Going The Distance


Jaclyn Murphy’s dream arrived in a large cardboard box the other day. Enclosed were two plastic caps, some T-shirts and a red, white and blue sweat suit: her uniform for the 1999 Pan American Maccabi Games.

The package came about a year after Murphy, 16, a senior at John F. Kennedy High School in Bellmore, L.I., was declared free of cancer.

"This makes it more real," she said one morning last week, showing a visitor her Maccabi garb in a bedroom decorated with athletic medals and the Spirit of the Cougar award she received from her high school cross country team after battling Hodgkin’s disease, a form of lymphoma, two years ago.

Murphy will be among the some 2,000 athletes who will compete in the ninth Pan Am Games July 8-20 in Mexico City. The quadrennial event will feature squads from North and South America, Australia, England and Israel. The games are sponsored by the Maccabi movement, which holds the Maccabiah Games, the so-called Jewish Olympics, in Israel every four years.

Murphy, who runs cross country and distance events at JFK, says she was determined to participate in this year’s Pan Am Games after her older brother, Jeffrey, came back enthused about the 1995 competition in Argentina. Jeffrey, also a distance runner, won a gold and three bronze medals.

"When he told me about it, I just wanted to do it. I told my parents and my brother and my coach," she says. "They said go for it."

At JFK she won some races as a freshman, but her times as a sophomore were consistently substandard. "I was not running well," Murphy acknowledges.

She was short of breath. Her doctors suspected bronchitis or pneumonia. Her coach, Todd Wolin, insisted the cause was more serious. Finally, cancer was diagnosed, at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

"It was scary," Murphy says. "I was happy it was Hodgkin’s," a form of cancer that is usually treatable if caught in time, she says. "It was the best type to get if you have to get it."I knew I would [survive]," she says. "I did my share of praying, for health."

Members of Temple Beth Am in Merrick, where her family belongs, and of the Merrick Jewish Centre, where she is vice president of the temple youth group, offered prayers for her recovery.

Six months of chemotherapy at Dana-Farber and biweekly trips to Boston with her parents, Edward and June, were followed by a month of radiation treatment.

The side effects of chemo were relatively mild: a little nausea and hair loss, but no weight loss. "I was affected more from the radiation," she says. More nausea, more hair loss. Her once-long dark locks have grown back to neck-length.

During the half year of treatment, Murphy missed only one day of school every two weeks ("I kept my 96" average) and tried to maintain a "normal" social life: mostly going out with friends after school. But no running."

The doctor said I wasn’t allowed to," she says. "I missed it."

Murphy hit the roads again in May 1998, a few weeks after her treatment ended. She was winded by the time she reached the mailbox at the corner of her parent’s Merrick home. But she slowly improved her stamina.

"I just worked hard. I run every day," five to six miles on the road. "I can run the mileage, but the speed is still not there. I was warned that it would be very, very hard."

I have a strong tolerance for things like that," Murphy says of her recovery from a life-threatening illness. "I just said, ëI’m going to have six months of hell: then life will be normal again.’"

Alan Berkowsky, a track and cross country coach at JFK, says Murphy has "that inner toughness."

"She’s hung in there," says the retired math teacher. "I wish I could bottle it and give it to my boys [on his teams]."

She has a tremendous attitude," adds Berkowsky, who has worked with the Maccabi movement since 1977 and will serve as assistant team manager at the Mexico City games. "She always has a smile on her face."

Murphy, quiet and confident, was selected recently as captain of the 1999-00 JFK girls cross country team. She competed this school year but her times didn’t approach those of her freshman season. The chemicals that saved her life remained in her system for a year, affecting her metabolism, her doctors told her.

"I’ve only been chemo free for about six weeks," she says.

Her health today is fine, she says: no sign of cancer. "I am very, very, very lucky."

Last December she mailed in her application for the Pan Am Games, which remained a goal during her illness. The track events were canceled (too few entrants), but she was accepted for the women’s cross country open division. Murphy is the entire U.S. squad.

"I was thrilled," she says. "I’ve been looking forward to it for so long."

She will stay the entire two weeks in Mexico City, watching other events, touring the country, improving her Spanish, spending Shabbat with members of Mexico City’s Jewish community.

Her brother’s four Maccabi medals hang on his bedroom wall, but Murphy has set no goals beyond doing her best. Still at only 85 percent of her pre-cancer competitive level, running in the heat and altitude of Mexico City, she is not certain to win a medal.

"Just to be there is what I want to accomplish," she says.

Murphy points to an empty space on one of her walls. If she brings a medal back from Mexico City, she says, "I know where it will go."