For the first 20 hours or so of THON, Lauren Rzucidlo felt strong in body, mind and spirit.
Then, she hit a wall.
“I was so frustrated. I usually try to get through things on my own, but I thought, ‘This is awful,’” she said.
Fortunately, her fellow dancers from Penn State Scranton’s THON team came to her aid, as did her designated Dancer Relation Committee Member (DRCM), who pulled out pictures of Rzucidlo’s family and friends as a therapeutic source of inspiration.
“It was very emotional,” said the campus sophomore. “I was just bawling my eyes out. I didn’t realize how much that support would mean to me.”
In the end, though, she and the campus’ three other dancers – seniors David Jobs and Alicia Santarsiero and freshman John Squatrito – made it through all 46 hours of this year’s Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.
More than 700 Penn State students danced in the no-sleeping, no-sitting endurance test at University Park’s Bryce Jordan Center, in the process raising a record-breaking $11.7 million “For the Kids.”
Meanwhile, for the second straight year, the campus landed in the Top 5 of Commonwealth Campus fundraisers, raising $43,310.65, which was just a little over $200 shy of last year’s campus total.
As always, THON’s proceeds supported Four Diamonds at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital, which assists pediatric cancer patients and their families via superior care, comprehensive support and innovative research.
Reflecting on the experience, the Scranton students were jubilant – and relieved – that they had completed THON and, in the process, collected a lifetime’s worth of memories and bragging rights.
“It was such an amazing experience -- a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Squatrito, now a second-generation THON dancer, following in the footsteps of his sister, Alex, a past Penn State Scranton THON dancer. “It was just inspiring to see everything come together, and how much of an impact we can have.”
“I would say it was the most challenging but rewarding experience of my life,” added Rzucidlo, hoarse after her weekend of shouting above the THON cacophony. “It really was something I will never forget.”
The four dancers -- the most ever in campus history -- cited a number of sights, sounds and feelings that made the weekend special, among them THON traditions like the Slide of Strength baby powder slide, and the legendary Line Dance that namechecks notable events from the past year.
And, of course, there was the Mail Bag delivery of letters of encouragement from family members, friends and even strangers like the little boy who wished Squatrito well in his shaky penmanship.
“It was so cute,” Squatrito said.
Jobs spent the better part of the weekend parked directly in front of the section holding the Penn State Scranton cheering section. He riled them up, and they did the same for him.
“I just wanted to spend each and every moment with all the people I worked so hard with through the years to get to where we are,” Jobs said. “They gave me the strength to keep going.”
Keeping the dancers fueled was a near-constant barrage of food – everything from pasta to burrito bowls to oatmeal. Jobs estimated he devoured roughly 12 sandwiches from the peanut butter and jelly station.
Meanwhile, the dancers’ DRCMs were able to smuggle in some delicious contraband – Berkey Creamery ice cream for Squatrito and Santarsiero, a quart of milk for Jobs, and a pitaya bowl from Playa Bowls Penn State for Rzucidlo.
The dancers used gummy bears and Rita’s Italian Ice to help bring Santarsiero out of a couple of her sleep-deprived funks.
Through it all, though, Santarsiero said she remembered to "keep pushing through for my THON family and so many others."
“I had the amazing support of my other dancers and my DRCMs to pick me up when I was down, she said. “I always thought about our THON family and all the families to keep my stamina up.”
The campus’ designated child sponsor, Arelis Rodriguez, attended THON with her family. Whenever Rodriguez, the dancers’ families, or members of the campus community visited the dance floor, “the energy picked up,” according to Santarsiero. Without that, she said, “I think myself and the others would have hit way more lows.”
“At the end of the day, you have to realize that everyone is here supporting you, and you’re not the only one in this,” Rzucidlo added. “That helps a lot and makes the journey easier.”
The closing hours of THON -- the Final Four, as they’re known – were by far the most emotional, as the dancers listened to testimonials from survivors and the families of those who lost their battle with cancer.
“That’s the one that hits everyone hard. The group next to us, two of the dancers were cancer survivors, and they were balling,” Squatrito said. “Seeing that is really emotional, but it’s really good because you all come together.”
By the end, everyone was appropriately drained yet euphoric -- although Jobs admitted to a bit of post-THON melancholy.
“Knowing it was my last one, I was a little sad. I didn’t want it to end,” said Jobs, who had attended the previous three THONs before being chosen to dance.
Sweet slumber came soon afterward for Rzucidlo, who slept nearly the entire car ride home. She then spent most of Monday in bed, “relaxing and reflecting.”
Somewhat surprisingly, the others were not as restful. Squatrito got up for his 9 a.m. class, Jobs went to work and Santarsiero somehow managed to fly to Florida for a work trip.
Already, Squatrito is thinking about next year’s THON. He could dance again, but he’s also interested in possibly becoming THON campus chair.
Rzucidlo has aspirations of being a DRCM next year, when she’ll be a student at University Park.
“I feel like I’d be good in that role because I can understand what the dancers are going through,” she said.
For Jobs and Santarsiero, their THON days are officially over. However, the two seniors take comfort in knowing they’ll still be able to support the cause as alumni.
“I don’t see this as being an end with THON, but more like the beginning of my alumni stage of supporting it as much as I can,” Jobs said.
“I will continue to support THON any way I can,” Santarsiero said. “It was everything I expected and more. I loved being a part of something so special.”