18 Under 18: Shaylee Ward

Shaylee Ward has honored the memory of her late father, who died of heart failure when Shaylee was 7, by becoming the American Heart Association's most successful youth fundraiser in Texas. Suzanne Rehak

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Every time Shaylee Ward steps onto a soccer field, she reconnects with her father, who died of heart failure when he was only 29.

"He loved soccer," Ward said. "When I play, I feel so close to him."

Now a 16-year-old sophomore at Katy (Texas), Ward was 7 when her dad, Cody, passed away. She has honored her father's life by becoming the American Heart Association's most successful youth fund-raiser in Texas.

Her mission started a couple years after her father's death. Still struggling to comprehend how his heart -- swollen to three times its normal size -- could have stopped without any visible warning signs, Ward set a goal of raising $1,500 for the American Heart Association.

Her mother, Brandi Petree, tried to get her to set a more "realistic" goal. But Ward went door-to-door and then started an e-mail campaign and a charitable 5K run. In one year, she had raised $5,000. Today she has raised more than $20,000.

"It's been amazing to watch her take a tragedy and turn it into a positive," Brandi said. "Her goal is to help other people so that they don't have to go through what she's gone through."

Cardiomyopathy, the disease that is believed to have killed Ward's father, is a thickening of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the rest of the body. It often presents no symptoms, and the disease has been known to strike otherwise healthy young people such as Cody, who was physically active and had undergone a checkup just a week before his death.

Shaylee has been told she has a 50 percent chance of developing cardiomyopathy, which can be hereditary, and is monitored regularly by doctors.

"I'm not worried," she said. "Sometimes my heart will beat more than normal, but it hasn't been a problem. My doctors say I have the heart of an elite athlete."

Already burdened by her father's death and the potential for her own heart disease, Ward recently transferred out of Taylor (Texas) after she experienced cyberbullying, mostly from girls at her old school.

"My dad raised me tough. I don't let people bother me," Ward said. "But it got to a breaking point when they started saying things about my dad."

Ward's pain deepened when state administrators decided she would have to sit out her sophomore season because of the transfer, a ruling that "crushed" her.

Through it all, Ward has shown a knack for turning desperation into inspiration. She plans to play next year as a junior, but also dreams of becoming a motivational speaker.

"Knowing that I can help others," she said, "puts the pieces of my heart back together."