By Dustin Luca
---- — On Monday night, Carlton Cronin sat with a plastic bag over his shoulders and watched as every lock of his hair went floating to the floor.
Within minutes, Cronin, the assistant coach of the Andover/North Andover YMCA’s Hurricanes Swim who grew up in Andover, was the proud wearer of a buzz cut — carried out at the hands of one of his teen swimmers.
He hadn’t lost a bet. In fact, the buzz cut was all his idea.
In a show of solidarity for one of his Hurricanes swimmers, Cronin offered to have Maria Splaine shave his head to support the 16-year-old who has been undergoing treatment for cancer. And he convinced Hurricanes head coach Dan Reilly to sit for a buzz cut from Splaine, too.
Cronin said he wanted to show Splaine, who lost her own hair to chemotherapy treatments, that he and Reilly care about her and to “let her know that she’s loved by many people.” The coaches are also making a $500 donation to the Jimmy Fund in Splaine’s honor.
“It means a lot to me, seeing Maria here and not missing practices, and I know it means a lot to the kids, too,” said Cronin, who is co-owner of Cronin’s Ice Cream in the Ballardvale section of Andover. “You take kids for granted — and you can’t.”
Since being diagnosed last fall with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a treatable form of cancer, Splaine has been an inspiration to the Hurricanes Swim Team, her coaches said.
Despite being five cycles into her treatments, Splaine, a junior at Presentation of Mary Academy in Methuen who lives in Merrimac, refuses to miss a Monday practice, never mind take a break from competing, they said.
That fierce determination has led some of the 200 youths on her swim team, including several from Andover, to declare the start of each week “Maria Monday” in celebration of their fellow Hurricanes swimmer and her courage.
Lucy Frey, an 18-year-old teammate from Andover, said the Hurricanes are as much about being a supportive network as they are about being a competitive swim team. They are “like my backbone, best friends,” Frey said of her teammates. And together, the team has lent its figurative shoulder to Splaine.
“I was so glad she had somewhere she could come, even if it was just to talk to us or swim, just to get everything out there,” Frey said. “I’m happy she has all of us to help her through it.”
Splaine knew something was amiss last October when her strength took a dive, just as lumps started forming on her neck, she said.
“I could train, but I couldn’t race as well anymore,” she recalled. “I didn’t feel sick. I actually didn’t mentally feel like this was real.”
The news was like “a punch in the gut, completely out of the blue,” her father, David Splaine, said.
“She had always been really tough, really healthy, and she would have been the last person in the world you would have thought would have this,” he said.
Just before Thanksgiving, Splaine began her first of six, month-long cycles of chemotherapy. While each round of treatment initially takes her out of commission, within days she’s back in the pool at the YMCA in Andover, regaining her strength and remaining competitive, her coaches said.
The day before her final round of treatment was scheduled to start, Splaine’s coaches showed he just how much they appreciated her determination. They gave her an electric trimmer and bowed their heads.
Within minutes, Cronin and Reilly were bald, both feeling their heads and laughing.
Reilly who lives in North Andover, said Splaine is a coach’s perfect team member.
“That’s what you look for. You look for someone working hard in the pool every day as a motivator,” he said. “If one of the other girls stops swimming, I point to the other lane and say, ‘Look over there. Maria is still going.’”
Next month, Splaine will undergo testing to see if the chemotherapy did its job. In time, she intends to continue putting her young athleticism and never-quit attitude to use as she pursues her dream of becoming an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
But until then, she has the Hurricanes — and two hairless coaches — by her side.
“It’s really touching. I love my coaches so much and they mean so much to me,” Splaine said after putting the finishing touches on the buzz cuts.
“I think Dan’s came out a little better than Carl’s,” she added. “I may need to practice a little more.”