Charlie Prince gazed at the teammate swimming steadily toward him as Prince waited at the end of the lane. The 6-year-old was the anchor leg of the Chattahoochee River Club Stingrays’s 100-yard freestyle relay team, and they had the lead through three legs of the race. It was up to Prince to keep it.
Nearby, Prince’s family — Amanda and David, his parents, and sister Chandler — stood and watched. They, like just about everyone else at this final neighborhood swim meet of the season on Tuesday, had on orange T-shirts and wristbands. Nearly all the swimmers wore orange swim caps. Many had #Cheer4Charlie in bold letters written on them. Others said, “CHARLIE POWER.”
The color orange had become a meaningful marker in the subdivision ever since Charlie was diagnosed with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia this past Christmas. He had come down with the flu a week after his birthday. The rest of the family caught it, too. They got better. Charlie didn’t.
The pediatrician told them to go to Scottish Rite Hospital. The doctors there told Amanda and David that Charlie needed three blood transfusions and a port inserted into his chest. He had cancer, they said. It was Christmas Eve.
“I was like, ‘Are you sure?’” David said. “‘We came here for the flu.’”
Charlie was put on a treatment plan, and the family settled into a new normal, but their community rallied. Neighbors organized meal trains and brought gifts for Charlie. Friends offered to shave their heads when Charlie lost his hair from the chemotherapy. As Charlie missed more and more school, his teacher at Haw Creek Elementary, Emily Morton, made house visits to keep him on track for first grade.
Kyla McDonough, a close friend of Amanda’s and a coach with the Chattahoochee River Club Stingrays, wanted to do something more.
“We knew we wanted to do something to honor him,” McDonough said, “and just show him how special he is to the community.”
It started with orange bows. Neighbors put them on their mailboxes soon after Charlie’s diagnosis. Then McDonough thought of orange swim caps. Those sold out in two weeks, she said.
“We thought, OK, let’s ramp this up,” McDonough said.
McDonough targeted Tuesday’s swim meet, the last of the season, because it was against Windermere, a nearby subdivision also in Haw Creek’s district. They made T-shirts and wristbands and temporary tattoos. They organized a raffle. All proceeds went to Connor’s Hope, a local charity that gives back to kids suffering from blood disorders, and Swim Across America, which hosts swim events to raise funds for cancer research.
At Tuesday’s meet, 200 volunteers, 300 swimmers and hundreds of spectators came together. Everything was orange.
“I can’t say enough about this neighborhood,” Amanda said. “...It’s such a great place to live and grow up and for our kids to live.”
They were all cheering as Charlie’s teammate touched the wall. Charlie took off. He had missed the last four weeks of the season because of the treatments and transfusions and a hospital visit, but there he went, racing for 25 yards to the other end of the pool to clinch the Stingrays’s win.
Charlie climbed out of the pool and quickly found his friends. He played games until his next race. All along, Amanda and David have marveled at how Charlie has endured.
“He’ll literally have chemo, come home, throw up in the bushes, and then he’s like, ‘Alright, can I ride my bike?’” David said. “It’s crazy.”
Charlie is entering the last phase of his most intense chemotherapy treatment, Amanda said. After that, he’ll start a three-year maintenance period of monthly check-ups and oral chemo at home. His hair is growing back. He plans to play baseball (his favorite sport) in the fall and go back to Haw Creek next school year.
“We’re hoping to have just a normal fun summer at the pool,” Amanda said.