When 8-year-old Kendall Curnuck revealed the wish she most wanted granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, her mom's response to her deepest desire was, Really?
"When she said she wanted to go surfing, we were all like, 'Are you kidding?'" Lisa Curnuck said. "She was really afraid of the water and wouldn't go near it without a full-blown life-saving device on, like a floating-grade life jacket."
But Kendall was resolute about her wish. However unlikely it may have seemed to her mom, she wanted to surf with Bethany Hamilton.
After all that Kendall has experienced in the past 18 months, it should come as no surprise that she wasn't afraid anymore.
When Kendall, then 6 years old, began having severe leg pains late at night in October 2009, her pediatrician thought they were probably just growing pains. Initial blood work showed nothing unusual, but Kendall's increasing aches and decreasing energy indicated otherwise. There were cancer cells building in Kendall's bone marrow, but not yet in her blood. By January 2010, the tests looked different. Kendall had leukemia.
In the months that followed, Kendall's world became much smaller. Sometimes it might have seemed no larger than a hospital room, where she spent weeks at a time being treated for the viruses that her immune system was too weak to fight off after intense chemotherapy. She would go home, only to return with a fever or for her next spinal tap or dose of chemo. But for 18 months, Kendall never complained about the treatment, now in its final phase and scheduled to end May 2012.
"The hardest part for her was being apart from her friends and missing so much school," Lisa said. "She's missed out on a lot of social stuff that you just take for granted -- play dates, school trips, dance recitals -- it's not time she can ever get back."
The toughness Kendall showed during therapy was no surprise to her mother. Born six weeks premature and weighing only 3 pounds, Kendall had fought for her life years before leukemia ever threatened it.
"Usually when babies are born at that stage, they need a lot of assistance to breathe, and they stay on ventilators and incubators for a long time," Lisa said. "But Kendall came out and she was breathing on her own at 3 pounds. So right from that minute we were like, 'Okay, we've got a special kid.' She's a fighter."
It's that tenacity -- a survivor's instinct -- that connects Kendall Curnuck and Bethany Hamilton.
Hamilton made headlines in 2003 when she lost her left arm in a shark attack while surfing in her native Hawaii. She returned to her board and the water only weeks later and has since become a top-rated professional surfer whose life is the subject of a recent major motion picture staring Carrie Underwood and Dennis Quaid. It was the movie, as well as Hamilton's biography, that caught Kendall's attention.
"When the movie came out, we went to go see it a few days in a row," Lisa said. "She just wanted to see it over and over. That's when she got kind of obsessed with the Bethany thing."
Thus, the Bieber Fever scream when Kendall sees Bethany's personal video message inviting her to Hawaii.
Thus, the adoring gazes and eyes-closed hugs when she is finally introduced to her idol.
Thus, the wide-eyed grin that wouldn't leave Kendall's face during the Fourth of July parade in Waikiki, during which she sat with real-life Bethany and big-screen Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) on a fire engine.
For the next three days, Kendall had an extended play date with her hero. Bethany taxied Kendall around the island of Kauai, pointing out the best beaches for surfing and the places where she grew up. Other young surfers recognized Hamilton and flocked to her for autographs and photos, but Kendall was the only one riding in Bethany's pickup truck and kicking back at her home.
"Bethany was the sweetest person ever," Lisa said. "She let the girls [Kendall and her sister Camryn] color all over her surfboard with Sharpie markers. She brought about 100 Sharpies and she said, 'I don't like plain white surfboards,' and the girls gave it a custom paint job."
When Kendall finally takes to the water to surf with Bethany, there's no hint of fear. She seems to have left it 5,000 miles away, back on the mainland, at home in New York state. And when she pops up onto the board to catch a wave, Kendall -- the fighter, the girl who has struggled through so much in so little time -- seems miles away, too. For once, it all comes easily, as Kendall Curnuck stands and cruises all the way to the shore on her very first wave.
For more on the stories behind SportsCenter's My Wish series, be sure to check out: