 23, and though she smiled for a photo in the cockpit, Valdez wasn't feeling right. She had a fever in L.A. that got worse as the trip progressed, so her parents called an ambulance. It was June 24, the night before she was supposed to meet Walsh.
She would never walk outside of a hospital again. She'd wait five days to be transferred by plane back to Palo Alto, where doctors delivered the grim prognosis: Her cancer had returned, and this time, there was nothing they could do. They could give her medications to make her comfortable, or she could participate in a clinical trial that could increase her pain and nausea but would almost certainly not change her outcome. Valdez did not hesitate in her decision.
"She wanted to be part of that trial," Claudia says, "to help other kids."
June 25, 2012
I am so sorry you're not feeling well. I hope they are able to make you comfortable and to take care of that which is hurting you.
I would love to visit you if and when you're up to it. No pressure at all. I'd just like to give you a hug and send some love.
Our day at the beach can happen whenever!! You keep doing your thing and kicking butt and I'll do the same here. I'll be ready when you are.
All my love to you today and always, Ms. Tianna. You're in my prayers. I can't wait for our rain check ;)
WALSH HAD NO IDEA how sick Tianna was. She wanted to visit her in the hospital, but Valdez told her parents that she didn't want her hero to see her. Not this way, not this sick.
It didn't seem real. Tianna had worked so hard to get to remission, she'd caught up on her homework and gotten straight A's in anticipation of her sophomore year of high school, and, of course, volleyball. Her friends were talking about getting their driver's licenses, a realm that just a few weeks earlier Tianna was certain she'd be living in again. And now she was getting ready to die.
One day in the hospital, she read a newspaper story about a little girl in the area who also had rhabdomyosarcoma. Gabriella was 4 years old. Valdez insisted to her parents that they contact her. She wanted to help the girl.
Gabriella is the daughter of Kristin Cosner, who has more than a decade of experience as an ICU nurse. She was not prepared for what she saw when she and Gabriella visited Tianna. The once-muscular teenager had dwindled from 130 to 98 pounds, but she was still able to smile at Gabriella.
"I didn't expect to see a young girl looking like she was about to pass away," Cosner says. "That blew me away."
Breese, a young doctor who was in her final phase of training in 2012, was also blown away by Tianna. On a couple of occasions, Tianna pulled the doctor aside to talk privately. She told Breese that she was at peace with dying. Her biggest worry was her parents and her sister. How would they go on without her?
She made Claudia and Diego promise to be happy and enjoy life. She told her mom that something good had to come out of this.
By July, her closest friends and teammates made the trip to Lucile Packard to see her. They didn't want to believe they were saying goodbye. When Elle Rogers-Garcia visited, Tianna talked about boys and volleyball and just about everything else but cancer.
Rogers-Garcia was about to try out for the team at Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose, a storied program. Walsh had played there. Rogers-Garcia was worried she wouldn't make the team, but Valdez kept encouraging her.
"You can do it," Tianna told her. "You're going to do it."
Rogers-Garcia made the team. And for the past four years, nearly every day, she has written Valdez's No. 6 on her hand.
July 1, 2012
... I am coming to town for a day and a half from 7/9-11. I would love a visit if possible. After that, I'll be in Salinas on August 25th to cut the ribbon on a new sand volleyball court. I would love to see you then, as well.
All my love. Positive, healing, butt kicking thoughts coming your way daily. I just read this quote in a book I just started ...
"if I believe in victory, then victory will believe in me."
Always believe, Ms. Tianna. I do!!!
Here comes a big hug from Gstaad, Switzerland. The most beautiful place I've ever been to in my life;)
Not sure if you're into reading, but The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is one of my favorites. I think you might like it. I'm reading another of his books right now called Aleph. That's where I got that quote I cited. Xoxoxoxoxo
HER FAMILY DECORATED her hospital room with pictures. They brought her comforter and her favorite pillow, the one with the elephant on it. On her nightstand sat the volleyball Walsh signed, along with a few gifts she'd sent. There was an autographed box of cereal that Tianna forbade anyone to touch.
She'd sleep all day and rest up for the night, when Walsh's Olympic matches were on TV.
"Sit me up," she'd tell her mom. "Put me close to the TV."
She watched until their quarterfinal win against Italy on Aug. 5, 2012. She died on Aug. 6. Walsh was in London when she learned of Tianna's passing. Walsh is a spiritual person, and thought she'd feel something, like an inner shiver, the moment she died. But she didn't.
Walsh is training for another Olympics, which will take place in Rio in a few weeks, and she doesn't have time to do a lot of interviews. But when she heard that a story was being done on Tianna Valdez, she responded the same day. Four years have passed, and Walsh still thinks of the smiling kid she met on a stage in northern California.
"I will never forget her face or her family," Walsh says. "I was so honored she had chosen me. Holy moly, of anyone in the whole world, she chose me."
She had no idea that Tianna kept the gifts on her nightstand, or that those Olympic matches in London were bright spots in some very dark days.
She believed Tianna was going to get better and be OK. After one of her matches, Walsh recalls saying hi to Tianna on TV. Walsh had written her a letter that she was going to send. She held on to it all these years.
"She reminds me every day to be grateful," Walsh says, "and to fight with a smile on my face."
A FEW WEEKS AFTER the funeral, Kristin Cosner -- Gabriella's mom -- met with Valdez's parents. She wanted to start a foundation to help raise money for pediatric cancer, and she knew she couldn't do it alone. Cosner figured it would help them through their grief, and then Claudia thought about what Tianna told her in her final days. Something good had to come of all of this.
The Team G Childhood Cancer Foundation has raised close to $100,000 in the past 3½ years and has made roughly 900 "hope totes" for families whose kids have just been diagnosed with cancer. The totes come with toiletries and snacks and books carrying important phone numbers, numbers Kristin and the Valdezes wished they'd had in the scary days after a diagnosis.
Gabriella is 8 now and in remission. She doesn't really remember Tianna; she was too young. But there are reminders of Tianna everywhere. A memorial volleyball tournament is played in her honor at Holy Cross, her grade-school alma mater, every year. Her old teammates from Main Beach come back to help referee the event.
"For her short life, she impacted a lot of people," Furman, her club coach, says. "I hope that I can say the same thing when I go, and I'm 68."
About a year ago, a young girl with dark hair arrived at Main Beach's gym to show up for tryouts. It was Leilani Valdez. Even though the kid had played in the developmental Blenders program in years past, Furman was surprised she was there, because Leilani had gotten quite good in soccer and didn't have time to do both competitively. But she really wanted to play volleyball.
It is heartwarming and haunting for Claudia and Diego, watching her in the same uniform and the same gyms. Sometimes, she'll tug on her ponytail, and they'll be brought back to a time years ago when all they felt was overwhelming pride for a little girl who'd finally found where she belonged.
Leilani is playing because she loves volleyball. And she loved her sister. Sometimes, Claudia has to get up out of her seat and retreat to a hallway before she loses it in public. Other times, she can't stop watching. "I don't like to compare them," Claudia says. "But you can't help but find those glimpses."
They buried Tianna in her Main Beach uniform, because it was the only thing that made sense. She wanted so badly to put it on again, just as badly as she wanted to meet Kerri Walsh. Unfortunately, this is the way she got both of her wishes.