Graduating senior Christina Nelson participated in soccer, basketball and track at East Valley High School, all while maintaining a 3.8 grade point average.
As the 2009-10 academic year approached, most students at East Valley High School occupied their time with late-summer shopping or pondering the melancholy of a fleeting vacation.
EVHS senior Christina Nelson spent August taking care of her mom.
Carol Nelson was diagnosed with cancer last July, just around the time Christina was gearing up for her final year of varsity soccer. Between preparing for school, soccer practices and working as the trainer of the football team, Christina made it a point to visit her mom every day in the hospital.
While Christina was doing her best to provide support, she said it was her mom who remained the major inspiration.
“My strength comes from her,” Nelson said. “She would always tell me how awesome I am. She was the most encouraging person I’ve ever known.”
In recent years, Christina and her mom had worked to heal a relationship wounded by Carol’s struggle with alcoholism, a bout that included a prison sentence for a DUI collision.
After a courageous battle, Carol passed away from cancer on Sept. 16, less than two weeks after the start of Christina’s senior year. That Friday, as the East Valley football team suited up for a game against Shadle Park, players wrote Nelson’s name on their shoes and jerseys as a way to honor her and her mom.
“I have the best support system,” Christina said. “It really meant a lot to me.”
It wasn’t the first time Nelson had to deal with a loss in her family. Her father, Cary, died from pancreatic cancer when Christina was 2.
After Carol’s funeral service, Christina’s teammates welcomed back a two-year letter winner who was one of the keys to a regional title and a state bid in 2009. EV head coach Gabe Escobar said Nelson’s return set an optimistic tone for the rest of the year.
“She brings life to the field with her positive attitude,” Escobar said. “As an athlete, I think your impact is not just about what you bring but how you influence your teammates. Christina led by example. Her strength and determination were just amazing.”
At one point in the season, Nelson moved back into a defender’s position to replace a fellow senior who had been injured. East Valley won the game against North Central, 3-2.
“It was really a turnaround for our season,” Escobar said.
Despite the accolades for her accomplishments in soccer, basketball and track – Nelson was named East Valley’s Greater Spokane League female Scholar/Athlete for 2009-10 – Escobar said it is her effect on teammates that may have been the most valuable. No fan of senior conceit, Nelson would often go out of her way in practice to offer advice or encouragement to a junior varsity player.
“When she was done, she’d be the first one to go back and help someone who was struggling,” Escobar said. “She showed phenomenal leadership as a senior.”
Nelson said her approach on the field, or as a volunteer with groups like the Valley Soccer Association, is part of “a protective, motherly instinct.”
In the classroom, Nelson maintained a 3.8 grade point average and was part of several groups including Washington Drug Free Youth, the National Honor Society and Spanish Club.
Nelson said she wasn’t always the accomplished student she is today.
“Until high school, I didn’t care,” she said. “I didn’t apply myself.”
Nelson recalls how sports provided her with structure and resources that carried over into academics, resulting in “a 180-degree turn from middle school to high school.” The accomplishments in class and sports are even more impressive considering that Nelson undergoes treatment for migraines.
“She’s a friendly, happy, kind person,” said EV teacher Pam Smith. “Christina’s been through a thousand reasons not to succeed and she’s achieved on an incredible level.”
Last fall, after Christina’s mom passed, Smith nominated the senior for a Chase Youth Award in a category that she has exemplified throughout her life.
“I saw the courage part and I said, ‘That’s Christina,’” Smith said.
Nelson was awarded with the honor in March, but could not attend the ceremony because she was in Tacoma at the state 3A basketball tournament with the rest of her teammates. The Lady Knights had qualified for the state bracket for only the second time in school history and returned home with an eighth place trophy.
Smith said it made sense that Nelson picked the tournament over the banquet.
“If she would have been here to accept the award, she wouldn’t have been the person in the (Chase) application.
Christina and her brother, Johnny, a junior at EVHS, currently live with their older sister, Kahlil Sitton, and her family in Millwood. Kahlil said Christina continues to be a shining example to those who know her.
“She is definitely one of a kind,” Sitton said. “She’s involved in everything and still manages to help so many people.”
Despite the frenetic schedule, Nelson said she still takes time to pause and reflect.
“I cry sometimes,” she said. “It’s OK to cry.”
At a school assembly in the fall, Christina told fellow students about her mom and announced she was starting a donation drive to raise money for Cancer Patient Care, a Spokane-based nonprofit group that helps low-income cancer patients and their families throughout the Inland Northwest. In April, Nelson participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in downtown Spokane, an annual event that generates funds and awareness for cancer research.
“Christina had had a tremendous impact on students at East Valley High School,” said EV teacher Chuck Dunning. “She is a relentlessly optimistic person. She has faith that life holds great things for her.”
As she looks beyond high school, Nelson said she plans to study neonatal nursing in college, a goal that doesn’t surprise teachers like Smith who said she continues to be inspired by the senior’s “polished shine.”
“I look at Christina and I think about how she has overcome obstacles with such warmth and wisdom,” Smith said. “We could all learn a lot from her.”