By David Willis
---- — While 11 years have passed, Ashley McLaughlin still takes time each day to remember her close friend Alexandra Miliotis.
“Alex is still such a strong influence on my life,” said McLaughlin. “She is always on my mind. I am still best friends were her twin sister (Arianna). Anytime I see her, I think of Alex.”
On March 15, 2002, 16-year-old Alexandra Miliotis passed away following a 10-month battle with leukemia.
Now more than a decade after her tragic passing, Miliotis’ legacy lives on in the hearts of McLaughlin and many that knew her from Andover.
McLaughlin will honor her friend’s memory on April 15, when she runs the Boston Marathon for “Alex’s Team,” the charity long ago set up for Miliotis.
“It’s really moving and inspirational for me and my entire family to see Ashley do this,” said Arianna Miliotis. “Ashley was very close with Alex and I from the time we were little kids. Ashley and I are still very close, and we find ways to remember my sister. Ashley has always been so dedicated, and I think her running the Marathon is the quintessential example of her dedication to her goals, her friends and her family. It’s very emotional.”
For McLaughlin, the Marathon was a perfect way to honor her friend, and fulfill a lifelong dream.
“I felt it would be a great way to keep her memory alive,” said McLaughlin, now a teacher at Waltham High. “I have always wanted to run the Boston Marathon, and to do it for Alex makes it all worthwhile. It’s important to remember her struggles and keep her spirit alive.”
The Marathon makes a fitting tribune to Alex, since sports has always played a major role in the bond between McLaughlin and the Miliotis sisters.
“We were about 6-years-old when we started playing soccer together,” said McLaughlin. “We were on separate teams. Then we started playing basketball together, all the way through freshman basketball. Alex was very athletic. She was always happy and smiling.
“When she got sick, I don’t think I could really comprehend what was happening. To this day, it is still the worst thing any of us have experienced. You feel so helpless. You can be there for moral support, but you can’t fix it.”
Following Alexandra’s passing after a battle with the illness, it was sports that kept McLaughlin close to her friend, and gave her a way to honor Alex.
“When we won our (Division 1) state (basketball) title (2003) it was on the one-year anniversary of Alexandra’s death,” said Arianna. “That was very powerful. Alex never got to play high school sports, but it felt like something we did together.
“When Ashley was a captain the next year, she would always link Alex into her inspirational speeches. Over the years we have found time to be emotional and really express that love we have for each other.”
Basketball proved to be a major part of McLaughlin’s life at Andover and beyond. She finisher her outstanding career high school career with 1,150 career points. She then played four years for Division 1 Holy Cross, starting her final three seasons.
But after graduating from college in 2008, she noticed something was missing.
“I have played sports all of my life,” said McLaughlin, who moved back to Andover last year. “Since my college career ended, that competitive fire, that working towards a goal has been missing. Running the Marathon has always been something I wanted to accomplish, and I thought that would be a great accomplishment.”
But as a life-long basketball player, training for long-distance running presented a new and unique challenge.
“Basketball really helped me with the mental discipline aspect of it,” she said. “But not really the physical part. During the week I have been doing a lot of cardio and speed workouts. Saturdays are my long run day. I’ve run 18 and 20 miles. But the hardest was actually 15 miles. Mentally, running for that long is tough. But once you get over that, 18 is just a little longer.
“A lot of times I will start by running up River Road, go up past West Elementary, past the high school and Sanborn School, then over to Wood Hill.”
Now just over two weeks away, McLaughlin is dreaming of receiving her race bib — which will read “In honor of Alexandra Miliotis” — and take the starting line for the Marathon while running with the Leukemia, Lymphoma Society.
“I’m getting a little bit nervous,” she said. “I think it’s going to be pretty emotional. I think it’s going to go by very fast. To run such a long distance, and have my family, friends and Arianna there at the end will be awesome.”
Arianna, for one, can’t wait to welcome her friend at the finish line.
“It really is so moving that she is going to do this,” said Arianna. “Ashley has been so important to ‘Alex’s Team’ and she is so close to out family. When she crosses the finish line, it’s going to be very emotional and I will be so proud of her.”