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Mar 12, 2022

Fighting Like Britt

Fighting Like Britt

In December of 2015, Brittany Burns was diagnosed with ovarian cancer that ultimately took her life less than two months later. She was only 26 years old. Despite the tragedy and the grief that can never be truly remedied, Burns’ memory lives on through her foundation “Fight Like Britt,” which is run by Burns’ family members, who have spent the years since her death educating millions about the symptoms and dangers of ovarian cancer.

         Brittany Burns was a member of the Clemson rowing team from 2009-12. During her years at Clemson, she was notably on the 4th Varsity 8 team that defeated No. 7 Ohio State and No. 12 Michigan in the 2011 ACC/Big Ten Challenge. She was also on the 2009 ACC Champion Tigers rowing team.

         Brittany’s path to the Clemson rowing team was a windy one. She was originally a swimmer from the time she was 4 years old. She swam on a year-round team and broke 16 records as a member of her high school swimming team, but she made the decision that she did not want to swim at college.

         However, she had been to Clemson for AAU swimming meets and had fallen in love with the University. An assistant coach for the rowing team gave Brittany’s high school swim coach a call to run her through the NCAA clearing house. The Clemson rowing team likes to recruit swimmers due to their upper body strength and year-round discipline. She had never rowed before coming to Clemson, but she picked up the sport with excitement and was a four-year letter winner.

         One of the things Brittany loved most about rowing was the true team aspect of it that she had not fully experienced as a swimmer. Her teammates at Clemson became her best friends, and, when she passed away, over 50 rowers came her to funeral services in Delaware, over 600 miles from Clemson.

         Brittany cherished her time at Clemson where she met her fiance, Tony Steward, who played for Dabo Swinney on Clemson’s football team and went on to have a brief NFL career.

         Through tears, her father explained how her friends on the rowing team meant everything to her, and it was the most special group of girls she had met in her life. He summed it up when he said, “I always knew, no matter what, that the entire team had Britt’s back.”

         Brittany’s father, Ty, had, for the most part, raised her on his own, but his wife Cathy turned into “the mother she never had” as the two became extremely close. Cathy has said that Brittany mostly referred to her as Cathy, but on the day of her death, she only called her “Mom.” Brittany also has four siblings, two older brothers and two younger sisters. When she died on Feb. 1, 2016, she was accompanied by her entire family.

         The Burns family was and continues to be incredibly touched by the way the Clemson family has responded to Brittany’s diagnosis and subsequent passing. The rowing team dedicated a boat to Brittany, and the entire community was nothing but supportive of her and her family. Her father stated that she “made some of the best friends of her life there. The ‘Clemson family’ thing was real, and Britt was immersed right in it.”

         Before Brittany passed away, she had discussed with her family the possibility of starting a foundation to educate people, particularly female student-athletes, on ovarian cancer. She knew that with her platform both as a Clemson student-athlete and the fiance of a Clemson football player, there would be plenty of opportunity to connect to people and make a difference.

         “She knew she and Tony had a voice, so she talked to us about starting a foundation. She said that ‘it’d be great if we could raise $20,000.’” The foundation raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and no longer needs to solicit money in its effort to educate young women on this particular disease. From Grady Jarrett to the Obamas to Dabo Swinney, all kinds of donors all over the world donated.”

The question now became how to best honor Brittany’s memory. She and her fiance had often joked about how women’s sports were not getting their due and how Tony and his teammates were treated much differently based on his status as a football player.

         For that reason, while developing the foundation in her image, Ty and Cathy chose to use the immense funds they had raised to support women’s athletics as a means to spread their message.

         Donations come in many forms from the Burns family. All recipients of donations from Ty and Cathy’s foundation are asked only one thing: to, in some way, shape or form, get the word out about the symptoms of ovarian cancer.

         The main goal of the foundation is to get the information about ovarian cancer out to as many people as possible. The University of Maine, Cathy’s alma mater, wrote an article about Brittany and the foundation that went out to 270,000 people. Originally, the plan was to reach 1 million student-athletes and raise their awareness of ovarian cancer. Thus far, the foundation has shared its message with just under 3 million.

         Around 21,000 Americans are diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year, and around 14,000 of those lose their battle. The best chance for doctors to be able to save someone is to get an early diagnosis and begin treatment as soon as possible. The Burns family is all too aware of this and is working unbelievably hard in the hopes of saving even one young woman’s life.

         “We like to tell these people that there’s a good chance they’re going to have a friend, girlfriend, partner, sister, mother, aunt or somebody in their lives who’s going to have these symptoms, and they’re going to be able to say, ‘OK, wait a minute.’”

         This information is extremely important for people to have, and, thus far, it seems people at colleges and on these teams are really taking the message seriously. At UNC, the Burnses met, via Zoom, with the women’s rowing team to deliver their message. The girls were so engaged and invested in learning, and that was demonstrated by both the quantity and quality of questions they asked.

         Ty and Cathy are doing everything in their power to get as many people to hear their message as possible, even when it is difficult for them emotionally. To constantly relive the trauma they experienced in dealing with the loss of their daughter by telling her story is not easy on the family, but, ultimately, they know it is what Brittany would have wanted them to do.

         Ty explains, “Our family feels good about it, but I don’t do it to feel good. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t do it because it’s too hard. I know that Brittany would be mad at me if I didn’t do it, so I do it for Britt. I know it’s a great cause, and it’s doing great things … but what motivates me is knowing what Britt would have wanted me to do.”

         Ty sees this work as an extension of what Brittany stood for throughout her life. She was strong-willed, hard-working and an incredibly talented person both in athletics and academics. More than anything else, she was caring.

         Brittany wanted to make a difference. She wanted to help someone else. Even when she was sick and it was really bad, she wanted to help someone else. To me, I was so impressed by that, and that’s probably the biggest thing I want people to know.”

         It is quite possible that the Burns family has already accomplished its goal of helping to save someone’s life by relaying the information concerning identifying symptoms of ovarian cancer early on. Even so, the work is not finished.

         Ty stated, “I don’t see the foundation coming to an end, and I like that. That makes me feel good because I know Britt would like that. Even after we’re gone, I could see Maia, Alexis, Troy or John T. [Brittany’s siblings] continuing on with the foundation.”

         Regardless of what is to come in the future, the Burns family is extremely grateful for Brittany’s time at Clemson and the experience she had as both a student and an athlete, and the Clemson family will continue to support them in all of their work to save anyone from the pain that they have so unfortunately been forced to endure.

         Brittany’s legacy will live on at Clemson as well as in the millions of young women to whom her story has been told. Through the phenomenal work of Brittany’s family, of which Brittany would certainly be beyond proud of, Brittany’s focus and determination to help others is still being carried out, even after her passing.