Alyssa Zwolensky was scrolling through Instagram to try to get some insight on her future Lipscomb volleyball teammates.
She was, after all, about to make the 700-mile trip to Nashville from her home in Rockledge, Florida, to enroll at Lipscomb a semester early, which understandably caused some nerves.
Then she came across the page of Megan Sullivan, who was set to transfer to Lipscomb from Houston for the Spring 2017 semester. Sullivan played sparingly for the Cougars in 2016 and wanted a chance to restart her college volleyball career in a new city.
Zwolesnky eventually noticed a picture of Sullivan with her dad, who was sporting a scar on his head. After Zwolesnky did more digging and exchanged a few texts with Sullivan, things took a dark turn.
“Also, what type of brain cancer does your Dad have?” Alyssa texted Megan.
“I was like, “I don’t know, it’s some long name that starts with a ‘G’,’” said Sullivan, who checked with her stepmother to confirm the scientific name of her father’s disease, which was glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that affects the brain or spine and currently has no cure.
Zwolesnky was stunned. Her father, James, had passed away from the very same type of cancer in April 2016, just five months after his initial diagnosis.
The connection formed an instant bond between the two girls. Finally, they each had someone who understood the pain glioblastoma can cause a family.
“It’s an unreal story,” said Lipscomb volleyball coach Brandon Rosenthal. “For Alyssa to have somebody like Megan, and Megan to have somebody like Alyssa…no one really understood what they were going through. Now they have each other and can lean on each other.”
Although both Sullivan and Zwolensky arrived at Lipscomb at the same time to play the same position (defensive specialist/libero) after receiving similar heart-breaking news, their stories still diverge a bit.
Sullivan’s father, Sean, was diagnosed with glioblastoma in November 2014 and has far surpassed the 12 months doctors gave him to live. The Sullivans live about 45 minutes from The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where Sean has received world-class treatment over the last four years.
“It’s an absolute miracle that my dad is still here,” Sullivan said. “We’re really lucky in that sense. People fly from all over the country to come to Houston and be seen by those doctors.”
Zwolesnky knows that no amount of research or funding can bring her father back, and Sullivan understands that, despite beating the odds, her father’s days are likely limited.
But just like any determined athletes, these two simply couldn’t settle for standing on the sideline.
“I was doing research and found out about the Sarah Walker [Foundation] run,” Zwolesnky said, referencing the Lipscomb graduate who passed away in 2012 after a battle with colon cancer. “I felt like we should do something.”
That something turned out to be a campus-wide fundraiser to benefit the Glioblastoma Foundation. However, simply asking for money from people, especially cash-strapped college students, wasn’t going to be enough.
Sullivan and Zwolesnky combined heads with former Lipscomb teammate Brittany Thomas, who had played a live-action game called “Assassin” in high school. Sharpies, water guns and the like are used to pull sneak attacks as students vie to be the last person standing in the game.
With help from the Student Life Office, Sullivan and Zwolesnky created a spin-off of “Assassin” and named it Lippy Royale. The every-person-for-themselves contest involves carrying a spray bottle around campus to eliminate one’s assigned opponent each week.
“You have a person and you have a week to eliminate them,” Sullivan said. “It’s not head-to-head. You never know who’s coming after you, but you know who you have.”
The game began with about 130 participants, but that number shrunk to 73 by week two, and just 15 people remain this week. Each player paid a $10 entry fee and could buy up to two additional lives for $5 piece. The last person remaining will win a $200 Amazon gift card.
“Every day the game gets a little bit more savage,” Rosenthal said, although he was later eliminated. “You hear about people wearing costumes and things like that. It’s taken on a life of its own.”
The creative battle was just one way to inspire Lipscomb students to get involved. Sullivan and Zwolenksy are also taking donations on the official Glioblastoma Foundation, where they have raised over $4,000 so far.
“We set the goal at $3,000 thinking there was no way we’d get that much,” Sullivan said. “After the first week, we already had like $1,500. We want to have this be an annual thing and raise the bar every year.”
Sullivan pointed to the success of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and how it helped raise funds to seek a cure for breast cancer, as a mold for what she hopes to see happen with glioblastoma.
“At one point, there wasn’t a cure [for breast cancer],” Sullivan said. “Now there’s this Susan G. Komen race that’s done every year that raises millions and millions of dollars in the battle to cure breast cancer. It had to start somewhere.”
Both Sullivan and Zwolensky are hoping their fundraiser makes a small dent of progress in finding a cure for the disease that’s changed their lives. Then maybe, just maybe, other families won’t have to share the same pain in the future.
“If we can just do a little bit, just do our part, then hopefully some other people will be doing their part, too,” Sullivan said. “Before we know it, this could be a big thing and there could be a cure and people won’t have to go through the devastation that we’ve been through.”