Brian Tobin, head coach of the SUNY Cortland men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams, says he finds inspiration in a pair of swimmers. They’re not named Phelps or Franklin and they don’t have any Olympic medals to their credit.
Trent and Destani Friend are adopted siblings, former members of the Sea Dragons, a community swim team built around children with special needs that’s housed at SUNY Cortland. The two teenagers lost both of their parents to cancer within 15 months, and are being cared for by their older brother, their adoptive parents’ biological son.
“They’re teenagers and they’ve already persevered through so much,” said Tobin, who oversees the Sea Dragons program and is helping with a grassroots effort to raffle off two autographed New York Jets footballs to raise money to help the siblings.
Parents from the swim team wrote to the Jets, SUNY Cortland’s NFL training camp partner, in 2010 and again in 2012. The franchise responded both times by offering two autographed footballs: one signed by the 2010 team, which reached the AFC Championship game, and one by its current squad, which includes popular backup quarterback Tim Tebow.
Raffle tickets for the balls cost $5 each and are being sold at Cortland businesses. A grand prize drawing will be held on Friday, Aug. 31, to determine both winners.
“A friend with cancer, you’ll do anything for,” said Julia Marion, the lead organizer of the fundraiser. She met Gene and Sara Friend, Trent and Destani’s adoptive parents, through the Sea Dragon program.
“I made a promise to Sara when she was dying that I would help out her children in any way that I could,” she said.
Michael Friend, Gene and Sara’s 31-year-old biological son, legally adopted his siblings before their mother passed away from brain cancer in January. Just 15 months earlier, in October 2010, a quick bout with the same type of cancer took their father’s life.
From left: Michael, Sara, Gene, Trent and
The family of three lives in Locke, N.Y. The siblings, who will be freshmen at Moravia High School this fall, have settled into a daily routine since Michael became their primary caretaker. Michael leaves for his job at the Cornell University masonry shop around 5:30 a.m. so he can return home by 2:30 p.m. to tend to the needs of 15-year-old Trent and 14-year-old Destani. The teenagers see themselves off to school when it’s in session. Michael juggles the duties of a single parent, shuttling his siblings to appointments and practices, cooking them dinner and helping them with their homework when it’s needed.
Trent, who Michael describes as an improving student and an accomplished wrestler, suffers from attention deficit disorder. His sister Destani, a talented artist and a jokester at heart, shows signs of it too. That led them to connect with the Sea Dragons when they were younger.
“Before the Sea Dragons, there was never anything for our children to do,” said Marion, whose son, Derek, was a member of the first Sea Dragon squad with Trent and Destani despite several different physical disabilities. “Finally, there was a team for our kids to be a part of.”
The Sea Dragons practice four evenings a week, all year round. The team is coached by Tobin during the summer and by graduate student Rachael Phillips during the academic year. It’s part of a physical education course at SUNY Cortland that offers college students an opportunity to work with people with disabilities.
The Sea Dragons also receive occasional guidance from members of the College’s swimming and diving teams.
The team today includes more than a dozen members. It competes against other club teams from New York state, many of which are made up of swimmers without disabilities. Most Sea Dragons either cope with a disability or have a sibling who has one. Typically, disabled swimmers will receive accommodations from meet officials, such as being placed in an outside lane for easier access to the pool ladder and better visibility of a coach.
“They might struggle at times, but their work makes them better than most,” Tobin said. “We’ve got a few kids right now that could more than hold their own in my aquatics classes for physical education majors.”
Trent and Destani provided contagious enthusiasm when the club was launched, Tobin said. But after surgery severely limited Sara’s mobility, and her need for round-the-clock care increased, it became extremely difficult to transport them to practices. Marion, who lives in Cortland, would make the half-hour drive to their house to pick them up.
Many nights, they wouldn’t want to leave their mother’s side.
“My mom was upset because she saw how well they were doing and how they connected with the other kids on the team,” Michael said. “She didn't want to see them give it up.”
It was easier for Trent and Destani to participate in sports closer to their hometown. Sea Dragon teammates and their families, however, made sure they weren’t forgotten. Parents like Marion provided things like an occasional gift basket or dinner.
“You really get to see the good side of people when something tragic like this happens,” said Marion, herself a breast cancer survivor. “And one thing Sara always said to me: ‘When you do a benefit or a fundraiser, I want to come, because I want to thank the people.’
“Unfortunately, she never got to see it.”
The raffle for the autographed footballs is a way for Marion to keep her promise to look after Sara’s family, she said. It’s also a way to provide financial relief for Michael, “because, for most of his life, he’s done everything with everyone else in mind,” Marion said.
She hopes to raise $5,000 through raffle proceeds, which Michael said will go towards college funds for Trent and Destani.
“People sometimes say that they feel bad for me, but I know for a fact I would do it all again, the same way, if all of this happened again,” Michael said. “I feel bad that (Trent and Destani) have had to go through this, especially at such a young age, but I tell them that it’s going to make them stronger when they get out of high school.
“I think they’ll be able to handle things just because they’ve already been through so much.”