Dance marathon worth all of the pain for Penn State athletes

Penn State's Matt Zanellato (football), Angela Widlacki (women's soccer), Emily Rivers (women's tennis), and Liisi Vink-Lainas (women's soccer) battled through physical and emotional pain during the dance marathon, but it was all worth it at the end. Courtesy of Matt Zanellato

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Penn State wideout Matt Zanellato sways like a prizefighter nearing the 12th round. He has survived five fall football camps and 38 career games, but he has never pushed his body this far.

He's not sure how much further it can go. Beads of sweat gather on his forehead and his eyelids grow heavier with every wince or blink, so it seems as if he might fall asleep standing up. He hasn't slept in more than 40 hours, after all. He hasn't even taken a seat or laid down in three days.

His left hamstring is on fire. His lower back is throbbing. Everything is sore. But with a smile -- yes, a smile -- he says he refuses to stop. He can't quit now.

"I can tell you why in three words," the fifth-year senior says. "For the kids."

Zanellato, a backup receiver who exhausted his football eligibility this past season, isn't the only one enduring this pain to help others. He's just one of 708 dancers, all Penn State students, who have pledged to eschew sleeping and sitting for 46 straight hours in favor of standing and dancing. The event -- formally known as the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, but affectionately known simply as Thon -- raises money and awareness to fight childhood cancer, while also providing an outlet of support for affected families. It's the largest student-run philanthropy in the world and, this year alone, raised $9.7 million for a charity that provides financial, medical and research support.

Zanellato, who single-handedly earned about $17,000 in donations from fans and alumni, is not the only student-athlete dancing; Liisi Vink-Lainas and Angela Widlacki (women's soccer) and Emily Rivers (women's tennis) also signed on for the Friday-Sunday event. And they're hurting, too.

Vink-Lainas, who slept 16 straight hours after Thon, battled an illness that forced her to communicate during Thon via a white, dry-erase board. She was part of the women's soccer team that won the national championship last season and said nothing she experienced at practice compared to this.

"Oh, it's levels harder than what we do at practice," Vink-Lainas said. "We have tough workouts and we have what we call 'Friday Cry Day' -- but this is another level because it's extended. You're always in discomfort. But it was all worth it."

Zanellato, who is 6-foot-3 with tattooed biceps and long hair wrapped in a bun, stood out -- even in a multi-colored sea of sweaty, sleep-deprived students. On Sunday afternoon, he was on his fourth pair of sneakers, his eighth T-shirt and, he estimates, his 50th Gatorade.

His dance was more like a brisk walk around the floor of the standing-room only Bryce Jordan Center, where a line outside sometimes circled the block. After 10 hours, stretching no longer seemed to help Zanellato. After 15 hours, doubts began creeping into his head about whether he could endure all this. It made football camp seem like a stroll at the beach.

Sort of.

"At least you get to sleep as much as you can during camp," right tackle Andrew Nelson said. "He's not sleeping for three days, so it's pretty impressive."

Added linebacker Brandon Bell: "I'd say that Thon is probably tougher."

On Friday, with the adrenaline pumping, Zanellato likened the start of Thon to running out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel. But, on Sunday, his speech was slow and methodic. His eyes were slightly glazed, and his 5 o'clock shadow more evident.

Painful or not, he stopped moving by 2 p.m Sunday. Everyone stops moving by 2 p.m., two hours before Thon officially ends, to hear speeches by the families impacted by the event. Zanellato slipped off his black Nikes and stared at the stage. This is the most emotional part of the 46-hour marathon; this is what convinced him as a freshman to participate.

One family recounted how spending time at Thon -- with toddlers running around with squirt guns and college kids playing ball with adolescents -- was her son's preference over meeting New York Yankees great Derek Jeter. One cancer survivor, now in her 20s, choked up and paused while talking about her spinal tap -- until the crowd cheered, she smiled and pressed on. Another mother remembered her daughter who died in 2014 of cancer: "Mommy, you have to let me die," the mother remembered her daughter telling her, before adding, "She's in heaven, but Thon was one of the best parts of her life.”

"I was a wreck," Widlacki said. "It just reminds you why you're dancing. When you see the people it affects, it really pulls at your heart strings when you see just how strong these kids are. They're so much stronger than I am."

As the stories continued Zanellato bit his lower lip and tried to fight back the tears. But it was no use; he eventually dabbed his face with the collar of his T-shirt. A woman a few feet to his left, in a lime green shirt, didn't even bother wiping her cheek as the tears just fell to the floor. "Are you crying?" a girl, no older than 6 years, asked the woman.

"This whole thing is just amazing, just because you see how much these people care," says Isabella Messina, 14, a cancer survivor for whom Zanellato symbolically danced. "Matt could've gone out with his friends, but he's here. It's amazing."

About an hour later, after chatting and hugging Isabella and her family, the Penn State receiver counted down the final 10 seconds of his 46-hour experience with the fervor of a New Year’s Eve celebration at Times Square. Blue, orange and white balloons fell from the rafters, and Zanellato dropped to the floor as the standing room-only crowd roared. He high-fived anybody and everybody in sight, embraced his friends and lingered until he needed to move so volunteers coud clean the floor.

Adrenaline added a sparkle to those tired eyes. But his feet felt as if theyd been squeezed in a vice. His old football injuries, a tweaked hamstring and ankle, came back with a vengeance.

No matter. He couldn't be happier.

"I can't believe it's over," he says. "Doing this, it just means the world. I'm so glad I did it."