Dance troupe back mini marathon 2018

Cork dance troupe RDC have thrown their weight behind this year’s Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon — which is being launched today. Chris Dunne talks to founder Billie Jean Sargent about their rise to fame, promoting health and fitness and her daughter’s battle with a brain tumour
Dance troupe back mini marathon 2018
Mother and daughter Billie-Jean and Nell Sargent at Billie-Jean's RDC & School of Performing Arts, Midleton Green Shopping Centre.Pic; Larry Cummins

RHYTHM Dance Company, (RDC), Midleton, are well used to stepping it out and successfully crossing the finish line. The dance troupe are still buzzing from being crowned the first-ever winners of Ireland’s Got Talent.

“I still wake up in the morning and I still can’t believe it really happened,” says Billie Jean Sargent, who has been running her dance school in Midleton for 26 Years.

“It is a dream come true.”

“Belief, positivity, passion, and a can-do approach made us winners. We dusted ourselves down and got battle ready and said; Let’s go. We can make it happen. That’s what we did.”

The 31 member troupe have thrown their weight behidn this year’s Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon, which is being launched today. The race, which will feature up to 8,000 participants, will take part on September 16, 2018.

“We plan on doing a relay,” says Billie-Jean. “There are 31 of us!”

The most famous dance troupe in Ireland want to promote health and fitness, two vital elements that helped bring them to the top of their game, reaching heights they only dreamed about.

“The gang are really looking forward to the mini-marathon,” says Billie-Jean

“Sport and activity are such positive things for health and fitness. The right fuel for action is important too. Even your good, positive, thoughts can be your fuel,” she added.

“Two members of our dance team, Sarah and Denise, have diabetes. The girls don’t see their condition as a hindrance to anything they want to do,” she says.

“During the long arduous weeks of taking part in IGT, they organised their lifestyle and their diet to slide into their heavy schedules. They are well up to take part into the mini-marathon.”

Billie-Jean says diet, fitness and moral support have also played a part in helping her daughter Nell, aged 14, battle a brain tumour.

“When Nell was ill and receiving chemotherapy treatment, her diet was really important. Her involvement in the dance group and the support of all the kids really helped Nell in her journey. Everyone was rooting for Nell, willing her well.”

Nell was diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of three. She endured two long stints of chemotherapy followed by brain scans every three months, extending to every year only recently.

“When I think back, it is just amazing where Nell is today,” says Billie-Jean.

TV3's 'Ireland's Got Talent' TV show competition winners from Midleton, Co. Cork.Members of Billie-Jean's Rhythm Dance Company (RDC) & School of Performing Arts, Midleton Green Shopping Centre helped launch the 2018Evening Echo Women's Mini Marathon.Pic; Larry Cummins
TV3's 'Ireland's Got Talent' TV show competition winners from Midleton, Co. Cork.Members of Billie-Jean's Rhythm Dance Company (RDC) & School of Performing Arts, Midleton Green Shopping Centre helped launch the 2018Evening Echo Women's Mini Marathon.Pic; Larry Cummins

“The kids were all there for her and they helped her forget about her tumour. The youngsters and the teens were all surrounding Nell with positive vibes and they helped Nell forget about her journey. Music is a great healer. Once you press the play button; the magic happens.”

The positively of people power and self-belief worked its magic.

“We got the good news in January that the tumour had shrunk,” says Billie-Jean.

This made RDC, the moon-walking militia, even more determined to march on and reach for the stars on the talent search TV show.

“The timing was perfect,” says Billie-Jean.

Reflecting on the difficult time when Nell was first diagnosed, back in March 2007, Billie Jean said: “It seemed like a dark spell was cast over the happy family. We had it all William, the first boy on my mother’s side, came along. Claudia and Nell had a brother. My mum had a grandson and my sisters had a nephew. Conor and I were so happy. Then bang! We were catapulted into hell.”

Their daughter Nell was diagnosed with Chiasmatic glioma, which affects one, or both, optic nerves that carry visual information to the brain from each eye.

“I remember the consultant looking at the MRI scan,” says Billie-Jean. “The room had filled up with people viewing the slides. The consultant first took off his glasses, he wiped them, then he took off his jacket and he rolled up his sleeves. We knew we were in trouble.”

Billie-Jean shows me a picture of the scan on her phone. Nell had a huge cancerous mass in front of her brain; Astrocytoma.

Shelley French, Sophie Desmond and Isabella Pranga with (rear l to r) Nell Sargent, Sarah O'Connor, Joana (Joana) Rosa, Ella Quirke, and Adela Obrusnikova from RDC at the launch of the Evening Echo Women's Mini Marathon.Pic; Larry Cummins
Shelley French, Sophie Desmond and Isabella Pranga with (rear l to r) Nell Sargent, Sarah O'Connor, Joana (Joana) Rosa, Ella Quirke, and Adela Obrusnikova from RDC at the launch of the Evening Echo Women's Mini Marathon.Pic; Larry Cummins

Their lovable, vivacious, energetic three-year-old bundle of fun, had cancer?

“I can’t describe how I felt,” says Billie-Jean.

“I was dumbstruck. I got very sick and I collapsed.”

Where did they go from there?

“We were fortunate to meet the best brain surgeon in Ireland, Mike O’Sullivan,” says Billie-Jean.

“The man was a genius. He opened out his hands and said I can do anything with these hands, but I won’t touch that child. Mr O’Sullivan told us to watch and wait. He advised that Nell go down the chemotherapy route.”

It was a road the family never expected to take. Now, the resolve and the resilience they knew they had in their armoury, would keep them sure-footed and safe. They watched and they waited.

“I had to be the same mum that I had been the day before Nell’s diagnosis,” says Billie-Jean. “I still had to get out of bed in the morning. I couldn’t get depressed. I had to carry on.”

How did she come up with the words to tell her precious daughter that she was very sick?

“I tried to sugar-coat it the best way I could,” says Billie-Jean. “Nell didn’t look sick, or feel sick. I told her that she had a little spot behind her eye that grew and the doctors would make it smaller so that she could see better. Her vision in her left eye was affected.”

The long plod of the chemotherapy regimen began, requiring persistence, perseverance and endurance. The world of Crumlin Children’s Hospital became a reality.

“We got the chemotherapy armour on,” says Billie-Jean. “The protocol started before Nell’s fourth birthday to last 82 weeks. She was included on a clinical trial involving heavy drugs, one of which was Carboplatin.”

The traits that Billie-Jean instilled into her dancers, the can-do, kick-ass, just beat it attitude, stood her in good stead while Nell was going through the gruelling treatment.

“I kept running the dance-school,” says Billie-Jean. “Students still turned up for their classes. Dancing kept us going.”

Prayer did too.

“I prayed to the mother of Padre Pio,” says Bille-Jean.

“I said; you’re a mum too. Make a miracle happen for us.”

Billy-Jean and Conor were only human.

“We lost weight with the worry and stress. We went to hell and back,” says Billie-Jean.

It was hard to see their daughter suffer.

“Nell’s immune system was non-existent,” says her mum, “Her long, luscious hair fell out. She lost her eye-lashes and her eyebrows. She vomited constantly for two days.

Alyx Cahill gets a lift from Killian Purcell and Morgan Lee, of RDC, at the launch of the marathon.Video available.Pic; Larry Cummins
Alyx Cahill gets a lift from Killian Purcell and Morgan Lee, of RDC, at the launch of the marathon.Video available.Pic; Larry Cummins

“For days, she couldn’t walk. We had to keep her in isolation at home for fear of infection. ‘The spot is making me sick, she said. ‘Is it serious? Am I going to die Mum’?

“Bit by bit, I told her that the doctors called it a tumour. I told her; the doctors will fix you. I tried to replace the good with the bad, promising Nell picnics in the park and outings with friends.”

Nell courageously completed 75 weeks of her treatment, displaying her powers of grit and strong will, she battled to get better. She wanted to get back dancing, to the familiar world of just being a happy, healthy, little girl.

In March 2009, the tumour halted, stabilising in size. Nell could stop chemotherapy treatment and be free of the central line in her chest. Nell kicked up her heels and re-joined her dancing partners.

“Like our strong themed songs in IGT, we knew that everyone can bounce back, no matter how big or small the obstacle,” says Billie-Jean.

“The power of music, of medicine, and alternative medicine, all contributed to the healing process.” When the tumour began to grow again; the family got ready to rally once more.

“It meant another year of treatment on a different drug,” says Billie-Jean.

“The treatment proved effective. The tumour didn’t shrink. But it didn’t grow. But as a Mum, I just wanted it gone.” 

The cavalry arrived.

“The Mercy Hospital nurses, Olga and Peg, showed us how to manage things at home,” says Billie- Jean.

“I was expecting baby John and the girls gave me the tools to cope. I learned how to take Nell’s bloods which Conor took to the Mercy Hospital for testing. He was there in 15 minutes and it saved us another journey.” 

Billie-Jean had another role to play.

“I had to pretend that everything was ok,” she says.

“Then, I’d go into the bathroom and think; I’m having a nervous breakdown.” 

Nell was making a come-back. She was responding well to the medicine.

“She came back to herself,” says Billie-Jean.

“Soon, she was rocking her socks off. She began to recuperate and re-join her pals in dance class. When we put the music on, all the sadness seemed to just go away.” 

Nell had four years where her scans were stable and in January, the magical news that the tumour had shrunk was celebrated far and wide.

“I asked St. Anthony for stable scans for Nell,” says Billie-Jean.

“I need it, I told him. And he did it.

“Nell is off all treatment after five years and the tumour is smaller. God was good to us.” 

The dance team were good to go.

“After our audition and our success in the first round of IGT, we just said; Let’s Go. The Fight Song became our theme for our dance routine. That’s what we focused on.” 

The dancers, confident and full of the joys of life, walked the walk of winners, talked the talk of fighters and danced their socks off, battling their way to the coveted first prize.

They claimed the spoils.

RDC are the first winners of Ireland’s Got Talent and they will star in their own hour-long Christmas TV Special.

“They will have their achievement forever,” says Billie-Jean, praising her dedicated dancers .

Now she has to deal with the 'fall-out'.

“I’m inundated with new pupils wanting to enrol in the dance school!” says Billie-Jean, laughing.

Apart from all the fame and notoriety, Billie-Jean is still just a mum.

“I still go out and buy the milk and bread every day,” she says.

She will always remain positive and steadfast. What is written on her 2018 calendar?

“A fabulous wrap party for sure,” she says.

“The Evening Echo Mini-Marathon in September is a great opportunity for us to promote health, fitness and positivity. That’s what we are about.” 

Anything else on the wish list?

“Performing with Ed Sheeran in Cork would be a dream come true,” says Billie-Jean.

ON YOUR MARKS: A crowd shot from last year's Evening Echo Women's Mini Marathon in Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.
ON YOUR MARKS: A crowd shot from last year's Evening Echo Women's Mini Marathon in Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane.

How to register for this year’s mini marathon

BY EVE GUBBINS

SEPTEMBER 16, 2018 will mark the 37th Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon.

Once again, the Evening Echo are the proud title sponsors of the event, which raises thousands of euro for worthy causes. The race is hosted by the Athletic Association of Ireland (Cork) and up to 8,000 people can register to take part in the event.

New this year is a family-friendly rate. The cost of registration for an adult will be €15. For every adult registered, three children under the age of 16 can register too, for just €10.

The race will be electronically chipped again, for the second year in a row.

Every registered participant will receive a medal — which got an overhaul in 2017 and received great feedback.

Ina Killeen of the Athletic Association of Ireland (Cork) said the race is open to everyone of all abilities and is encouraging people to sign up: “Our aim is to promote fitness, health and fun rather than competition.

“This isn’t a hugely competitive event, some people do tend to race, but mainly we aim to make it an enjoyable experience for families and everyone who attends.” There are no major changes to this year’s race, after a few shake-ups last year. Ina said: “Last year’s medallion was a massive hit and everyone loved it, the electronic chipping system made the entire experience easier for everyone!” The AAI Cork began planning for this year’s marathon, days after last year’s race ended.

“Planning for the event is constant. After we review the event that just ended, we figure out what went well and what didn’t.

“We have a few quiet months directly after the event every from around October to December.

“We still have frequent meetings but it’s in the New Year that the next event starts taking shape.” The majority of the funds raised through registration goes to the Athletic Association of Ireland (Cork). Ina said some of the excess funds goes back into sport in Cork, eg, maintaining their pitch in Kinsale. They tend to focus the funds raised on keeping young people in sport.

So how can people sign up to this year’s race? You can register at http://minimarathon.eveningecho.ie/ This year’s event is capped again at 8,000 so people are being encouraged to sign up early.

The Evening Echo Women’s Mini Marathon race offices will also open outside the restaurant in Debenhams, Patrick Street, closer to the race date.

The course for this year’s marathon stays the same. The four mile race starts off at 1pm on Centre Park Road. Participants will travel along The Marina, head towards the finish line via Blackrock Road. Monaghan Road marks the final stretch of the race, which ends at Kennedy Park.

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