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Pool Olympics: Remembering Sierra Shuck-Sparer

Jeff Shuck
June 14, 2024

On March 27, 2024, my niece Sierra Shuck-Sparer passed away from cancer at the age of 20. 

Sierra was an exceptional individual.

She was a superb student, attending Georgia Tech after graduating high school with high honors. (I heard from many teachers who related that they couldn't keep up with her requests for more to do, read, and learn.)

A multi-sport athlete, Sierra was an accomplished swimmer, ice staker, and rock climber.

She was a prolific artist, creating hundreds of works in origami, knitting, collaging, and other mixed media. Sierra's book of original poetry, Lady Sunflower, chronicling five years of living with cancer, was published by Flowerpot Press in March and has been reviewed by Kirkus

Sierra could not be encapsulated in a few volumes, let alone a few paragraphs. Her illness and death do not easily reconcile with the worldview I hope to hold for myself. So, when I had the chance to speak at her celebration of life this week – one of dozens of friends, family, teachers, and admirers who shared reflections at the ceremony – I was daunted by the task. This is what I shared.

Pool Olympics

“Uncle Jeff, is this real?”

Sierra’s Schoolhouse Rock t-shirt was still soaking wet, as was the bandana she had wrapped to cover her bare head.

Around her neck was a plastic gold medal, hanging from a red, white, and blue ribbon. She held a small gold trophy in her hands. The plaque on the trophy read, “1st Place – 4th of July Shuck Pool Olympics.”

I couldn’t hear her over the noise of dozens of teenagers and parents, splashing, laughing, teasing, and hollering.

“What, sweetie?” I asked.

“This.” She gestured to the trophy, then tugged at the ribbon holding her medal. ”Was this for real?”

Sierra - Trophy-Small

It was the tenth anniversary of our annual pool Olympics. In the proud tradition of our Parental Patron Saint, Jack Marsick, we originally started the games in noble service to two goals: occupying bored kids and amusing overworked parents. The premise was undeniably Marsick: create a series of absurd pool-based games – everything from aquatic word toss to jumbo water darts to inflatable unicorn relay races – assign them arbitrary scores, then divide the children into two teams and watch them duel it out.

Entertainment at its finest!

Sierra, always the polymath, excelled in everything from swimming to scrabble, athletics to art, and thus, she was the natural ringer. Every year, we welcomed her and my nephew Aidan onto the field of play. My sister and brother-in-law ably served as Absurdist Assistants. Events were created. Teams were assigned. Beers were consumed.

The first year, the whole caper was worth a good 90 minutes of needed down time for the overstretched adults.

However, we immediately fell into a trap of our own making. As we did our best sales pitch on the value of the games to convince the skeptical kids that Pool Olympics would be both fun – and cool – I mean, all the kids are doing it now – we inadvertently added importance to completely ridiculous activities that hadn’t existed only minutes beforehand.

The lesson of The Music Man, sadly, had been lost on us – if you convince the people that they need a marching band, a monorail, or pool Olympics, they’ll hold you to it.

It was a hard debt to pay, as the first year, the games completely backfired on us. One team beat the other, 3 events to 2, and there were jeers, tears, and plenty of hard feelings well into the evening fireworks.

Great idea, Dad.

So, from then on out, the lesson was learned: every year since the first, the Pool Olympics curiously, and some say miraculously, ended in … a tie.

And all was right with the holiday family barbecue.

Year in and year out, through seasons of Floating Hot Dog Ring Can Toss, Giant Aquatic Volleyball, Wave Bouncer Mini-Golf – all the usuals – and of course, our annual finale, the Progressive Raft Relay, somehow, amazingly, the teams always tied at the end.

One year it turned out that each team had the exact same time in the Relay. What were the chances? One year, as one team led the other 4-0, it turned out that the final event was worth four points. 4-4. Imagine that.

And if you look at the pictures of each year’s Olympics, you’ll see Sierra’s wet, shining, and smiling face in the center of almost all of them. You wouldn’t know how exceptional she was. Or how ill she felt, at times. You wouldn’t see her incredible gifts or her struggles. You’d see a joyful teenager.

But now: to the tenth year. For reasons still unknown, Sierra’s Aunt Jeanie had decreed in mid-June that the time for ties had passed. I should note it was rare for Jeanie to involve herself in the particulars of Pool Olympics. Maybe she felt we’d been coddling the kids, and as they all grew older, they needed a harsh lesson in the competitive forces of the world. Maybe it was all for her amusement. Maybe we’ll never know.

All I do know is that in mid-June 2023, I was told, not asked, that this year would be different. The word was passed out to the extended family and friends. There would be no ties. Instead, there would be medals. And for the winning team, a trophy.

The lines were drawn. The stakes were high.

When informed, the Shuck-Sparers took the news in stride.

My sister Cathy gave me her trademark, “Hmmmmmm.” But said nothing else.

Her husband Tim, in contrast, nodded in approval. “Welcome to the real world,” he remarked, pleased by the new cruelty.

My nephew Aidan simply squared his chin and nodded silently. Game time.

Sierra, of course, was calm and sensible. “Uncle Jeff, it’s probably time.”

Because you’re here, you know all the ups and downs and downs and ups Sierra had endured by June of 2023. And you can probably imagine how she felt. I must imagine it, because I never heard her complain about her illness, not once. In fact, until I read Lady Sunflower, I rarely heard her express frustration about anything at all.

However, she had many opinions about the competent operation of Pool Olympics. One year I was at the receiving end of a passionate plea to please, please next year film the ending of the relay, to provide evidence on which team touched the wall first.

One year, I received an articulate dressing-down about my handling of Pool Scrabble. I hadn’t scored the letters properly. “But Sierra,” I pleaded, “This isn’t Scrabble. This is Pool Scrabble.” Sierra was not amused.

As our tenth annual event started, there was a certain buzz in the air. Possibly drawn by the glory of recognition or perhaps the increased potential for family drama, we had more contestants than ever – 24 high school and college kids in total, split into four teams. It was a big pool, but that’s a lot of kids.

I was game to throw everyone in at once. But Sierra recognized, sanely, that perhaps heats would be better, wouldn’t they, Uncle Jeff? And so, heats it was.

As fate would have it, after the first two events, Slide Dunkaround and Taco Disco Bell Ball, we had a three-way tie. I was told there would be no math, but this was not what we had intended. The third event we called Pordle, a pool-based Wordle game that was right up Sierra’s alley. Alas, her team lost by a wide margin – and she was frustrated. I received pointed feedback from her about the specific rules of Wordle and the deficiencies in our implementation. Noted.

But her team bounced back in the fourth event with a victory in Tropical Fruit Shoot, which now, I can’t even recall. It’s a good bet that large inflatables played a role.

As we entered the fifth and final event, Sierra’s team was tied with Johnny’s. It all came down to this—the Progressive Raft Relay, a hilarious mess of kicking and splashing as six people tried to stay afloat on a pool raft designed for one while racing to the other side.

By this stage of the Olympics, there’s always a good amount of healthy cheating, and between the yelling, the spray, and the random limbs, the judges had some leeway. This was never discussed, although it was never a secret either. (We were never as good at our manipulation as we thought we were.)

And now, standing with the plastic hardware minutes after our first-ever trophy presentation, Sierra wanted to make sure.

“Honey, I don’t understand,” I said.

She looked at the trophy again. “This. Did I win this fair and square…” she trailed off. She didn’t have to finish the sentence. But I knew what she meant. “Or did you let me win this because I have cancer?”

That’s what she wanted to know. That even though she was supremely special, she wanted to know she didn’t get any special treatment. That even though she had to walk a rougher road than anyone else, she wasn’t given a shortcut.

I marveled. Something caught in my throat as I responded.

“Sweetie,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “You know the Pool Olympics. No quarter, no mercy. You won. You won fair and square.”

She walked away, beaming.

But now, standing here today, I struggle to hold these two conflicting thoughts in my heart. I struggle to admit to the lie I told that afternoon by the pool.

No, it wasn’t fair, Sierra. Nothing about this was fair. Not one damn thing.

You did win, it’s true. You won so big, so much bigger than you realized, and we are the beneficiaries. Thank you so much for how you lived. Thank you so much for sharing your winnings with us.

But no part of this was fair, because you deserved so much more.

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