Elon University women's soccer senior forward Nicole Dennion was selected as the winner of the 2016 John H. Randolph Inspiration Award by the Colonial Athletic Association.
CAA Commissioner Tom Yeager presented the Randolph Award to Dennion during the Elon Athletics Awards Banquet on May 9.
The award recognizes individuals who through strength of character and human spirit serve as an inspiration to all to maximize their potential and ability for success. It is named after former William & Mary athletic director John Randolph, who lost a courageous battle with cancer in 1995.
"The Randolph Award is one of the conference's most prestigious awards recognizing special individuals who have overcome tremendous challenges that inspire us all," said Yeager. "Nicole Dennion is a remarkable student that exemplifies the human spirit of a champion."
Dennion enrolled at Elon and became a member of the women's soccer team in the fall of 2012. In the time between, she has shown a determination to complete her education while experiencing the physical exhaustion, and extreme emotional highs and lows of cancer treatment. Elon's commencement will be on Saturday.
Dennion was named the 2013 Southern Conference Women's Soccer Player of the Year after leading the league in goals with 15 and helping the Phoenix reach the finals of the SoCon Tournament. She was the recipient of the Basnight Award, Elon's highest athletics award, later that year. The award is given annually to both the most outstanding male and female athlete of the year.
Following Elon's winter break in 2014, Dennion came back to campus and began workouts, with her focus set to be even fitter and stronger for the 2014 soccer season. In mid-February she began to feel pain in her ribs. She reported the persistent pain to her athletic trainer, along with a visible lump that had started forming in the same area. Within a few days, after a number of scans and lab work, Dennion found out the source of her pain was a baseball-sized mass in her chest that was breaking her ribs as it grew.
Dennion returned home to New Jersey to begin treatment in February 2014. First she would have surgery to remove the tumor from her side, and to replace her three damaged ribs with titanium substitutes. After her surgery, Dennion's doctors determined her specific diagnosis was Ewing's sarcoma, a rare childhood bone cancer. She began a cycle of grueling treatment schedule that included three to five day periods of in-patient chemotherapy followed by two weeks of rest. She repeated this treatment schedule for 10 months.
When she left Elon in February 2014, Nicole had to withdraw from all but one of her classes. She completed that one spring semester course online. While receiving chemotherapy in the fall, she completed five more online classes.
In December 2014, Dennion was declared to be in remission. She experienced what she has referred to as, "one of the happiest days of her life." The road was cleared to do the two things she wanted most: come back to school, and play soccer again. In February 2015, she returned to campus and started classes for the first time, physically, in a year.
As part of her medical post treatment care, Dennion had CT scans at regular intervals. Approximately three weeks after returning to school, one of her scans showed a reoccurrence of her cancer.
It was devastating to have the cancer return so shortly after completing treatment. After seeing her oncologist in New Jersey, Dennion received a new chemotherapy treatment schedule. When she found out that her new treatment schedule was outpatient, she arranged to have her chemotherapy in North Carolina and focused on how happy she was to be able to stay in school.
At a young age and in a short period of time, Dennion has had the experience of being an elite student-athlete headed toward the peak of her ability, to being sick and physically weak. Through all of the changes and uncertainty, Dennion has set goals and then achieved them. Her determination and grit are among the few things that haven't changed.
Dennion recently wrote an essay about her experience. This is how she closed that letter:
"I believe I was meant for this journey — I was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma and I was born and raised in Ewing, N.J. The chromosome mutation for Ewing's happens on chromosome 22, my jersey number for Elon was No. 22. This may be a coincidence, but I believe it was a sign that I was meant for this journey and I can only hope that my story can bring inspiration to other people fighting battles of their own."
Dennion returned to campus in October to participate in the Elon women's soccer senior day celebration. When her name was announced, the reaction of her team and the crown made it evident that Dennion's human spirit has indeed been inspirational to many.
CAA John H. Randolph Inspiration Award winners
- 2015 Dr. Maravene Loeschke
- 2014 Heather Hartman
- 2013 Nick Colleluori
- 2012 Shelia Moorman
- 2011 Steven Vincent
- 2010 Dawn Evans
- 2009 Meghan Bain
- 2008 T.J. Carter
- 2007 Nicole Hester
- 2006 Kevin DuPrey
- 2005 Julia Shapiro
- 2004 Beth Childs, Alan Lindsey, Brannon Thomas
- 2003 Ricky Beecher
- 2002 Paul Tuohey
- 2001 Mandy Welch
- 2000 Laura Kenney and Liz Paoli
- 1999 Maria-Elena Calle
- 1998 Felicia Allen
- 1997 Scott Pearson
- 1996 Barbara Blosser, John Welbourn
Video and story courtesy Elon University Athletics