When the North Carolina rowing team participated in a webinar with the Fight Like Britt Foundation, it was more than just another guest speaker. Emilie Gross, the team's interim co-head coach and a former rower at Michigan State, competed against the foundation's namesake in college.
On Sept. 26, the day of the webinar, the Tar Heels heard the story of Brittany Burns, a member of Clemson’s rowing team from 2008 to 2012 who died from ovarian cancer in 2016.
Burns was originally recruited as a swimmer, but picked up rowing at Clemson and helped propel the Tigers to an ACC championship in 2009. After graduating, she moved to Buffalo with her fiance, Tony Steward, who had been drafted into the NFL by the Bills in 2015.
“Britt hadn’t been feeling well for about four to five months,” Britt’s father, Ty Burns, said. “She kept going to the doctor, but they didn’t really know. On Dec. 5 or 6, she had a tumor that burst in her ovaries area. On Dec. 9, we found out Britt had ovarian cancer.”
After connecting with various doctors and trying different treatments, Burns died on Feb. 1, 2016.
Throughout her three-month battle, Burns started a fundraiser to raise awareness among young women about ovarian cancer. After her death, the Burns family started the Fight Like Britt Foundation to keep her efforts alive.
The foundation’s goal was to educate 1 million female college athletes across the country about the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
This is when Britt’s story became part of the Tar Heel story. Terry Morgan, an old friend of the Burns family and a UNC graduate, connected the Burns family with UNC's FORevHER Tar Heels program — an initiative launched a little over a year ago to expand and enhance opportunities within women’s sports programs — to share Britt’s story.
“Britt led a wonderful life,” Morgan said. “She was a wonderful and gracious person. It is so important to share this knowledge and to make the Carolina community more aware about this disease.”
Ty Burns encouraged the attendees to advocate for themselves and to keep pushing for answers.
“It’s not just the symptoms, ladies, it’s your bodies,” Ty Burns said during the webinar. “It’s your body. No one will care about it or take care of it like you. If something’s not right, you need to keep pushing. Don’t take the diagnosis if it doesn’t work.”
This year was the first time that the foundation had to connect with college athletes virtually. In previous years, they had been able to speak face-to-face at schools all over the country, including Clemson, Duke, Arizona, Arizona State, Maine, Delaware and Central Florida. Although the Zoom call was webinar-style and the speakers could not see the more than 75 attendees, their message still resonated with the team.
“I was really proud of how engaged our student-athletes were,” Gross said. “You could tell through the chat box at the end all the questions that they had.”
While the presentation was virtual, the athletes involved said Burns' story was moving.
“My favorite quote from one of my teammates was, ‘I wish I could just run up and give Mr. Burns a hug right now,’” senior Juliana Micchia, who moderated the Zoom call, said. “It was really tough obviously, all being separated, and he was very vulnerable with all of us when telling the story, so everyone was pretty touched.”
Ty Burns told the athletes that he spreads the foundation’s message for Britt, but also for the women he addresses.
“When I look at the student-athletes, I see Britt,” he said. “It’s a great thing we’re doing, but I don’t want to take credit because this was Britt. It’s what she would’ve wanted so that other women are more knowledgeable about ovarian cancer.”
The foundation has now exceeded its goal of reaching 1 million athletes, but the Burns family is still encouraging women across the country to advocate for themselves.
“For me and for most of my teammates, it’s just understanding the importance of health science,” Micchia said. “I think a lot of times we don’t realize — you know, we’re young, healthy, we’re all athletes — that this could touch our lives or the lives of our friends.”
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