Young athlete Cassidy Sheng will be missed 

First posted: Sunday, January 11, 2015 07:22 PM EST | Updated: Sunday, January 11, 2015 07:31 PM EST

TORONTO  –  Cassidy Sheng’s teammates, the Flames, are at a meet in the glassy new Pan Am pool in Markham when word trickles in.

Cassidy, 14, dreamed of this pool and of the Parapan Am Games, of the podium, of O Canada, of standing on her one leg with gold draped around her neck.

A mom in the stands gets a call at about 8 a.m. Saturday and relays it to the Flames bench on the pool deck and grief sweeps the team, 11 kids in orange, yellow and black from Variety Village.

Jessica Tinney sobs on the phone. Megan Sherwin slumps on the shiny new deck.

“At first I thought Megan was hurt,” says coach Cori Bainton. “Then I could see all the kids were crying and I knew what had happened.”

At a warm, new hospice called Emily’s House downtown, Cassidy Sheng said her goodbyes to her parents, Carmen and Andy, to her brother Aaron, and to shifts of family and friends, then drifted off to wherever dying little girls go in their last hours.

Her breathing got shallower and shallower and at 4:45 a.m. Saturday, it stopped. The cancer that claimed her left leg when she was seven, came back to take her life.

Funny how life and death work, but the Flames find out just before the 50-metre butterfly.

That is, was, Cassidy’s best event. She won silver in the 50 fly at the Can-Ams in Miami last March, not long before she got sick again, and she took gold in last year’s Ontario championship.

So her Parapan Am dream was real, or might have been.

“I had a shot,” she told me in her bright room at Emily’s House, scant weeks ago. “I wanted it to happen so much.”

So much that last spring she was back in the pool barely a month after cancer took a third of her lung. Cancer may have finally won, but not easily.

Her pals, Abi Braybrook and Michelle Tovizi, swam the 50 butterfly in Markham for her. They were in tears when the horn sounded, and in tears when they climbed out.

On paper, they did not win, not even close. The Markham meet was for able-bodied teams and the Flames used it as training.

Victoria Grzincic finished last in freestyle, minutes behind as always, but as always won another gallery of hearts.

Victoria, 19, who has cerebral palsy, scares lifeguards half to death, she’s underwater so long between strokes.

Once, she got caught in a cruel vortex, floundering in one spot for six minutes, refusing all offers to pull her from the pool, until she finally picked up steam.

You get the idea. The Flames are an extraordinary team.

“Now there’s a big part of us missing,” says coach Bainton. She gives her weeping charges a Sharpie and they ink a heart and Cassidy’s initials on their wrists.

Then they suck it up and swim.

Later, the Flames walk around the corner to a church, and light candles for their fallen teammate.

How fitting. Cassidy Sheng lighted fires in many people, in life and in the manner of her death.

“Fearless” was her catchword and others picked it up, even opposing para-swimmers like those at the Can-Ams in Edmonton last month who sent her a giant signed banner.

The Toronto Parapan Am Games brass made her an honorary torch-bearer.

Readers told me how Cassidy’s story, her fearlessness, put their own lives in focus, and I can tell you she could teach perspective even to a gnarly old newspaperman.

So the torch has been passed to Cassidy’s teammates, including Megan, 14, who had a stroke before she was born, but who has grown up with the same spirit, the same podium dreams.

On Wednesday, Megan dropped by Emily’s House to see her pal. Cassidy’s breathing was already hollow.

Megan talked on and on about school and friends, girl stuff, inside jokes, stories of hanging out and swim meets past and how much she missed her.

“I told her she’d always be in my heart. I said she was my best friend and that she taught me so much.

“Then I said goodbye.”

By Mike Strobel, Toronto Sun / [email protected]

First posted: Sunday, January 11, 2015 07:22 PM EST | Updated: Sunday, January 11, 2015 07:31 PM EST