Hanover — If anyone could survive cancer, the thinking went, it had to be Maribel Sanchez Souther.
A former Dartmouth College All-American track and cross country runner, Big Green coach and a mother of three known for passionate involvement with her family and her adopted hometown, the 41-year-old Hanover resident was the picture of physical and emotional determination.
She completed the local Covered Bridges Half Marathon in an hour and 37 minutes just two days before undergoing a 2015 mastectomy.
Despite considerable pain, she was the fifth woman to finish in her age group, a testament to her fitness and courage. So it was even more heartbreaking for her friends and family members when Souther succumbed to complications from her disease on New Year’s Eve.
“It’s hard to sum up the situation without thinking how unfair it is,” said Barry Harwick, Dartmouth’s longtime men’s cross county and track coach. “She was a lifetime athlete who was never an ounce overweight and who lived her life in the right way. Meanwhile, a lot of other people seem to just go floating along.”
Her nickname was “Mariposa,” Spanish for butterfly, a creature known for bobbing through the air, but also, as former Big Green softball coach Christine Vogt noted in a Facebook post, for “endurance, determination and grace.” Those words are an apt description for how the New York native both lived and died.
Ellen O’Neil, who coached Maribel at Dartmouth before moving on to the same position at Smith College, recalled sitting with her friend this past fall at the family’s home off Route 10 near the Lebanon line. Souther’s three children, ages 8, 6 and 2, were bickering in the background and O’Neil asked if she should hush them to make their mother more comfortable.
“Maribel looked over and said no, that she liked it,” said O’Neil, herself a mother of three. “It made me pause and realize I need to come home and be more patient and accepting.”
Maribel Sanchez was born at Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, and her family later moved north to the Bronx and Westchester County, settling in Yorktown Heights, roughly 45 miles from New York City. That’s where Maribel and her sisters Bernadette and Jen and her brother, Silvio, mostly grew up. It’s also where the running bug took hold, despite initial resistance from parents Silvio and Maria, immigrants from the Dominican Republic.
Bernadette, born two years earlier than Maribel, recalled that a neighbor girl, “white, American and blonde” ran with the Edgemont Track Club and invited the sisters to join her. It took a week of begging for the Sanchez parents to be worn down. Silvio owned a string of bodegas in the Bronx, and Maria helped out. Her own mother, who lived with the family, was almost always home to watch the kids.
“My parents were like ‘Dominicans don’t run just to run. Why would you do that?’ ” Bernadette said with a laugh. “We showed up in jeans because we didn’t know people had special clothes to run in.”
Maribel soon overtook Bernadette, who was allowed to quit running before returning to it a few years later. Maribel wanted to quit too, so she wouldn’t miss home play time with her sister, but her parents wouldn’t hear of it.
“They said no, you have potential,” Bernadette said. “They were always worried we would become these loose, American girls, but they saw running was a great way for kids to be under adult supervision and not be distracted by other things.”
After competing for Yorktown High, Maribel had an immediate impact at Dartmouth, where she was a four-time All-American in cross country, the first woman at the college to earn that specific honor. She won the 1994 U.S. Junior National Cross Country Championships as a sophomore and might have gone to that meet as a freshman, had she not crossed paths with someone equally as strong-willed — new Big Green coach O’Neil, then 27.
O’Neil arrived for the 1993 winter season and wasn’t overly impressed with Maribel’s training efforts for the junior nationals. So she set a challenging time as the standard for whether or not she would take her runner to them and, when Maribel came up just short, held her ground.
“The second year she won it after training very hard,” said O’Neil, noting that Maribel later represented the U.S. at the world championships in Hungary. “From that point, we clicked.”
Kristin McGee grew up not far from Maribel and competed against her in high school. She also ran at Dartmouth and roomed with her friend for three years, including two in an apartment at Lebanon’s Boulders condominium complex.
“She turned around Dartmouth’s distance (running) program,” McGee said. “She created a new way to be a Dartmouth runner. She was super serious on the track, but off it, she was very funny and physically comedic and wanted to get you to laugh.”
She was also adventurous, leaping out of trees that overhung the Connecticut River and once stewing all night after backing down from a plunge off a 50-foot cliff into Lake Champlain. On a camping trip with teammate Deirdre Shearer and Shearer’s boyfriend at the time, Maribel awoke early and climbed back up the cliff, hurling herself off it while her companions were wondering where she’d gone.
She twice won individual Ivy League titles in cross country, three in indoor track, three in outdoor track and led the 1996 Dartmouth cross country team to a fifth-place national finish. That latter effort allowed her to collect on a bet she had with Shearer that the pair would get tattoos if the Big Green could crack the top five. Shearer remembers Maribel somehow locating a tattoo artist off the Upper Valley’s beaten paths.
“It was in a small town and in a house and not exactly an established place,” she said. “There were pit bulls chained outside.”
Maribel got a tattoo of the Roadrunner cartoon character and Shearer chose a winged foot. After graduation, at which Maribel was recognized as Dartmouth’s best female athlete, the friends lived with several others on Madison Street in the Boston suburb of Somerville, Mass. They competed for the Reebok Boston running team and Maribel worked as a massage therapist.
While in Boston, one of Maribel’s former Dartmouth teammates came to live with her and tried out for a rowing team at the Riverside Boat Club. A member there, Holy Cross College graduate John Souther, became friends with the housemates. During February, 2001, Souther wound up in the hospital with a blood clot problem and Maribel was one of those who came by to visit.
A few months later, Souther discovered she didn’t have plans for her birthday and took her out for sushi. The pair were friends for two months before romance blossomed and they were married at Hanover’s Saint Denis Church in 2003.
By that time, she was back at Dartmouth as an assistant to O’Neil. She had qualified for the 2000 U.S. Olympic trials but couldn’t compete because of injury, and she and Souther were engaged during a June 6, 2002, walk along Boston’s Charles River, during which the hopeful suitor sweated profusely.
John Souther landed a financial adviser’s job in Hanover. His wife became Dartmouth head women’s cross country and track coach in 2003, a position she held until 2010. One of her last recruits was Abbey D’Agostino, a 2014 Dartmouth graduate who became the program’s first NCAA title-winner with one each in cross country and outdoor track and two in indoor track. D’Agostino also competed in the 2016 Olympic Games and runs professionally.
In time, however, the challenges of coaching and motherhood were too much for Maribel. College coaches who guide cross country and track teams endure three consecutive, competitive seasons and their nights and summers are loaded with recruiting duties. Bernadette Sanchez said her sister asked Dartmouth if she could split coaching duties with someone else, but when that request was denied, she stepped down with few regrets.
Not coaching didn’t mean Maribel wasn’t around her former teams, however. Harwick recalls her consistently dropping by meets and practices with her children or running into them at a Big Green baseball game or the annual homecoming bonfire. She could often be seen pushing a two-child jogging stroller up South Main Street towards the Green and volunteered with Hanover’s schools, civic organizations, her church and the Montshire Museum.
Come winter, the determined mother strapped on skates and lurched around her family’s backyard skating rink, where Jackson and Paco, budding youth hockey players, could often be found. Not previously a skier, she leapt into that sport with her boys as well.
Funny, approachable and earnest, Maribel was able to make friends in minutes and those people often came to regard her as one of their closest confidantes.
“She had connections everywhere in the Upper Valley,” O’Neil said. “People felt like she cared for them as much as they cared for her. That’s not always true, especially in an age where friendships can feel trivialized.”
Maribel experienced chest pains while pregnant with her third child and they persisted after the birth in February 2014. When she discovered a lump in her breast, tests revealed cancer in May.
John Souther, who lost his mother to cancer and who has been a member of the Friends of the Norris Cotton Cancer Center since 2005, leveraged every contact he had to seek effective treatment, but his wife’s disease was at stage IV, meaning it was likely terminal.
“I’m not a doctor but most of medicine seems to be probabilities,” he said. “With cancer, it seems to be educated guesses in coin flipping, because we don’t have the ability to know whether a treatment is really going to work on you.”
Maribel remained as active as possible and pursued every treatment avenue. When the cancer was found last fall to have spread to her spinal fluid, she underwent brain radiation treatments that initially seemed successful. However, complications from her disease delayed further treatment and eventually ended her life.
Two months earlier, when the extended Sanchez family had gathered for the funeral of the grandmother who helped raise Maribel and her siblings, she had confided in her older sister.
“She said she was really scared and wondered if the next gathering would be for her,” Bernadette Sanchez said. “My dad was with her for eight days in November and she acknowledged that she was dying and thanked him for all the sacrifices he made so she could have a successful running career. She let my mom take care of her in the last weeks and that made her feel so good, that she was still needed.”
Maribel came home from the hospital on Dec. 24. Shearer arrived from Colorado the day before her friend’s death and said that while she passed with grace, those attending her often couldn’t control their emotions.
“Even at the end, when she was struggling so much, she said she was sorry that we had to care for her,” Shearer said. “She was so strong and you’re crying like a baby.”
John Souther and the two boys were in New Jersey the night of Maribel’s death. John had long before purchased tickets to a New Jersey Devils NHL hockey game in Newark and arranged to have his sons meet Devils defenseman and Upper Valley native Ben Lovejoy afterward. He and Maribel decided the tickets should be used so the boys would have a positive memory at a difficult time.
A 3-kilometer run was held in Maribel’s honor early on the morning of Jan. 7, the day of her heavily attended funeral. About 70 people showed up in single-digit temperatures on the Dartmouth Green and many then attended one of Jackson’s hockey games at Campion Arena shortly after.
The service was held at Saint Denis in the early afternoon, following three hours of Friday night visitation during which there was rarely a break in the receiving line. A celebration of Maribel’s life held the next night at a local restaurant also drew a sizable gathering.
“It’s still kind of surreal that she’s not around,” John Souther said. “My mom died when I was 19, but it’s different. There’s a different void.”
Said Shearer: “It’s unreal that her children won’t know her like we did, but they will know how much she loved them. I’m confident everyone is committed to keeping her memory alive.”
To that end, Souther and Dartmouth have established a scholarship fund in Maribel’s name. It can be accessed online at dartgo.org/MaribelFund and will annually benefit a Big Green runner, preferably a minority, with financial need. Souther said $49,000 of the $50,000 needed had been raised as of Friday and that he will make up the rest so that so that distribution can begin in 2018
“If she had not gone to Dartmouth with financial aid, I wouldn’t have the three kids I have,” Souther said. “What better way to have a lasting legacy that my kids can be part of than to support someone who could be like their mother?” Tris Wykes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3227.