Bethesda residents join Hair Force to save a life

Wilder Leavitt and fellow Bethesda residents compete in Ulman Half/Full triathlon to raise over $10,000 for 10-yr old neighbor. Photo: Wilder Leavitt

WASHINGTON, October 11, 2013 — The first time Wilder Leavitt met his neighbor Ewen Raballand in the summer of 2012, the Bethesda resident felt an immediate bond. The two found a connection in their love of planes. They talked about the air force and Wilder’s time in the military. They discussed Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups versus Reese’s Pieces. They chatted about airplane models. Their talks quickly blossomed into a true friendship.

It did not matter that Ewen was more than five times Wilder’s junior.

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“He and I just hit it off,” Wilder explained.  

What Wilder soon found out was the reason why Ewen’s family had moved to Bethesda: the National Institute of Health. A year before, Ewen had been playing soccer when he broke his femur. After multiple doctor appointments, the 8-year old and his family found out that it was not simply a break. It was cancer.

Instead of Ewen and Wilder’s friendship falling to the wayside, cancer has only made their bond stronger. So strong, in fact, that last weekend Wilder, his wife Mary Morningstar, Ewen’s mother Hélène Lesbats, and a family friend, Karine Vincent, competed in the 2013 Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults Half Full Triathlon. The group, known as Ewen’s Hair Force after Ewen’s love of planes and loss of hair, raised $10,360 from 85 donations.

“Ewen’s story touches you,” Wilder said.

Cancer has not been easy for Ewen. In and out of hospitals in South Africa, Paris and Bethesda’s NIH for the past two years Ewen has undergone 28 chemotherapy treatments, had surgery to replace all of the major bones in his leg and lost his hair. In March of this year, scans showed that Ewen’s cancer had spread to his lungs.

Since then Ewen has been at NIH for lung surgeries, scans, doctors appointments and to receive a new natural killer cell therapy. Through it all, Wilder had been right by his side.

“I’ve seen Ewen almost on a daily basis for the past six months,” Wilder said. “We’re all involved with it. He’s a great kid.”

“This new challenge doesn’t stop Ewen from being what he really is: a strong, smart and very courageous boy,” Lesbats said of her son in a fundraising letter. “He still likes goofing around, telling jokes, and teasing Wilder each time he visits….”

Between accompanying Ewen to NIH, working, and spending time with his own family, Wilder takes to the roads and rivers whenever possible. Since 2000 when Wilder and his wife first learned about triathlons from watching the Sydney Olympics, the two have trained and competed in close to a dozen Olympic length triathlons.

Four months ago, Wilder and his wife noticed a posting for the Ulman Half/Full Triathlon in Ellicott City, MD and decided they would race. But this time, it would be for Ewen.

“When you’re doing it for somebody, you know I’m not going to quit because they’re not going to quit, so it helps you get through,” he said.

The immediate support from friends and family alike wasn’t a surprise. Dubbed “the McKinley team” by Ewen’s mother, the fours households on McKinley Street have always been close; neighbors meet almost daily for meals or just to talk. Now they would raise funds together, train together, cheer for each other, and compete.

Last Sunday, in a blistering 90-degree heat, Wilder and his wife stood at the edge of Centennial Lake ready for the one-mile swim. Morningstar, Vincent, and Lesblats would complete the swimming, biking, and running course as a relay team. Wilder explained that despite the tough course, and personal performances aside, the race was amazing.

“I’m riding for a 10 year old,” Wilder said. “It’s very emotional but wow an awesome day.”

One moment in particular has stuck with Wilder. During one of the steepest hills, he began talking with a fellow biker who mentioned that while she was tired, at least she did not have cancer. Biking at an even pace, Wilder explained how he was riding for a kid in the fight of his life.

“After we shared a heavy silence, she picked up the tempo on her pedals, started pulling away from me and said proudly, ‘Then I’m riding for Ewen too!’” Wilder said.

All four members of team Ewen’s Hair Force crossed the finish line. So too did Ewen. Race officials who knew his story held out a separate banner which the boy with one reconstructed leg and two repaired lungs ran through, smiling the entire way.

“The person who raised all of this, Ewen was that person. Ewen was the reason we raised and did what we did,” Wilder said. “For what it is worth, this is really a story about the bravery and courage of one young boy fighting cancer and the inspiration he and his family have become to so many around them.”


Team Ewen’s Hair Force plan to compete in next year’s Ulman Half/Full Triathlon.

To donate to the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults on behalf of Ewen Raballand, please go to:

If you know of an athlete helping out in the community, please comment or click “Ask Me a Question” above. 

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Alex Sopko

Alex may be one of the few sports writers who doesn’t have a favorite team. Or a favorite sport. But she does have favorite stories. Buying into the words “it’s not the score that matters, it’s the athlete,” Alex has for the past six years covered personal sports stories that range from inspiring to fascinating to down right weird.


Alex is a former Division I athlete and sports editor at Harvard University. After interning with The Washington Times sports department in 2009, she now contributes regularly to the Washington Times Metro, Sports, and Communities sections.


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