Gymnasts mount a moving tribute

Mandy Lathim touched many lives inside -- and outside -- the local gymnastics community

By Paul Valencia, Columbian high school sports reporter

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Mandy Lathim gave so much of herself. To her sport. To her school. To everything, everyone, who was a part of her life.

Even today, nearly six months after her death, she is still giving. Four people have benefitted from her final act, as an organ donor, and more will benefit in the coming months. Family and friends give to those who are struggling, in honor of Mandy's passion for charity.

Mandy also remains an inspiration to her gymnastics team at Mountain View, even to athletes she never met.

"Even though I didn't know her, I am really impressed with all that I've heard," freshman Ariel Meyer said. "She is a big role model to all of us."

With her duty to her team, her commitment to her sport, and her respect for the competition, Mandy was the standard for the ideal that character counts more than the score.

She was a natural leader, so, naturally, she was the captain of her team.

For all she did for the team, the Mountain View Thunder have dedicated this season to Mandy, who graduated last June before losing an 18-day battle after a car crash in California in July.

Once a team captain, always a team captain, even if only in spirit. Stories of Mandy will be relayed to this year's freshmen, next year's freshmen, and following classes.

The gymnasts wear pink bows and ribbons in their hair during competition. A pink penguin is on the team's warm-up shirts. With Mandy's favorite color and favorite animal, the Thunder know she is with them.

Hanging on the wall at Vancouver Elite Gymnastics Academy North, Mountain View's home gym, is her letterman's jacket, along with a senior picture.

Mountain View coach Cristi Westcott said she hopes the display that holds the jacket will be transferred to other areas of importance in Mandy's life. Mandy was a coach at Naydenov Gymnastics. She also was into leadership at her school, the student body vice president. Perhaps this memorial can spend a few months here and there, a moving tribute to someone who moved so many.

"She was a great kid. She has a great family. She had some great goals," Westcott said. "I think she could have been president of the United States. She could argue politics. She would hold her ground. She was someone who stood up for what she believed in. And she was into kids. Reading, talking to them, teaching them. She taught gymnastics, morals and values."

Her coach called her the perfect teammate, always encouraging, never demeaning.

"I was always a really shy kid," senior Deslys Parker said. "She was the first one to get me to open up. She was the most enthusiastic, friendly girl I have ever met in my life. I started loving gymnastics after meeting her. She gave me a nickname. 'D-Slice.' I never had a nickname in my life. I still go by that. She was a bright spot."

Kaitlyn Nagy said she will never forget how the senior treated her when Nagy was a freshman.

"It was so, so important to me. She never ever belittled us. We were all equals. That meant a lot to me because I was so much younger," said Nagy, now a sophomore.

In such a demanding sport, when failures in practice can seem too heavy a burden, Mandy was the inspiring teammate. She was the one who convinced her teammates that the breakthrough was just one more try away. Keep working. Keep trying. The skill will improve.

"I didn't think I was that great. She saw potential in me. She helped me (with the uneven) bars," sophomore Rachael Washburn said, noting that's how she got her nickname from Mandy, "Bar Babe."

"She really made me feel like I could be better and pushed me to be better."

Washburn learned more about Mandy when the two were in the same hotel room as Mountain View went to the state meet last year in Tacoma.

"That's when I found out she was a really awesome person," Washburn said.

She heard of Mandy's volunteer work with the homeless and with underprivileged children.

"I honestly didn't know she was so into helping the community," Washburn said.

At the request of the family, the Mountain View gymnasts wore their warm-up uniforms to the funeral, where they were ushers.

"We laughed. We cried. We laughed," Coach Westcott said.

"Then we cried some more," Nagy added.

At the end of the service, the family distributed hand warmers to all in attendance, asking that they give the hand warmers, in Mandy's memory, to those in need this winter. Mandy would buy hand warmers by the dozen, leave them in her car, and hand them to those less fortunate who ask for help at busy intersections.

"She was always caring for everybody," said Kristen Peppers, a junior gymnast who saw Mandy a lot outside of the gym as well. "Everybody loved being around her."

That "everybody" would include the competition, too.

"Where to start? She was so supportive to everyone. Even though we were competing, I felt she always had my back," Union senior Jessica Curley said. "She was very humble about all of her accomplishments at school. She just spread her love everywhere. I wasn't close to her, but I feel close to her. Her positive attitude was contagious."

"She thought of others more than herself," added Union sophomore Shelby Bafus.

Mandy continues to encourage gymnasts, too.

"It's good to have these memories and have them mean something," Curley said. "Some days I don't want to come to gym practice, but then I remember her."

A lot of younger children loved going to practice, too, when Mandy was their coach at Naydenov.

Lathan Lamb, a 23-year-old assistant coach at Union, worked with her at Naydenov.

"She was really good with the kids. Most of the kids liked her more than me," he said with a smile. "She was the fun coach, but she really did work hard."

Mandy's mother, Denise Ellis, appreciated all the love from those associated with the sport. Coach Westcott and Naydenov co-owner Kevin Jenkins rushed to Redding, Calif., to be with Mandy and the family in those final days.

"She was loved," Ellis said.

Ellis received word that Mandy's organs have helped two people in California, another in Florida, and another in Wisconsin.

Being an organ donor was important to Mandy.

"She could never imagine someone not wanting to help other people after they died," Ellis said.

The family has set up three scholarships in Mandy's honor. One will go to a Mountain View gymnast every year. Another is called the "Live with Purpose" scholarship, available to a Mountain View senior who best demonstrates how his or her life will serve a greater purpose. A scholarship also will pay for one more student to attend Leadership Camp. The school pays for six students a year. Now, seven will be present.

"She would come back from camp and say it changed her life," Ellis said.

The way she lived her life changed others.

Which is why a 2012 high school graduate remains such a huge part of the 2013 Mountain View gymnastics team. The pink bows and the penguins are a way for the athletes to honor someone who meant so much to them and to show that she is not forgotten.

A salute to Mandy Lathim, a team captain forever.