Soccer player Winston Wardlaw raises money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation Brave, fearless and all agents of change, athletes will be recognized every week for using their platform for the greater good
Thanksgiving 2015 was both memorable — and unforgettable — for the Wardlaw family.
On that November morning, the family of four participated in their neighborhood Turkey Trot for Hunger, a fundraiser for the charity So Others Might Eat. The Wardlaw kids, Winston and Julian, opted for the one-mile run, which Winston, the older of the two, won.
“Winston was so excited because he won the one-miler,” recalled Denise Wardlaw, the boys’ mother.
But Winston — the trustworthy center back on Kert Mease’s Under-13 Bethesda Soccer Club team — would have just one week to bask in the glow of his victory. Days later, he was bent over in pain.
“He kept complaining, ‘My stomach hurts.’ We just thought it was diarrhea or something, ‘Oh, just sit on the toilet and you’ll be fine,’ ” his mother said. “And he did and that didn’t quite [fix] it. And then that week and the next week he was having these stomach cramps that were really painful, and soon we noticed blood in his stool, so then we took him to the ER.”
At the Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., the Wardlaws found out their son, who had no previous health problems, had a serious medical issue. After an ultrasound, gastroenterologist Dr. Benny Kerzner pursued a series of tests and concluded that Winston had ulcerative colitis, a chronic bowel disease that causes inflammation in the digestive tract.
“We had never heard of ulcerative colitis,” said Denise Wardlaw. “But we were glad to know what it was and definitely happier to know that Winston would be able to continue soccer for that entire spring season that year.”
But Winston’s pains persisted and his coaches and parents were often the last to know. After the spring season, the busy soccer family jumped head-first into summer with family trips, soccer camps and coding classes. All along, Winston was in on-again, off-again agony: recurring bleeding and constant discomfort. His doctors prescribed various drugs but, after time, nothing seemed to work.
After attending a showcase tournament in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, that November, Winston’s pain became unbearable. Winston was able to play in only one of the three games.
Winston would undergo three surgeries, all in the span of four months: a total colectomy in January 2017, a second reconstruction in March and final reconstruction in April. Along the way, he’d spend 65 days in the hospital and miss more than 80 days from school, all the while keeping his grades in good standing (thanks to teachers who’d visit him in the hospital, Skype sessions and one-on-one tutoring).
The ordeal made Winston weak; getting around — even out of bed — was grueling. At the time of his first surgery, his 5-foot-4-inch frame weighed 105 pounds but soon dropped to 90. He stayed well below 100 pounds for the year. While his body was weakened, Winston found strength and optimism that everything would work out. At one point he even told his parents he wanted to become a gastroenterologist so kids his age would never experience what he was going through. It’s the center back in him — the last line of defense for his team and often everyone’s eyes and ears.
“I just had such a love for the human body, anatomy and biology, so whenever I went to a doctor, I wanted to know things that I didn’t know,” explained this week’s Undefeated Athlete of the Week, who in 2017, decided to bring awareness to ulcerative colitis, raising $11,500 and another $5,000 this year for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation.
Winston’s battle — and more importantly, his efforts — caught the attention of Kirsten Baier, the regional director of the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, who offered to have Winston emcee their “Evening of Hope” fundraiser next month in Washington, D.C.
“I’m so proud of him,” Denise Wardlaw said of Winston, who attends D.C. International School, a public charter school for sixth- through 11th-graders in northwest D.C. “He even plans to do his sophomore project on Crohn’s and colitis awareness.”
After three successful surgeries, Winston is back to being Winston again, playing soccer and manning the back line for his U16 Development Academy team. He’s gained back most of the weight he lost. Now 15, he is quick to thank his mom and dad, Michael, a former defensive back at UVA who played alongside Ronde Barber in the early ’90s.
“I was always looking forward. I think that’s something that my parents helped me with. … I never thought that anything would be over,” said Winston, whose favorite player is Samuel Umtiti, the French international and center back for Spanish club Barcelona. “My dad would always say, even after the third surgery, ‘OK, now it’s time to go to work.’
“I really want to take [the game of soccer] to college — that would be amazing — like, if it helps me get a scholarship or something like that. Because my end goal is to be some form of doctor or either programmer or both of those combined because those are my two favorite things at the moment. But I know that soccer can help me achieve those things.”