SALEM — For many top student athlete recruits, signing a letter of intent to play college sports is a rite of passage, but for 14-year-old Caroline Swearingen of Marblehead, signing with Salem State University's women's soccer team is a sign of resiliency.
On a chilly afternoon at Alumni Field adjacent to the O'Keefe Sports Complex, the bubbly high-school freshman recruit signed an official draft day letter to become part of Salem State's Division III women's soccer team in a partnership with a national nonprofit based in Quincy called Team Impact.
This nonprofit aims to improve the quality of life for kids facing serious or chronic illnesses. In Caroline's case, she's facing a rare blood vessel disorder, Takayasu's arteritis disease, which causes inflammation of large blood vessels. She was diagnosed with the disease in 2017.
In the past eight years, Team Impact has matched more than 1,700 kids with more than 500 colleges and universities, including several teams at Salem State. The goal is not only to make a kids' dream of being part of a college team come true, but to provide inspiration to student athletes.
As a top recruit, Caroline becomes an official Viking team member. She'll be able to attend practices, go to games, travel on the team on the bus, be the ball girl, hang out in the locker room, attend team dinners, or take part in team events.
"She's amazing," said women's soccer head coach Nicolle Wood, who is in her 13th season. "She's a great kid. She's a good fit for the personality of our team. She's grounded but she's also just infectious with her positivity, so, yeah, I think it's going to mean a lot more to our players than I think she realizes."
"She thinks it's about us helping her," Wood added, "but she's going to help us a lot more than she realizes."
With her dad, Ron, and mom, Stephanie, on hand, and the orange Viking mascot Superfan standing nearby, Caroline was all smiles as Wood welcomed her to the Viking family and she sat at a table to sign the letter of intent.
"I give Team Impact and Salem State a lot of credit for getting involved with it," Ron Swearingen said. "It's a wonderful program especially for, you know, someone Caroline's age and kind of in her mid-teens, etc... It's just a wonderful program and a positive impact on kids."
A bout of pain, fever and fatigue led to Caroline's diagnosis, Stephanie Swearingen said. She's being treated at Boston Children's Hospital.
"Something like this is just a wonderful opportunity to connect with the older kids and it's really been great," Stephanie Swearingen said.
"I hope you know what you are getting into," Wood said during the signing ceremony. "But we are also very excited. I think in the short time that we've had to get to know you already, I think you have had an impact on these ladies, and we know that the positivity that you bring and the resilience that you are going to teach us about is something that's going to go way beyond what we are going to be able to offer to you."
"Caroline's going to be part of our team," said Salem State junior Kate Joy, 19. "She's going to do everything a recruit would do. She's going to be in our locker room. She's going to be our hype man. She comes to every game if she wants to. As much or as little as she wants. We are going to support her in everything she does and she's going to do the same for us."
That means if Caroline has a soccer game or a spelling bee, her Viking teammates will be there, Joy said.
"We are just super excited," said Katie Brown, 20, of Milford, a rising senior with the team who is studying criminal justice, psychology and legal studies. "She fits the personality of our team perfectly and we'll support her no matter what and she'll be there with us for everything."
Wood hopes Caroline will be the team's good luck charm as they would love to win the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference. After signing the letter, Wood urged Caroline to unzip her coat and reveal her official Viking sweatshirt like other recruits do on draft day.
Caroline said she has an older sister, Emily, who is a senior at Marblehead High. Caroline is attending school through an online high school program, but she participates in sports and electives at Marblehead High.
"I get to do my work at home, but, like sports and stuff at school," she said, "which is cool."
Her disease used to affect her ability to play sports.
"But, now that I'm on a treatment plan, right now I'm able to play soccer and run track and ski and everything, so it's really nice now," Caroline said.
"We are recruiting her as a recruit," said Joy, who comes from Hanover and who serves as head of the leadership team for Team Impact. She said local colleges like Endicott College and Merrimack College also have teams that are taking part in the program. Joy said the women's soccer team has been on the waiting list for more than two years.
Men's tennis recently signed a Team Impact player, Joy said, and members of the women's soccer team went to support them.
"And Caroline happens to be the right fit," said Joy, who is studying nursing and who will be a junior by the time Caroline joins the team in the fall.
Wood said men's hockey got involved about six years ago, and they noticed what a rewarding experience it was. Women's soccer is the fifth team at Salem State to get a recruit through Team Impact, Wood said.
"We've just seen the positive impact it has had on our athletes," Wood said.
When asked if she might consider Salem State for college, Caroline said: "Maybe. I don't know. It's a little close to home."
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.