Other Varsity Sports

Sisters won't let their father's death from cancer hold them back

East’s Lavacek sisters thriving in the pool and on the pitch

East's Lavacek sisters thriving in the pool and on the pitch in spite of losing their father, Charlie, to cancer.
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East's Lavacek sisters thriving in the pool and on the pitch in spite of losing their father, Charlie, to cancer.

Lydia and Eloise Lavacek never knew anything different.

Their father had brain cancer for 21 years, longer than both of their lifetimes.

"I just always kind of thought everybody's parents had cancer," Eloise used to say, "because my dad has always had cancer."

Throughout Charlie Lavacek's life, he proved invincible countless times for his daughters and wife, Molly. Even when he fell into pits, even when he couldn't walk after seizures and didn't want to get out of bed, he was at that game or that swim meet. He made time even when it was clear he didn't have much of it left.

Charlie was teaching lessons that would become important when he was gone. He died Jan. 31 after 21 years of not letting cancer hold him back. He was 51.

Can't stop thinking about your smile today, I love and miss you so much❤

A post shared by Lydia (@lydialavacek) on

The Lavacek sisters are two of East's most prominent athletes this spring, just a couple of months after losing one of their best friends. They haven't let their father's death hold them back. In fact, they are thriving for the Aces.

Lydia is one of East's key defenders this season, which has the Aces two wins away from a City League championship. Eloise is one of the most promising swimmers for the defending Class 6A champions and heads into this year's state meet coming off her best day of her career in the pool.

East soccer coach Dylan Gruntzel uses words like "poised," "organized" and "composed" to describe Lydia. She doesn't get rattled. She keeps a level head, and that has been vital for the City League's best defense.

Gruntzel said Lydia, a senior, has always been mature, and when she came to practice after Charlie's death, she was only more grown up.

"Whether that's just trying to step in and help fill the void with her younger siblings or helping out her mom more around the house, you can see she's just gone to another level in her maturity," he said.

Lydia said there were and still are hard days, and sometimes she thinks about how much she underestimated her inner strength to get through that pain. But now she always carries a happy reminder of her dad with her.

Charlie was always interested in drawing. He mostly did abstract works and almost never drew people. In Charlie's final few weeks, that changed. Having to use his left hand because of the seizures, he sketched people in all phases of life, and he shared what he created.

One in particular caught Lydia's eye.

On Oct. 28, Charlie drew a grinning man. His eyes, nose and smile gave off a soft undertone. He looked harmless and innocent. Charlie wrote one word to the right of the drawing: "Abundance."

"I always knew I wanted something from his heart," Lydia said. "The word 'Abundance' just really hit me in such a good way."

can take my favorite artist with me anywhere now, love u dad ❤

A post shared by Lydia (@lydialavacek) on

Then, on April 19 at East's Senior Night game against Northwest, Lydia got a text message from teammate Abigail Petersen. The text said Lydia had a surprise waiting for her in the garage.

When she came inside, every member of the East girls soccer team was wearing a T-shirt with Charlie's drawing on the front and Lydia's name and number on the back.

lavacek shirt.png
The East girls soccer team wore this shirt on Senior Night honoring senior Lydia Lavacek's father, Charlie, who died in January of brain cancer. Hayden Barber The Wichita Eagle

"I looked in, and I ran away and just started crying," Lydia said. "It was just such an emotional moment. It just made me even more proud to be on this team.

"I kind of forgot how impactful my dad is and just how people really revered him. To me, he's just my dad, but he means so much more to a lot of people."

Lydia is comfortable talking about her dad's death because he trained her for it. She isn't numb to it, and time has passed.

Eloise, a sophomore, is a bit younger, a bit less experienced, a bit more emotional. Talking about her dad isn't too much for her. She said she is thankful he isn't in pain anymore.

At East's final home meet of the season, the same night as Lydia's Senior Night, Eloise broke a minute in the 100-yard freestyle for the first time. Breaking the mark is typically reserved for top swimmers.

Her mom said that was the moment she knew her daughter was going to get through this.

After the race, Eloise's family ran up and hugged her. But one of them was missing.

"I wish he was here," she said.

Charlie Lavacek with his four children, including East's Lydia and Eloise Lavacek. LydiaLavacek/Instagram

Although the struggle remains, Eloise said she knows she won't be held back. But there was pain soon after Charlie's death that no one anticipated.

Charlie went into hospice care around early December. There, he grew close with his nurse, Matthew Floyd. Floyd became Charlie's guardian and best friend. It was an open relationship of genuine care and understanding of what was to come.

In January, Charlie started having severe seizures and hallucinations. He was mostly bed-bound and went into a coma.

On April 19, less than two months after Charlie passed away, Floyd died unexpectedly. He was 40.

When Eloise talked about her father's death, she was matter of fact about it. She didn't cut corners, took it head-on.

But before she spoke about Floyd and the last day she saw her dad, she paused and looked at her mother. Her lower lip started to quiver.

"This is the hard part," Molly said.

Floyd and Charlie's friendship was short-lived, but it was real. Floyd became part of the family. Every time the family visited Charlie, they visited Floyd, too.

Charlie's family had the luxury of 21 years of preparation. Floyd's did not; he is survived by his wife and 14- and 9-year-old daughters.

"I know how hard it is to lose somebody," Eloise said. "I got warning, but this was different."

Two days after Floyd's death, Eloise was at his funeral. The East swim team had a meet that day at the Wichita Swim Club and prom that night.

Coach Joe Hutchinson told Eloise she didn't have to attend; he knew how emotional Floyd's death was for her. But she came anyway.

Hutchinson told her she didn't have to swim. But she swam anyway.

"My whole life, my dad taught me to live my life," she said. "To not let things slow you down. Two days after my dad died, I went back to school. Nothing good was going to come in staying home and crying."

Hutchinson said Eloise is clearly swimming with a passion this year. Last year, she barely qualified for state at the Last Chance Meet, one day after missing her considerations cut at the City League meet.

At this year's league meet, she had the performance of her life. She entered in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events and qualified for state in both. She beat her 50-yard time by almost an entire second. She believed qualifying was so improbable that she even told her mom there was no way she could do it.

"Before, when she got up on the block, she looked like an athlete," Hutchinson said. "But now she looks like a swimmer."

Charlie was diagnosed with cancer two days after his 30th birthday. He and Molly had been married for five years.

Throughout the early stages of their relationship, Charlie often told Molly something she still hasn't forgotten:

"I always knew I was supposed to be something big," he'd say.

After the cancer was diagnosed, Molly said, she remembers her husband telling her a different phrase, one that added to the one above.

"I just never thought it would be this," he'd tell her.

Charlie's fight was something big. He didn't discover a new medical procedure or release a world-changing technology.

But he went on to father four children and changed their lives. He prepared them for struggle and showed them how to fight for a lifetime.

Lydia and Eloise are standout athletes who have the potential to compete in college. They haven't been held back, and they are only improving.

Having only one parent at home has had its sorrows, but the Lavacek family falls back on a pact Charlie made with his wife as a 30-year-old with brain cancer.

"We wanted to keep living like life was going on forever," Molly said. "But we also wanted to live like life was very short."