By Shawn Annarelli
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Joe Mandak’s body slumped back into the arms of his THON moralers. He was beginning to faint after dancing for 45 and a half hours when Penn State New Kensington moralers slowly lowered him to the dance floor. A few minutes later, EMTs stretchered him away and into an ambulance.
Mandak had become severely dehydrated and exhausted from dancing for so long.
“I hope I didn’t kill the momentum for anyone,” Mandak said.
New Kensington’s student section fell silent as Mandak lie motionless. But instead of killing the weekend’s momentum, it brought everyone closer together.
“I think a really defining moment was whenever Joe wasn’t doing well, and all of New Kensington was cheering his name,” said New Kensington THON dancer Erin Prager. “Then, people not from New Kensington were cheering him on, too. It really defined a real THON family.”
Prior to Mandak’s dance till he dropped saga, New Kensington’s THON dancers were living a dream.Each dancer – Mandak, Prager, Keslie Nury and Andrew Holodnik – had determined months beforehand to become THON dancers.
Among other reasons, they each wanted to dance for children with cancer.
“I wanted to do everything I could do in my last year for THON,” Holodnik said.
Everything the THON dancers worked for came together at the beginning of THON weekend. What they were about to do – dance for 46 straight hours – began to hit them in the hours leading up to the THON finale.
“I was really excited to sit with dancers in the sports complex,” Prager said. “I sat with Kelsie, and when I saw the human tunnel it kind of hit me a little bit.”
The THON dancers went from the sports complex to go through a human tunnel that stretched from outside of the BJC, through the BJC’s main concourse, and extended the length of the basketball court.
When New Kensington’s THON dancers walked onto the court, they were greeted by over 15,000 students and THON families, including New Kensington’s student section in the front three rows of section 114.
“Seeing our campus in the front row going crazy for you, you have no idea what to do but be excited to be there,” Nury said. “You’re overwhelmed with excitement and adrenaline.”
The four dancers organized themselves and sat on the floor to wait for THON to begin. An hour later, THON Overall Chair Elaine Tanella began the countdown for dancers to stand.
“The anxiety kills you,” Holodnik said. “It’s so hard to put these things into words. Getting ready to stand, you get tingles and a whole sense of serenity. It’s a feeling like no other.”
Finally, the four THON dancers popped up with 704 other dancers from different campuses.
“I’m getting a rush just replaying it through my mind,” Mandak said. “You just start dancing and don’t worry about a thing. Once she started counting down it was like celebrating New Years.”
While the dancers felt well in the first few hours of THON, several challenges faced them throughout the weekend.
“It’s definitely tough,” Holodnik said. “There are moments that you question if you can keep going. I kind of felt drunk. I was hallucinating and seeing people that weren’t there.”
Prager was able to overcome some early tiredness with a positive attitude.
“The only time I felt tired was Friday night when I normally go to bed,” Prager said. “I was like, ‘Oh no, it’s only Friday.’ So I just had a positive attitude the rest of the time and it really helped.”
Prager drew from an instruction she got from her father, who was also her gymnastics coach.
“He always said to me, ‘positive mental attitude,’” Prager said.
Playing with children with cancer also kept THON’s dancers’ spirits up. Prager and Nury met a little girl named Isabella, who was acting a little shy until she saw something that Nury had.
“She wanted to play with a yoyo I had, so Erin and I played with her for like 45 minutes,” Nury said. “It was like she forgot about everything else happening in her life. To see her just having fun and not worrying about what she has to go through was good for her and really special for us.”
Prager, Mandak, Nury and Holodnik accomplished what they set out to do.
But what’s next?
Prager and Mandak are graduating this semester, but will be back for more THON finales as alumni. Holodnik has a few surprises up his sleeve, but he won’t reveal them until a day before the next THON finale. And Nury is New Kensington’s new THON chair.
“Once again, I think it’s going to be another life changing experience,” Nury said.
For more weekly stories and information about THON, and to see dancer Q&As, visit dance4thon.blogspot.com.