Editor’s note: This week some of our Star Tribune columnists are revisiting subjects of their past columns. Chip Scoggins first wrote about Mia Gerold on Sept. 10, 2011.
A freshman student maneuvered through bodies already filling the bleachers at TCF Bank Stadium until she found a spot above the tunnel where the Gophers football team would appear before running onto the field to play Penn State last November.
And when the Gophers upset the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions to improve to 9-0, the freshman student joined thousands of others in storming the field.
It all felt a little familiar to Mia Gerold.
In 2011, she was a 10-year-old recovering from a rare form of brain cancer when she locked hands with coach Jerry Kill and led the Gophers out of that same tunnel in full sprint for the season opener.
She was known as Marvelous Mia back then. The miracle kid.
She’s all grown up now.
Mia just completed her freshman year at the U, where she is studying neuroscience. She turned 19 in May, celebrating in her front yard in Minneapolis as a parade of well-wishers drove by in cars.
And best of all, she’s healthy, a 10-year cancer survivor who overcame terrible odds. A doctor told her on her ninth birthday that she had a brain stem tumor called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, which primarily afflicts children.
She enjoyed being back on the Gophers football field celebrating a big win.
“That was an incredible day,” she said in a recent phone conversation. “I definitely won’t forget that. Experiencing those games as a student is pretty great. Being able to have a sense of school pride on top of everything has been really cool.”
Her spirit and optimism in the face of a life-threatening condition floored me when I first met Mia on her front porch in 2011. She giggled and bounced around like any normal 10-year-old. And then she went inside and brought out her first brain scan to show me the tumor. She had endured 30 rounds of radiation and gave the most innocent but sadly profound answer when talking about her outlook.
“I have no reason not to love life because I’ve had nine long years of life,” she said. “Anything that happens now is just extra. It’s sprinkles on a cake.”
Sprinkles on a cake. A 10-year-old kid shouldn’t have to look at life that way. I got in my car and cried after leaving her house.
The Coach Kill connection
She was introduced to Kill through one of his former players who volunteered at Mia’s school and heard about her story. Kill, a fellow cancer survivor, and Mia hit it off immediately. They became close friends. One year they attended a charity event together and danced so much that Kill was sore the next day.
Kill invited Mia to speak to his team not long after they first met. She was terrified but wrote a speech.
“Life is a gift, and you should make the most of it,” she told the players. “And if you are going through hard times, remember your blessings and that will get you through.”
She received a standing ovation.
Mia asked Kill if she could come to the season opener that year because she had never been to a Gophers game. He invited her to lead the team onto the field.
“I remember walking down the tunnel and fans and players were giving me high-fives,” she said. “I remember Coach holding my hand tight. I couldn’t believe how many people there were.”
Mia’s story became an inspiration to so many people, especially pediatric cancer patients. Her family raised money for the HopeKids organization under the name Team Marvelous Mia. She used to ask her parents how long her membership to HopeKids would last.
Mia was too young to fully comprehend the gravity of her condition at the time. Her mother, Sandy, always feared that Mia and her older brother would google DIPG and learn hard facts. More radiation was not an option if her tumor returned. Surgery also isn’t possible with DIPG. They never googled it. Her brain scans kept coming back normal year after year. The miracle kid.
Mia learned more as she grew older. She understands the seriousness of everything now, which has helped connect dots with childhood memories.
“As the years passed, I’ve had to kind of reprocess some of the things when I realize what the people I’m close to went through along with me,” she said. “Now my mom and I can have some of the tough conversations where she talks about the milestones she thought I’d never make. Or have an emotional moment when I’m admitted to the U of M. She was just looking forward to when I would get to run onto the field and didn’t know what birthday I would make it to.”
Mia the grownup
Mia played softball in high school and considered continuing her athletic career at a Division III school close to home. But one day she sat down and wrote about her feelings and came to the realization that her dream was always to attend the U.
The day she got accepted checked one of those milestone boxes worthy of celebration.
“There were tears and hugging and a lot of excitement,” she said.
She enrolled in the College of Biological Sciences and studied neuroscience this school year. Her own history piqued her interest to learn more about the brain. She’s considering a change in majors moving forward. Maybe pre-med, maybe pre-law. But she had a wonderful first year of college.
She struggles sometimes with knowing when to share her health history with new friends on campus. She doesn’t want to make anyone feel uncomfortable or unsure of how to respond.
She was part of a lab study group in one of her classes. One lab partner googled everyone in the group out of curiosity. He learned a lot about Mia, which she laughs about now when telling the story.
Freshman year took a detour because of the pandemic. Her 19th birthday celebration was different from most, too.
The procession of cars rolling past her house on a warm, sunny day included friends from high school and college, along with her fourth-grade teacher, former coaches and a sportswriter.
“A lot of unexpected great surprises,” she said.
She wore a tiara and birthday sash. Her dessert had a candle with the number 10 on top. A 10-year survivor, to the day.
Her family still writes her nickname on birthday cards, which she thinks is sweet. Me, too, and so I’ll end this column the same way I ended the first one because it describes Mia perfectly, then and now.
She is marvelous.