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Life After Death: #MilesForJamie and the Race to Beat Cancer

Jamie Roberts was a coach, friend, and inspiration to the people in her life. She remains an inspiration well after her death.

As the Catholic University women's basketball team prepared for an exhibition game at the University of Maryland last spring, assistant coach Jamie Roberts quietly broke free from the group and strode to center court, got down on her stomach, and struck a pose in the middle of the Terrapins logo. Their anxiety quelled, the Cardinal women all laughed. That was Jamie being Jamie. Her smile could disarm any tension.


"[Jamie] had a quiet way of bringing people together," said Katrina Reed, who worked alongside Roberts as an assistant coach. "There was no situation so stressful that couldn't be overcome with a joke or a smile. There was this sense that everything was going to be okay if Jamie was around."

Roberts grew up in Rockville and was a three-sport athlete at St. Mary's College in Maryland. After graduating in 2011, she went from volunteer assistant to full-time assistant with the women's basketball team at Catholic University, and took a job with the athletic department. It was, in every way, a revealing indication of Roberts' character: Winning over Matthew Donohue, head coach of the Cardinals women's team, as a volunteer at a basketball summer camp. She showed up every day and stayed long after camp hours were over, accepting challenge after challenge to games of HORSE.

As a coach and member of the athletic department, according to Reed, she became a well-known presence on campus, her dark brown hair back tight in a single pony-tail, a smile always on her face, punctuated by deep smile marks and a slight squint.

True to her nature, Roberts decided to take part in 4K for Cancer, a program of the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults: she would ride her bike 4,400 miles from Baltimore to Portland, Oregon to raise awareness and money. The task was more than just a physical challenge for Roberts. Her grandfather died of lung cancer, and she was riding in honor of a close college teammate, whose parents both fought—and won—battles with the disease..


"She came from the means to do so and could have easily written a check," said Reed, now the girl's head coach at Episcopal High School in Alexandria. "But she was so moved by the experiences of others that she wanted to do something so difficult so that it might benefit others."

Roberts never completed her race. On June 13, she stopped to fix a flat tire about 30 miles north of Lexington, Kentucky along US 25 in Scott County. She was working on the tire when a truck struck and killed her. She was 24 years old and 3,685 miles away from completing her ride to The City of Roses.

"The news hit us hard," said Donohue. "We were on break. Reaching out to all of our players with that news was one of the most challenging things I've ever had to do."

Indeed, Donohue said, the hurt was bolstered by the fact that the girls within the Catholic program weren't together to cope. A basketball team survives grueling early morning practices and long bus rides, they share meals and stressful study halls. They do almost everything together. It becomes a close-knit family.

"When the girls came back to work camp [in the summer]," said Donohue, "it was a bit of catharsis. We wanted to be together as a team and as a program. We wanted to be together working camp and spending time with each other to remember Jamie."

In the aftermath of her death, Roberts' college friend Jackie Killebrew began using the hashtag #milesforjamie, with the idea that Roberts' friends from St. Mary's, a school of less than 2,000 students, could finish the race for her: run, bike, or swim the remaining miles for their friend. The effort caught on in a way Killebrew did not anticipate. The hashtag became a phenomenon, at least in the context of a small Maryalnd Catholic school. Two-thousand-seven-hundred people joined the Miles for Jamie Facebook group: teachers, coaches, nurses, financial advsiors, even a program manager at the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.


Roberts had initially hoped to ride across country and raise $6,000. The people running, swimming, and pedalling in her honor have since traveled far enough to circle the globe a few times over, and have raised awareness not only of Roberts' cause, but of her own life. They have also raised more than $300,000 for the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.

"You obviously never want to see that happen to anyone," said Donohue, "but it just adds so much more to the story to know what she was doing but also what was moving her to do it. I don't think I've met anyone who isn't moved to take some kind of action."

"At the time it started as a way for everyone to deal with their grief," said Killebrew. "It's wonderful how it has developed and become almost like a lifestyle for people. For me, it's just a way to show my support and adopt her lifestyle. She was someone I looked up to."

Though Killebrew hasn't spoken directly to them, she noted that Roberts' mother and father had begun logging their own miles onto the group page. Some of the people posting are friends; others are strangers; some are running for health reasons; others to promote cancer awareness. Some just feel embraced by the community.

"When I started this," said Killebrew, "I didn't even think about all the other people who would join this cause. It's a testament to who Jamie was and who she is going to continue to be. I believe she's left a legacy that is going to continue throughout many, many years to come."

On Roberts' still active Twitter page, her last entries are littered with exclamation points, expressing delight at the seemingly routine and mundane: a "d-liscious" breakfast, a chance encounter with a dog, her mom's birthday, and, ominously, her last tweet, "Took a bit to get out of Cincinnati, but we made it to Kentucky!!"

Certain events affect positive changes, and, yes, some of these events include the sadness of an untimely death. And just as the urge to sanctify the dead can be discomfiting, there is something to be said for allowing the best of those we remember fondly to be what lives on.

Roberts wasn't afraid to do something just because it was daunting or difficult, just as she was eager to go beyond the call of duty to do something to put a smile on someone's face: a game of one-on-one, a well-timed joke during an argument, trying to get a cute bartender to come dance at a friend's wedding.

These examples fit into the fondest and most enduring parts of memories. These stories are now part of a finite bank of tales to tell. Roberts' legacy can be seen as a culmination of all of them: the girl with the endless reserve of energy, the big smile, the bigger heart, and an enduring need to make the people around her feel special; even after death. Now Jamie pushes them all—friends and family and strangers—to be their best selves. All of them in search of some common and ultimately unknown goal.