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  1. Florida

Gymnast Shelby Hilton’s ‘uncommon determination’ showed on the mat and off

The 25-year-old died from brain cancer in April.
Shelby Hilton went on an aerobatic flight in an Aviat Pitts plane last year. (Photo courtesy Cora Lewis)
Published May 20
Updated May 20

On the drive home from the hospital, Cora Lewis listened to the voicemail.

“Cora Ann,” Shelby Hilton said, “I have a present for you, so you gotta come over. Love you, bye.”

Lewis hadn’t seen the message her close friend left days earlier, before she was admitted. Four days after Lewis found it, on April 26, Shelby died. She was 25.

The gift was still waiting.

Shelby was a gymnast, a daughter and a friend. She also had brain cancer. She leaves behind people who knew her before, during and after that cancer, who rallied for her and were pushed by her to do more with their own lives.

They used #ShelbyStrong to raise money and awareness, but Shelby’s own strength wasn’t just her determination. It also came from how she made the people around her feel.

Shelby Hilton started gymnastics in St. Petersburg when she was 5. "She was one of the greatest kids that ever came to our program," said her Tampa Bay Turners coach Brad Harris. (Photo courtesy Donna Hilton)

Thanks to a kindergarten birthday party, Shelby became a gymnast at 5.

Donna Hilton, Shelby’s mom, said that’s when coaches at Tampa Bay Turners in St. Petersburg noticed her.

Shelby was built for the sport.

She tried singing and piano lessons. She played soccer and T-ball. But “she just had a knack for gymnastics,” Hilton said. “And after that day, she went every day.”

Shelby soon earned the nickname “Tumbleweed” from a neighbor, said her dad, Hank Hilton. She flipped around the front yard. She used the living room to perfect her walkovers.

Even as a little kid, she had “an uncommon determination,” said Tampa Bay Turners’ coach Brad Harris. “You could tell that the sport meant a lot to her. She wanted to be good.”

Shelby was exacting and competitive, but the friends she made at gymnastics were the real reason she kept going, her mom said.

Morgan Gunning and Deni Morgan were two of those friends. The three often fell into giggling fits.

“We got into some trouble at the gym,” Gunning said.

“We were always in trouble,” Morgan agreed. “But I always got caught for it.”

That’s because Shelby laughed at all her jokes, so Morgan kept telling them.

“She always made me feel really funny.”

The three stayed friends through high school and as Shelby and Morgan got ready for college gymnastics.

“We pushed each other,” Morgan said. “There were times where I wanted to quit gymnastics.”

There were times where Shelby had a hard day and she couldn’t hit her skills. But her coach saw her work hard to lift her teammates and remind them to lighten up.

“‘I won’t quit,’” she told Morgan. “You can’t.”

Shelby Hilton at a Tampa Bay Turners meet when she was 6. (Image courtesy Donna Hilton)

On the day everything changed in 2015, Shelby was back home in Florida for a meet. The University of Kentucky senior was in Gainesville at the University of Florida, and her parents, friends, former teammates and family were in the stands watching.

“Shelby had the best vault that day of her entire career,” her mom said. “And then she went to floor.”

Mid-flip, Shelby fell and landed on her neck. The whole thing seemed to happen in slow motion, her mom told the Lexington Herald Leader then.

Doctors soon discovered that Shelby had a medulloblastoma, a form of pediatric brain cancer.

Shelby Hilton on her 25th birthday, which she spent with friends and family. Throughout her life, Shelby loved the beach, and she loved a good tan. (Photo courtesy of Cora Lewis)

Morgan made a deal with her childhood friend. As Shelby went through chemotherapy and radiation, as she lost her hair and weight and energy, Morgan was the friend who didn’t want to hear that everything was okay. She was ready for hard and angry.

Gunning held the first fundraiser for Shelby. Classmates, family, friends and strangers joined #ShelbyStrong to cheer her on.

In 2016, Shelby returned to UK in remission and graduated the next year. She came home and started working with her dad. That’s when she met Cora Lewis. The two met through friends at a Rowdies’ game. Lewis was struck by Shelby’s bubbly personality.

After the game, Lewis told Shelby how much she liked her hair. Shelby laughed.

“It’s a wig,” she said. Then she talked about the last few years.

“She told me ‘I wasn’t always that way I am now.’ ” Lewis said. “She said, ‘Cancer really taught me to appreciate the people and experiences more, and that my hair and my eyelashes and my eyebrows really aren’t the things that matter.’ I just knew from that moment that I had met one of the best people I’d ever meet in the world.”

Last July, the brain cancer returned. In September, Lewis helped organize another fundraiser — this time bringing in more than $25,000 for medical expenses in a single day.

Shelby might have adopted 100 rescue dogs and lived with them on a farm, said her brother, Henry Hilton.

She might have become a broadcaster for ESPN, said her first coach, Harris.

“Even through the darkest times, she was able to be so positive,” Harris said. “She would always make people feel like they were what mattered.”

“She’s the reason that I decided to go to medical school,” said Morgan. “She changed my life probably by always pushing me to do more and want more out of life and not give up on things.”

Lewis still has Shelby’s voicemail on her phone. Recently, she stopped by the Hilton home for the gift her friend left.

Inside a small box was a silver chain with a silver cactus charm and a note. It began: “Stick together: Thanks for sticking by me not just when it was easy, but when it was hard, too.”

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Want to know more about Shelby Hilton? Head over to Instagram and @werememberthem and see how her friends and family will remember her. Know someone who has recently died whom we should write about? Send suggestions to Kristen Hare at epilogue@tampabay.com.

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