As Eric Babbitt closes in on the school record in the 200-yard butterfly — the oldest swimming record at The College of Wooster — no one will be cheering louder or more enthusiastically than the record-holder himself, Stan McDonald. A 1980 Wooster graduate, McDonald set the original mark (1:53.65) as a junior in 1979, but he would like nothing better than to see Babbitt topple the 30-year old record this season.
McDonald’s support for Babbitt’s pursuit transcends the sport. The two share a unique relationship that runs much deeper than the water in which they swim. Babbitt was diagnosed with cancer as a 2-year old and again at the age of 14, but he courageously battled both bouts and has gone on to become a star swimmer at Wooster. McDonald, whose family has a history of cancer, lost a son (Clayton) who was just a few years younger than Babbitt to leukemia in March of this year.
The two swimmers, separated by three decades in age but united through adversity, met for the first time in September when McDonald, who also owns the school record in the 500-yard freestyle, returned to campus to participate in the alumni meet on homecoming. It was a warm and emotional moment as the two came face-to-face, but in some ways it was as if they had known each other for a lifetime.
“We became acquainted through e-mail,” said Babbitt. “It was then that I became aware of his son’s leukemia. I was touched by their story in a very meaningful way.”
If Babbitt is able to set the record, it will mark the final chapter in a life-changing story of resilience, perseverance, and triumph. “I don’t remember anything about the first time I had cancer, but I have very vivid memories about the second time,” said Babbitt, whose body bears the scars of several surgeries. “Before the second diagnosis, I was a selfish, rebellious teenager in my own little world, but through the experience, I realized how much I had and how much I had to share with others.”
As Babbitt’s body healed, so did his spirit. He began to understand the value of life, and he took it upon himself to nurture others. “I realized how much I could contribute by sharing what I had been through,” he said. “I wanted to touch others and help them to understand what would happen if what they had was taken away.”
An enlightened Babbitt then took on the challenge of trying to decide where he would continue his education. After weighing his options, he chose Wooster over more than a dozen other schools, in part, because he saw it as a place “that understood how a student could contribute to the life of college.”
And so he brought his message from the West Coast to the Midwest. “It took a life-threatening illness for me to appreciate what I had, and I wanted to tell others that they don’t have to go through the same experience to turn their life around,” said Babbitt, who lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif. “If I see someone having a tough day, I feel a responsibility to tell them that what they’re going through isn’t that bad. I’m thankful for my experience. It’s scary to think about where I would be if I hadn’t gone through it. Now I embrace all of the opportunities that I have, and I want to encourage others to do the same thing.”
Babbitt’s desire to share his story received a major boost when Kent Healy, one of the editors of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Extraordinary Teens, read about his ordeal and invited him to share his story. Babbitt responded, and his essay is one of 54 in the book, which was released earlier this fall.
Now, as he reflects on his decision to attend Wooster, Babbitt is convinced he made the right choice. “Initially I thought about pre-dentistry, but after taking introductory chemistry, I had to ask myself, ‘what do I really want to do?’” he said. “Finally, I decided to take some other classes.”
A course in Principles of Economics, taught by Russell Ormiston, sparked his interest. Not only did he enjoy the subject matter, but he also excelled in his studies and suddenly found his name on the Dean’s List. “I like to connect what I learn in the classroom with the real world,” he said, “and I have been able to do that through business economics.” He also likes the relationship that he has with the faculty. “The professors really care about the students,” he said, noting that his advisor, Amyaz Moledina, has been especially helpful, particularly in regard to advice about graduate school. “They are the reason people come here.”
As Babbitt heads into his final semesters, he will continue that relationship as he embarks upon his senior Independent Study project. He will, of course, also continue his pursuit of the record, spurred on by his No. 1 fan. “I want him to get the record,” said McDonald. “He has worked very hard, and he deserves it.”
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