Two years ago, Taylor Sweet was like a lot of other high school student athletes, trying to find the balance between school, social life and sports.
But on March 12, 2010, her life would change forever.
On that day, her mother, Julie, was taken to the hospital for a biopsy, where she found out she not only had brain cancer but also had a brain hemorrhage and was rushed into emergency surgery.
Julie's condition worsened when she suffered a stroke that same day, and doctors warned her husband, Michael, that she might not survive.
"I remember the doctors telling me to get my girls (Taylor and her older sister, Samantha) because they might have to say goodbye to their mother," said Michael. "It's not something you ever want to hear."
But Julie defied the odds, showing signs of movement and speech the very next day in the hospital.
As she slowly began to rehabilitate and recover, Taylor found strength from her mother.
"My perspective on everything changed completely because of what my mom went through," Taylor said. "She had to work very hard just to be able to do the simple things in life. I knew I had it good, and I had to take advantage of that."
Taylor, now 17, had shown signs of becoming a standout runner in her first two seasons on the Lake Norman cross country team, running a personal-best 19:16 at Mac Anderson Park in Statesville as a freshman.
But she was also inconsistent at times through the next year, according to Lake Norman cross country coach Kathleen Scott.
As her mother went through treatment, Taylor found a new dedication to the sport and running in general to help with the everyday stresses that life had now dealt her.
"I think Taylor really lost herself in running because it was a relief for her, almost like a medicine to help her cope with what was going on her mom's life," said Scott. "A lot of time, families want their kids to pull back when things like this happen. Taylor's mom wanted Taylor to continue to have a life and do whatever she wanted to do."
Taylor dedicated herself to the sport year-round, running 40 to 50 miles per week. While she improved a lot in her junior season, as she qualified for states, Taylor still lived in the shadow of former Lake Norman standout Jenny Gallagher.
"I was so used to running behind Jenny and always basing myself on what I did compared to Jenny," said Taylor, who is also a standout on the Wildcats' outdoor track team in the 800- and 1600-meter runs. "At the beginning of this year, it really sunk in that she was gone, and at first, we worried about running without her. But then I realized I had to step into the No. 1 spot and help lead this team."
Taylor has led a young team, which also includes sophomores Elise Devoe and Rachel Valocchi and classmate Nina Mastandrea in the top four, back to where they are used to being.
Taylor led the Wildcats to a win in the Iredell County championships Oct. 4, also winning the girls' race with a time of 20:21.73. Last month, she also won the I-Meck conference championship with a time of 19:57, sparking the Wildcat girls to their third consecutive I-Meck title.
Taylor also had an impressive season-best time of 19:48 in the prestigious Wendy's Invitational, finishing 18th.
Taylor wants to finish her cross country season as strong as she started, with hopes of having her best time of the year at states Nov. 5.
With her mother's cancer in remission since February, Taylor can fully focus on running towards her future.
Taylor, who also boasts a 4.5 grade-point-average, hopes to continue her cross country career in college. She has received interest from UNC Greensboro, USC Upstate, Maryland, Tennessee Tech and Wofford. Taylor is also interested in Appalachian State, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Whether she runs competitively in college or not, Taylor knows running will always be an important part of her life.
"Running has really helped me get through a lot of difficult times," Taylor said. "But even though it helped me forget about things for a while, I was always thinking about my mom. She definitely motivated me to prove myself. I wanted to persevere because I knew that is what she was doing. I think I learned a lot about myself through all of this."