BY JASON LEVY
PROSPECT — Two summers ago, Riley Clark needed to have a difficult conversation with his family.
The University of Maine diver, a three-time Naugatuck Valley League champion at Woodland High, had put off going to the doctors for a while, even though he had been feeling sluggish and had difficulty walking. He finally made his way to Yale-New Haven Hospital and Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Center in Waterford.
On Aug. 14, 2020, Clark received a diagnosis of Stage 4 testicular cancer. He sat there for what seemed like forever before going over the next steps with the doctors. As he walked to his car, he realized he would have to tell his parents, Michelle and Ken, and his sister, Ainsley.
“I broke down sobbing, and that is when it hit me because I didn’t want to tell them,” Clark said. “I don’t know why it was so hard to tell them. Out of everything I went through, that was one of the hardest things about it.”
Clark is a jokester who always looks to make people around him smile. With his family gathered around the dinner table that night, Clark struggled to find the words. The rest of them could sense something was amiss.
In an attempt to cut the tension, Ainsley blurted out, “You’re pregnant.”
Finally, Riley revealed his diagnosis.
Four days later, at the age of 19, he underwent his first surgery. Once he recovered, chemotherapy began. And all of this happened as the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early months. Being immunocompromised he had to isolate at his family’s home in Prospect, making his treatment even more difficult.
“I wasn’t allowed to interact with the world at all,” he said. “I am a very big people person and a big extrovert. So on top of being sick, my whole support system is all my friends, and that was just kind of taken away.”
Along with diving at Woodland, Riley also starred in school plays and loved to make people laugh.
His father thinks all of this happening during the pandemic may have been a blessing in disguise because Ken couldn’t go to the office for his job as an engineer for Hubbell and Ainsley couldn’t go to school. Only Michelle was leaving the house regularly for her job as a death inspector for the state medical examiner’s office.
“We were able to be there for him and help him with whatever he needed,” Ken said. “It varied from playing a game of chess to sitting and playing on our phone, just doing whatever he needed at that moment.”
Philann Dixon, Riley’s best friend, a Maine teammate and a nursing student at the time, was working as a nurse’s assistant at a COVID intensive care unit in Maine when Riley was diagnosed.
“Just thinking about it right now makes me emotional,” Dixon said. “Obviously, there were so many Face-times and phone calls. I think I called him twice a week for as long as I could, especially during dive practice.”
Michelle said it was difficult to watch her happy-go-lucky son become so despondent during his fight against cancer.
“Toward the end, when he was going through so much chemo and surgeries, there were days where he just cried on the way home and was like, ‘I don’t want to go back. Please don’t take me back.’ So to see that side of a very positive kid just broke our hearts,” she said. “It was not him. But after his last treatment in chemo, he knew the tables were turning and honestly every package he got and every positive text he received restarted his positive attitude a little bit. It really did help a lot.”
The entire Clark family received well wishes and care packages from people from Prospect, Woodland and the University of Maine. Parents of other swimmers from all over the country sent packages to buoy everyone’s spirits. Ainsley brought home a plate of cookies for Riley courtesy of the Woodland lunch ladies, and the school security guard sent him a shirt.
When Christmas, Riley’s favorite holiday, came along, the community made sure he could celebrate.
“There were 60 people, maybe more, who came out in the freezing cold because they couldn’t come in our house during COVID, to sit outside in our driveway and sing Christmas carols to him,” she said.
On June 27, Riley had the “best experience of his life” in Las Vegas. A lot of 21-year-olds could probably say the same thing, but he was in Sin City for a different kind of party.
Riley was in Las Vegas with his family and his Black Bears coaches to receive the N4A Wilma Rudolph Student-Athlete Achievement Award at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.
The honor, named after the trailblazing Olympic track star, goes to student-athletes who have overcome great personal, academic and emotional odds to achieve academic and athletic success.
One of his fondest memories is having breakfast before the award ceremony with his fellow recipients. That morning put everything into perspective.
“It was so cool getting to meet the other award winners and just talk to them as people and not see them as these amazing people that have overcome (adversity),” he said. “Most of the time, especially with these awards, their story defines who they are. But we got to meet each other as people first. It was just such an amazing event that I will never forget for the rest of my life. I find it ironic and just amazing that the worst part of my life led to the best. It was just a great, amazing full circle for my journey.”
When it came time for the award ceremony, Ken wasn’t surprised his son was able to move the room with his story.
“Even some of the other kids were like, ‘Wow, he is impressive,’ because he has always been a public speaker,” Ken said of his son. “He was always on the stage at Woodland, so being up there in a room with 600 people telling his story didn’t faze him at all. To see him up there was inspiring.”
Riley still has to get blood work done every three months, along with X-rays and CAT scans every year, to make sure he is still cancer-free. He noted he had to research Rudolph’s story once he won the award. Discovering her hardships humbled him and also made him realize just how much he had been through.
“I didn’t feel like I did something that amazing because I was going through it every single day,” he said. “It was a slow progression and then looking back, I did something that — doctors told me I wouldn’t be diving for a year. And it took me two months. To me, it didn’t feel like much, but after seeing the award, getting it and looking back and looking at all the other people’s journeys, which are absolutely amazing, it just made me appreciate my own drive. And I made sure I was going to keep that.”
BY JASON LEVY