As a toddler growing up in Huntingtown, Maryland, Amanda Merrell was the proverbial bundle of energy. Born a healthy 10½ pounds and the third of four girls, Amanda was constantly on the move as she exhibited athletic ability.
That all changed during the summer of 2004 when parents John and Suzanne spotted a bruise-like lump the diameter of a lemon on Amanda’s upper left calf.
“At first, we didn’t think it was serious at all,” Suzanne said. “She was just running around like it was no big deal and the doctors didn’t worry about it. Probably three weeks had gone by and I had taken her to the pediatrician for the fourth or fifth time. I asked if the doctors could x-ray her leg and it took a while to get them to do that. My mother’s intuition asked them to do that. That’s what saved her life. If we had ignored it, it would have spread up her body and she wouldn’t be with us today.”
Undaunted, Amanda bounced back from that and today is a junior at Huntingtown (Maryland) High School, where she is a talented varsity basketball player.
In recognition of her many accomplishments, Amanda will receive the 2019 National High School Spirit of Sport Award June 29 at the NFHS’ 100th Annual Summer Meeting at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, Indiana.
The doctors x-rayed her on the Friday before the Fourth of July, and the Merrells received a call the following day that she was to see an oncologist at the Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“It was just pure dread and kind of a shock,” John began. “They were talking about oncology. I remember hanging up and being in denial. Amanda was a healthy kid who never had a problem and all she had was this little lump.”
The doctors there initially told the Merrells that there was nothing routine about the lump. A few days later, Amanda was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma – a rare cancerous tumor that grows in bones or in soft tissue around bones that occurs more commonly among older children and adolescents.
“We were in shock and didn’t know what it was,” Suzanne said. “We looked online and were in disbelief when we learned that the survival rates are really low. One day, you have a healthy child – and then all of a sudden, your life is upside-down.”
Amanda then went through several rounds of chemotherapy. To be certain that the cancer had left her body, the doctors said she needed more than just chemotherapy, and they determined that she needed to have her leg amputated. Altogether, she went through 14 rounds of chemotherapy.
“Since I was so young, I don’t remember any of my treatment – other than my hair fell out when I started to do chemo,” Amanda said. “I do remember my third birthday in the hospital when all the nurses brought me a cake and sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ They had an art room that I’d go to and have fun and draw some pictures, and they also had clowns that would come visit us.”
As the procedure drew closer, John told Amanda that the doctors were “going to take away her sick leg and she would be getting a new one that would enable her to run like her sisters.”
“Her face just lit up when I said that – she got really excited,” John said. “While it was kind of shocking, it was what we needed – it confirmed that we made the right decision. Before the surgery, Amanda told all of the nurses in sight that she was going to get a new leg and confirmed that with me when she asked, ‘I’m going to get a new leggy - right, daddy?’”
On November 1, 2004, Amanda’s left leg was amputated through her knee and she was fitted with a prosthetic leg. One of the biggest issues with the procedure was she was much younger than the “normal” age for Ewing sarcoma. Dr. Robert Henshaw, who performed the amputation, said Amanda was the youngest patient he has had with Ewing sarcoma.
Since that time, Amanda has been getting a new prosthetic once or twice a year as she continues to grow. She owns a second one that she uses for non-running activities.
“I have a bendable leg for everyday walking,” Amanda began. “The blade is the one for running. I call it a ‘J leg,’ since it’s shaped like the letter ‘J.’ When I get a new prosthetic, I can change the pattern on the fabric. I use the color pink for mine.”
Outside of classwork in high school, Amanda has played field hockey, lacrosse and basketball, which is her main sport. She participates in fundraising events to raise awareness for patients going through similar experiences. However, sports are what drive her, and her dream is to play college basketball. “Sports are literally my everything,” Amanda said.
When she shoots a basketball, instead of setting both feet like most players, she puts her right leg in front of her body and shoots only with that leg. When she runs, she kicks out her left leg sideways as if she’s drawing a circle with her foot.
As a sophomore, Amanda was the junior varsity team’s leading scorer at just under 10 points per game, and she was on the varsity squad as a junior. She was the team’s tallest player at 5-foot-9, and plays the post, forward and shooting guard.
“I probably like playing forward the best, because I can shoot the ball,” Amanda said. “I also think I get good position for rebounds and I am able to score a lot of points off offensive rebound put-backs.
“As far as role models, I look up to Michael Jordan. He was always very determined, would never stop and would never give up. He was always the first one at practice and the last one to leave. In addition, he was very well-rounded on offense and defense.
“Every time I step on the court, I’m excited to be there. I want to be in the game and help everyone else. When I was little, some people told me I couldn’t do it and I’d always try to prove them wrong.”
“It is a pleasure coaching Amanda,” Huntingtown High School girls basketball coach Jennifer Shoup said. “She is a very determined young lady with a strong work ethic on the court. Amanda is a true inspiration to anyone who meets her.”
“Amanda is a soft-spoken, shy young lady until she steps onto the basketball court,” Huntingtown High School athletic director VaShawne Gross said. “Then, her love and passion for the game show through her competitive spirit.
“Amanda is a good shooter who works extremely hard every day. Her will and determination for the game cannot be expressed through words alone.
“The challenges that Amanda has overcome throughout her life have made this remarkable young lady a role model and a leader throughout our school. She doesn’t quit, she never makes excuses, and she has shown us what it means to be called a true champion.”
With regard to the future, Amanda already has a solid game plan in place.
“I think we’ll have an improved basketball season next year,” Amanda said. “Beyond that, I definitely want to play college ball, so I hope to find a college team that wants me for my shooting.
“As far as career, I was thinking of being a motivational speaker. I want to get my message out to others. I’ve already talked to fourth-graders and at the University of Maryland, and I’m also involved with fundraising for Children’s Hospital.
“I also started a motivational Instagram called ‘Unstoppable. Amanda.’ I post stuff on there to connect with people who experienced the same things I did. I tell them that if they’re disabled, they can do anything they want.”
John Gillis is associate director of video services of the National Federation of State High School Associations, and administrator of both the National High School Spirit of Sport Award and the National High School Heart of the Arts Award programs.