Mandi Schwartz ’11, the women’s hockey player whose courageous battle with cancer gripped Yale’s campus, the hockey world, and thousands across North America, died in her native province of Saskatchewan, Canada on Sunday morning. She was 23.
Her death followed a 27-month struggle with acute myeloid leukemia, which sparked bone marrow drives and fundraising efforts at Yale and beyond that have benefitted others diagnosed with the disease, adding roughly 4,200 potential donors to bone marrow registries in the U.S. and Canada.
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Schwartz came to Yale from the tiny town of Wilcox in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan with a fierce work ethic and profound love of hockey. During her first two years on campus, Schwartz distinguished herself as a leader on the squad. Her teammates called her the hardest working player on the ice, and a continually upbeat and caring presence off it.
But it was during her two-year fight with cancer that Schwartz transformed from a leader on the hockey team to an inspiration across the country. Schwartz’s cause entered the national spotlight in the summer of 2010, as her friends, family and teammates spent months raising awareness and funds for her cause. Doctors had determined after Schwartz’s second departure from Yale in April 2010 that she needed a bone marrow or stem cell transplant to survive, and her supporters worked to organize drives across Canada and the U.S. in hopes of finding a match. Schwartz’s story appeared on ESPN, ABC News, CBS News and in other major media outlets.
Though Schwartz expressed gratitude for the outpouring of support, she still accepted the attention reluctantly, Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway said in a Februrary interview.
“She didn’t want people to go around feeling actively sorry,” Holloway said. “That’s not the way she is. She wanted to be a student and a hockey player.”
Passion for hockey was a constant in Schwartz’s life. Though her mother put her on figure skates initially, Schwartz was soon shooting pucks with her brothers. She was a high school star and a dedicated skater who played 73 consecutive games for the Elis. She was back on the ice for conditioning skates with the hockey team days after returning to campus from her first bout with cancer.
“She was always smarter and harder working than me and Jaden,” Mandi’s younger brother Rylan said in a February interview. “We were more talented but she had the drive. We always looked up to her for how hard she worked to maintain her high grades and play so much hockey while we were goofing around on the ice.”
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Schwartz’s Yale teammates said she was consistently the first to arrive at practices and last to leave. She was known for her boundless energy, unfailing optimism, and tireless hustle.
Harry Rosenholtz, a former Yale coach who recruited Schwartz and now works at Quinnipiac, described Schwartz as the one skater he could always count on to help warm up the team’s goalies before practices, many of which were held before 7:30 a.m. Although he said she was always kind, she also held teammates to the standards she set for herself.
“Mandi is extremely mild-mannered, except there was one occasion I can remember where a goalie wasn’t working very hard,” Rosenholtz said in a February interview. “All of a sudden Mandi got pissed and just started firing pucks left and right and beating this goalie. She got the message across.”
Schwartz was originally diagnosed on Dec. 8, 2008, and left Yale the next day for a 130-day hospitalization — the first of many.
Throughout her battle with cancer, Schwartz had one brief return to her former life as a Yale student in January 2010. While in remission, she practiced with her team and attended classes for just four months before learning in April that her cancer had returned. The news came a few days before the second of two campus-wide bone marrow drives that have since become annual events named in Schwartz’s honor.
The media blitz and donor search that followed seemed to pay off when the discovery of two adequate stem cell matches enabled Schwartz’s long-awaited transplant in late September at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.
Schwartz could not stay away from hockey, even during the weeks she spent recuperating and battling a weak immune system after the transplant. Bundled in layers of clothing to ward off the draft, she delivered homemade cookies to an all-girls team in Seattle and helped coach them for a game.
Hilary Witt, Yale’s former head women’s hockey coach, visited Schwartz in October following her transplant. The visit, Witt said, was a “constant reminder” that Schwartz would not cease fighting.
“Knowing Mandi, you don’t expect that to stop,” Witt said at the time.
Although Schwartz continued to battle her cancer, she learned in December 2010 that she had relapsed once more. Her family announced in early 2011 that she would not continue curative chemotherapy, and Schwartz returned home to Saskatchewan for her final months.
Schwartz spent that time with her fiancé, Kaylem Prefontaine, and with her other close friends and family. Her love for hockey and those around her remained evident — despite her illness, she drove 14 hours with her parents to watch her brothers’ Colorado College team compete in Minnesota.
“Even before she got sick, you just saw that determination and purpose in life,” Aleca Hughes ’12, a teammate of Schwartz’s, told the News in February. “She’s such a passionate hockey player and she just loves it. Loves it. And nothing was going to get in her way at all.”