By LISA CAPOBIANCO
Sheryl Hughes Harle remembers Bristol resident Rick Varsell in a variety of ways.
As a mentor for Wheeler Regional Family YMCA’s LIVESTRONG program, Varsell made all participants feel comfortable while pushing them to do more, recalled Harle.
“Rick’s energy was off the chart,” said Harle, a Kensington resident. “His enthusiasm was infectious.”
One of the first graduates of the YMCA’s LIVESTRONG program, Varsell was diagnosed with triple-negative stage 4 breast cancer in 2008, receiving a grim prognosis. Several years after retiring as a mechanical engineer for Pratt & Whitney to face cancer head-on, Varsell still beat the odds through his involvement with LIVESTRONG, where he thrived. A devoted participant, Varsell came to the YMCA’s group exercise programs six days a week, becoming a mentor after graduation.
Ben Romann, director of health and wellness at Wheeler YMCA, said Varsell beat his prognosis by quite a few years, and attributed that to LIVESTRONG.
“He found such an answer in working out,” said Romann, adding how Varsell enjoyed taking group exercise classes.
Varsell was a mentor to Harle, who joined LIVESTRONG in January 2014. Although Varsell passed away in May 2015 at the age of 69, Harle will always remember her mentor as an encouraging guy who made everyone feel good.
She recalled a personal connection she made with Varsell when having a conversation about their diagnoses.
“We had the same cancer, the same diagnosis, the same treatment,” said Harle, adding that the only difference was the timing of theidiagnosis. “It was heartbreaking for me because at that point I knew I was making it. He was so happy for me.”
Harle said Varsell encouraged her to become a LIVESTRONG mentor not long after she joined the 12-week program that is offered three times a year. LIVESTRONG is for adult survivors from the point of diagnosis through the balance of life and includes a family membership during the length of the program. The program aims to help survivors overcome the effects of fatigue and deconditioning from treatment and the disease.
“Because of Rick, I actually became a mentor for the program,” said Harle, who also serves as an instructor for LIVESTRONG. “His love of the program made it easy to see why people loved the program.”
Wheeler YMCA recently announced that its annual Spin-a-thon fundraising event has been renamed in honor of Varsell. Now known as The Rick Varsell Memorial Spin-a-thon, the event will take place on Sept. 17 at Wheeler YMCA in Plainville from 8 a.m. to noon. All proceeds benefit LIVESTRONG.
“We renamed the Spin-a-thon because he was so passionate about the program, we thought that was be a good way for his name to live on,” said Romann.
“We’re renaming it…because of the impact he had,” said Harle, adding that she feels honored to have met Varsell. “Renaming it for him really shows the spirit that he had.”
Behind the scenes, Varsell started contributing to the Spin-a-thon through a company he quietly formed called, “The Whimsical Network.” All proceeds benefit LIVESTRONG, and Varsell’s company served as the driving force behind the Y’s event fundraising efforts. The Whimsical Network served as a presenting sponsor, giving at least $2,500.
“He used The Whimsical Network to make the donation anonymously,” said Romann. “I didn’t know that The Whimsical Network was him until probably some point last year. With support from Varsell’s widow, Sandy, Romann came up with another way to honor the LIVESTRONG mentor’s memory. Romann is reaching out to sponsors to donate $500 or more and become the new force behind The Whimsical Network.
“I would really like to see The Whimsical Network stay…[and] have it be a way that people can anonymously or not anonymously give and be proud of something they’re doing,” said Romann.
Varsell also recruited new participants to LIVESTRONG after speaking about the program at gatherings. Romann said Varsell brought in an average of 20 to 30 program participants each year.
“I think he did it because he was so proud of the program he was working with,” said Harle.
Besides Varsell’s passion and dedication to LIVESTRONG, both Harle and Romann also recalled his sense of humor during his battle. Varsell wore a variety of silly costumes throughout the year, such as the Energizer Bunny.
“Rick was all about fun,” said Romann. “He used to wear costumes for just about every holiday you can imagine. He was always making jokes…dancing and laughing.”
“Knowing what he was facing, to be able to still have a wonderful attitude about life…will always stick with me,” said Harle, adding how Varsell always cheered people on even when he was not feeling well. “It was an amazing thing to see someone’s spirit.”