Friday, September 21, 2018

Late Holy Names swimmer Cailin Cannella was a fighter until the end

At swim meets, Cailin Cannella would race side by side with her breaststroke competitors, their heads bobbing in near unison.

By the final turn, the synchronized swimming usually was over.

Cailin often had left everyone behind.

Nationally ranked in her age group, Cailin took on a bigger challenge. She swam with the Academy of the Holy Names high school team though she was in middle school. Two years ago, Cailin took third at the Class 3A state meet as a sixth-grader.

She was determined to do better. Cailin went through a grueling offseason regimen last summer in hopes of becoming a state champion in her signature event.

She never got the chance to win gold on high school's biggest stage.

In September 2016, Cailin complained of knee problems. She went through physical therapy, but the pain remained.

After an MRI exam, doctors diagnosed Cailin with osteo­sarcoma, a bone cancer that usually affects children, often around the knee.

The cancer spread to her lungs. That did not deter Cailin, who vowed to become a competitive swimmer again.

After lengthy stays in the hospital, either for surgery or exhaustive bouts of chemotherapy, Cailin found the wherewithal to return to the pool.

"If Cailin could move, she was in the water," Holy Names coach Bill Shaffer said. "That was her happy place."

Her resolve became the inspiration for a hashtag adopted by the school's swim program: #CailinStrong.

Cailin's condition worsened last week. There were no more options for a cure. On Friday, she was put on a ventilator. She was heavily sedated.

Shaffer was with the family at Tampa General's Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. In the hospital room, Cailin turned to her mother, Lisa.

"I've got this, Mommy.''

Those were her last words.

"Cailin always was a fighter, even until the end," Shaffer said.

Cailin died Monday. She was 14.

The funeral is 3 p.m. today at First Presbyterian Church of Tampa, 412 E Zack St. A reception will follow at the church.

Cailin is the granddaughter of Norman Cannella Sr., a longtime, prominent Tampa attorney and former prosecutor. Her father is Tampa lawyer Norman Cannella Jr.

At Holy Names on Monday, administrators placed grieving middle school classmates in small groups to talk with counselors.

Chloe Mintz and Laura Caroline Jung, eighth-grade classmates of Cailin, visited their best friend at the hospital Sunday.

"I held her hand and spoke to her a little bit," Mintz said of that final visit. "I don't know what to do now. I just don't know what to do. I wish I could do something. I've never experienced anything like this. It almost doesn't seem real."

Cailin had her knee replaced and had surgeries on her lungs. During her hospital stays, Cailin's mother would bring an air mattress into her room. The two would talk about the important things in life, about living in the moment. Cailin wrote down quotes to count down the days of chemotherapy or surgery.

One read: "Be strong because things will get better! It might be storming now, but it never rains forever!"

Teammates wore wristbands in her honor to raise awareness for childhood cancer. Hooters sponsored a 5K swim and run that was dedicated to Cailin.

Best friends Mintz and Jung raised money and collected donations from more than 20 businesses. They also designed and created T-shirts that read, "Chain Reaction, Another Link, Another Chance," for a festival held Friday on the Holy Names campus. The festival, held in Cailin's honor, raised $10,240 for the children's cancer center at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

"It has been so hard for all of us, and the whole Academy community has come together in support of Cailin and her family," Jung said last week. "She is in all of our hearts."

There were other special moments, too. Cailin met tennis star Venus Williams and Olympic gold-medal and world-champion swimmer Caeleb Dressel, who swims for Florida.

In February, Olympic champion swimmer Missy Franklin sent an autographed copy of her book.

Franklin, one of Cailin's biggest idols, wrote a message on the cover page:

"To Cailin with all my love, keep fighting with all that you are. You are relentless. XO Missy."

On Tuesday, Holy Names plans to host a swim meet to honor the seniors on the team. During the breaststroke, Shaffer said he will keep Lane 3, the fastest lane, open.

He will place Cailin's swim cap on the blocks for the race.

"I know Cailin is up in heaven with a brand new knee and swimming the breaststroke just like she always wanted to," Shaffer said.

Times correspondent Scott Purks contributed to this report.

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