Thursday, August 22, 2013
ORLANDO, Fla. - Follow Your Dreams. A simple phrase that carries a world of meaning for University of Central Florida women's soccer midfielder Megan Fish.
The message that her father wrote in the final birthday card he ever gave her is etched permanently in its imperfectly beautiful scrawl on her forearm.
The Pinewood Prep graduate sees the tattoo every morning right around the same time she reaches to turn off her alarm, reading her cell phone screen that says "Give it your all, make him proud."
"It's a reminder that he fought every day for 12 years of his life so he could hold on to be with me and my mom and give me all these opportunities," Fish said.
Carmen Fish built a career at an accounting firm. He sang along to Hilary Duff and Avril Lavigne while driving his daughter and her friends to soccer games on the weekends. He always found ways to make small moments seem larger than life.
He also battled cancer for more than a decade.
"I never thought of it as he was sick," Fish said. "It was just a characteristic, like being bald. He had cancer. It never stopped him from anything. He'd go to chemo and then go straight to work."
Following his daughter's 13th birthday, Carmen underwent surgery to remove a tumor on the side of his face. The doctors said the procedure was successful and Carmen could begin his recovery. But months later, they found that cancer returned in his neck, and this time, he was too weak to undergo another surgery.
Fish can remember her final day with her father while he was still responsive, before he left the hospital to be made more comfortable at home under hospice care.
"I remember walking into the hospital that day and thinking, `How am I supposed to be strong? My dad is dying and I have to be the one that says it's OK,'" Fish said.
The 13-year-old looked into his eyes and began to cry. It may not have been the moment of strength she was hoping for, but perhaps it provided what they needed for a sense of normalcy. Carmen lifted his hand up to wipe his daughter's tears --- unable to speak but still able to play the role of her father, the caretaker.
Fish told her father she loved him, walked out of the room and headed to the elevator. Listening to a gut feeling that this might truly be the end, she retreated, walked back to the room and told her father one last time that she loved him.
"That was the last time I ever heard from him," Fish said.
The next few days seemed like weeks. Carmen rested while Fish's mother tried to keep her daughter busy. On the final night of his life, Fish laid next to her comatose father and spoke to him.
"I told him, `You know dad, everyone has said goodbye. You can go. You don't have to hold on for us anymore. We can do it. You don't need to suffer,'" Fish recalled. "The next morning, he was gone.
"People always have really hard things throughout their life. Mine just happened early," Fish continued. "It could have taken everything away from me. I could have said, `I hate life. I'm angry.' I could have gone the complete wrong direction, but that would have been a complete waste of life - mine and his."
Aided by the support of her family and friends, Fish found solace in the one thing she was always able to depend on - soccer. She won two state championships in high school and was named the MVP her senior year.
After years of living in a small South Carolina town nestled among pine trees, she came to UCF for a fresh start. The decision has tested her in ways she couldn't have predicted.
In October 2011, Fish tore the anterior cruciate ligament of her left knee during practice. It required surgery and ended her freshman season.
She said the injury allowed her to gain a new appreciation for the sport. Having appeared in just two games, she was able to receive a redshirt and retain her year of eligibility. She learned about overcoming adversity and grew an insatiable drive to come back stronger in 2012.
She played in 16 matches, started one, and assisted on the game-winning goal against No. 12 Miami. Then, during a practice in late October, she felt the knee give again. Another torn ACL. Another projected six months of recovery.
That same weekend, she ran in the Susan G. Komen "Race for the Cure" 5K on UCF's campus. After seeing thousands support breast cancer awareness and listening to an inspirational speaker afflicted with the disease, Fish was once again determined to beat the odds.
"It brought me back to everything with my dad. These are the moments that make us. Compared to what these women were going through, my knee was not that bad," Fish said. "I have that young, invincible outlook on life. Every struggle just creates a bigger opportunity."
Now, after a summer's worth of two-and-sometimes-three-a-day sessions, the redshirt sophomore is ready to play to her potential. She has aspirations of earning a role in the starting lineup. She wants to help the team finally reach the College Cup.
"Even though she hasn't been able to play that much because of her injuries, she is someone that people see as a leader on the team," All-America defender Marissa Diggs said. "I'm glad she's back and I'm excited to see her play."
Over the next few years in a Black and Gold uniform, Fish plans to put on enough of a show to warrant a spot on a professional team and one day, the national team.
She knows that there are countless girls and women everywhere in the country who want the chance to wear the Red, White and Blue jersey. She knows the road is going to be hard. But if there is one thing she has learned from her father it's this: only you can determine how far you go.
"I promise you, I will be on the (national) team," Fish said. "I see what it takes. It's not just skill. It's the heart and the courage and the perseverance and the mentality. I feel like if you play in Division I and are on a team of those top-20 (nationally ranked) schools, you can do it. That's my dream."