Rylee Durham takes the wheel
Rylee Durham's day-to-day life is far from easy.
One of Rylee's favorite activities is cheerleading, but she can't be thrown in the air or take part in any tumbling activities like her classmates. She's 12 years old, but she's still learning how to ride a bike for the first time.
Rylee has Noonan syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes a number of developmental and health problems -- in her case, kidney problems and hearing loss. She has also had a melanoma removed from her back.
Although Rylee faces myriad challenges, her smile could light up the darkest room, and she doesn't let her condition interfere with her outlook on life.
ESPN's "My Wish" series, a partnership with Make-A-Wish, chronicles sports-themed wishes granted to children with life-threatening medical conditions. More
When Rylee was born, doctors informed her mother, Mandi Goodale, that her child had hydrocephalus, which is fluid on the brain. Since then, Rylee has undergone seven brain surgeries to install and maintain a shunt in her skull for fluid drainage.
"If she didn't have it, there'd probably be so much pressure in her head that she'd probably die," said Goodale, who lives in Palm Bay, Fla., southeast of Orlando.
Rylee's condition also causes her to fatigue easily, so her mother, who knows how much Rylee can handle, is careful not to push her beyond her limits. Typically, if Rylee says she's tired, she'll go lay down. If the family happens to be at a theme park or doing a lot of walking, they'll rent a stroller.
For the past 12 years, Rylee has spent the majority of her time in and out of the hospital getting CAT scans, MRIs and blood work. Every three to four months she visits her kidney doctor, shunt doctor and dermatologist.
With the weight of so many things on her shoulders, Rylee's one wish was to meet her favorite NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, Kasey Kahne.
"Rylee has loved Kasey Kahne her entire life," Goodale said.
Her love of Kahne has brought Rylee to plenty of NASCAR races with her grandparents, including Charlotte, Darlington and Homestead, Goodale said.
"He's always my favorite driver in my heart," Rylee said.
"Rylee doesn't have a favorite track, but we're always in competition with our drivers," said Delilah Wilson, her grandmother. "My favorite is Kevin Harvick, her grandpa's is Jeff Burton and she picked Kasey Kahne."
"We compete every Sunday to see whose driver is going to win."
On Sundays during the Sprint Cup season, Rylee and her grandmother watch the races from start to finish. Rylee follows all the action, from the cautions to the crashes. Often times, she's screaming at the top of her lungs rooting for the No. 5 car.
On July 6, her wish to meet Kahne came true.
As she was sitting on the couch with her family, watching a laptop on the coffee table, Kahne delivered a personal video message inviting Rylee to Daytona International Speedway for an upcoming Sprint Cup race.
She was completely stunned. First, she broke out in tears, and then, seconds later, a joyful laughter.
The Make-A-Wish foundation provided a rental car for Rylee and her family to travel north to Daytona Beach, Fla.
Once they arrived and got their credentials, Rylee entered the track and knocked on Kasey's bus.
When Kahne came out to greet Rylee, she was so surprised. After they hugged, he gave her a personal tour of the track. Then, they went to his hauler to meet all of his crew. Rylee couldn't contain her smile.
After that, they went to Kahne's garage, where Rylee gave him a little card that had a note in it with two pennies attached. One penny was from the year he was born and one was from the year she was born. He cut out the pennies and put them on the inside of his car for good luck.
She then watched Kahne qualify, earning a fourth-place starting position for the race.
Later that day, it was time for a shopping spree of sorts.
The majority of Rylee's Kahne memorabilia, which covers the walls and furniture of her bedroom, featured the No. 9, his old car number. So Kahne let Rylee upgrade her collection to his current No. 5, letting her pick out anything she wanted from his merchandise trailer. She picked up No. 5 banners, a "reserved parking for Kasey Kahne" sign, No. 5 cars and a Farmers Insurance jacket and Farmers Insurance jersey with her name on the back and front.
"We went to the driver's meeting where they talk about where they enter on pit road and what the speed is. Kasey told me that it's the same stuff at every track, but you'll get in trouble if you don't go to the meeting," Mandi said.
Before the race, Rylee was at Kahne's side during the driver introductions. Together, they waived to spectators from the back of a pickup as they took a lap around the track. Her mother got numerous texts from friends who saw Rylee's smiling face on television.
"I think [Rylee's] favorite part was being introduced with Kasey," her mother said.
The race began, and Rylee and her mother got a special perk: They were invited to watch the race from the top of Kahne's pit box, from which the family could see Kahne's crew change the tires during pit stops.
"It was really fun because the cars were so close," Mandi said of the view. "Rylee actually stood on the pit wall watching them race."
Kasey was battling for the lead and could have finished first or second if it wasn't for a late-race crash between Johnson and Marcos Ambrose that sent Kahne into the inside wall. Kasey ended up finishing 32nd. That made Rylee really upset.
"Rylee was going to go down to Victory Lane, but she started crying on top of the pit box as soon as the checkered flag waved," Mandi said.
That wasn't the ending that Rylee or Kahne wanted. But Kahne is sending Rylee a special gift – a pair of his race-worn gloves.
"He made us feel so comfortable," Mandi said. "He was so nice."
And there's more: Watson, Rylee's grandmother, said Hendrick told the family to come see him at the team garage the next time they attend a Sprint Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Maybe Kahne and Rylee will both get to Victory Lane that day.
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