CONWAY, S.C. (AP) — Melvin Jefferson was screaming at the television in his Georgetown home on March 12, along with a half-dozen other family members, as his youngest daughter was competing in — and winning — the NCAA women’s national 60-meter final race in Birmingham, Alabama.
In a sense, he was celebrating both the accomplishment and his presence on this earth to enjoy it.
Coastal Carolina junior sprinter Melissa Jefferson is responsible for both blessings.
During her senior year at Carvers Bay High School, Melissa donated stem cells to repair and replace her father’s damaged bone marrow and save his life, allowing him to watch her make history by claiming the Chanticleers’ first NCAA individual championship in track and field.
“She’s amazing,” Melvin said. “Our daughter basically was our lifesaver. She touches everyone she comes into contact with. I’m just so thankful, so grateful. She was a godsend.”
Melissa’s win was deemed the biggest upset of the Division I Indoor Track & Field Championships by the running and track website Flotrack.org.
She matched the fifth-fastest time ever in the event and finished atop a star-studded field of 16. It included Texas’ Julien Alfred, who set the collegiate record of 7.04 in her March 11 heat; defending national champ and previous 60-meter record-holder Kemba Nelson of Oregon; American and collegiate 200-meter record holder Abby Steiner of Kentucky; and European Under-20 100- and 200-meter champion Rhasidat Adeleke of Texas.
SAVING A LIFE AND THE FAMILY
As big as the win was for Melissa, it finishes a distant second in her lifetime achievements.
Melvin, 58, who was a maintenance worker at Brookgreen Gardens and did residential lawn care on the side, was feeling excessively tired in the fall of 2017.
He received a bone marrow biopsy in February 2018 after multiple blood tests were inconclusive and was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome — essentially an early form of leukemia in which bone marrow isn’t producing enough white blood cells for the immune system.
His survival required a bone marrow or stem cell transplant.
While a donor was sought, Melvin underwent chemotherapy and three additional very painful bone marrow biopsies for analysis.
A perfect match out of millions of possibilities was found, but it was revealed a few days before the scheduled transplant that the donor had traits of sickle cell anemia. “That’s like trading the devil for the witch,” Melissa said.
Testing turned to family members. A sister and Melvin’s two oldest daughters were all half matches, and the sister was deemed the preferred match. But Melissa, then 17, hadn’t been tested yet. Minors aren’t typically asked to test to be donor matches unless it’s an immediate family member, and it requires parental consent.
“I remember telling my mom I had a feeling it was going to be me anyways because that’s just how God works,” Melissa said Tuesday. “. . . I said I’m going to do it because it’s my dad and I love him and I want him here for a long time.”
Melvin became ill and had to be hospitalized, so the stem cell transplant was expedited. The procedure took place over two days in late September 2018, shortly before Melissa was crowned Carvers Bay’s homecoming queen.
Stem cells were removed from her blood through a series of transfusions from one of her arms to the other.
Melvin was given heavy doses of radiation to eviscerate his immune system so Melissa’s cells could enter his body without resistance, which left his immune system as vulnerable as a newborn baby.
“I believe Melissa went through the worst of it because they had to extract her stem cells,” Melvin said.
He had to be isolated for 100 days afterward, first at the hospital for 30 days, then at a hotel for a week, and the remainder at Charleston’s free Hope Lodge for cancer patients and their caregivers. His wife, Melissa’s mother, Johanna, stayed with him.
During his isolation, Melvin was stricken with a life-threatening rhinovirus that caused severe shakes and alternating burning fevers and freezing chills for a few days, but he survived while reciting or singing prayers and scriptures throughout the ordeal. He returned home on Dec. 27, 2018.
Melvin’s bone marrow remains 100% healthy donor cells, though he has diminished stamina now so he has to limit physical activity and can’t do the maintenance jobs he performed before his illness. He’s particularly sensitive to cold temperatures, but he walks for exercise and often cooks.
“All of her stuff is in me, I just don’t have the speed,” Melvin joked.
ENTRENCHED IN THE COMMUNITY
The Jeffersons are members of Lighthouse of Jesus Christ Independent Nondenominational Church, and both Melvin and Johanna, the longtime public housing manager of the Georgetown Housing Authority, are ministers there.
Religion and community involvement go deep in the family, as Johanna’s father, the late Rev. Thomas Lance, was a minister at three Georgetown County churches.
During the initial 100 days of Melvin’s recovery, the family’s church and others in the community held an envelope drive to help them pay their bills. People donated money and provided their information on an enclosed postcard, if they chose to.
Melvin knows of about 400 people who donated and believes the actual number is likely about 600. A broken air conditioner in their home was replaced using some of the funds while Melvin and Johanna were in Charleston.
“My phone has been going crazy since (the semifinal heats) Friday night. I’m what you like to call a village kid. I have my parents and my family, but my family is very much extended into my community,” said Melissa, who feels a particular connection to people in the areas of Dunbar, Oatland, Browns Ferry and Lanes Creek, “and Carvers Bay High School, and then Georgetown County as a whole. It’s just a great thing to experience and be a part of when you know everybody back home is rooting for you.”
Melvin has posted several YouTube videos featuring Melissa’s exploits.
“Because I believe that her story has got to be told,” he said. “. . . The journey was not easy for her to get where she is now, and we’re all a part of it, and we’re all so proud to be a part of it.”
RISING TO AN ELITE LEVEL
Melissa didn’t plan on attending CCU because it was closer to home than she wanted her college experience to be.
“Had I followed my first intuition and not gone to Coastal, I wouldn’t be sitting here today as a national champion,” Melissa said. “It’s just listening for signs and having that feeling of something is right. That’s really what drove me to come here.”
She has blossomed under the direction of CCU assistant coach for sprints and hurdles Karl Goodman, 28, a former Texas-Arlington sprinter from England. He was first hired at CCU in 2019 after serving as a graduate assistant for a couple years at UTA, and he creates workout programs and instruction for each of his runners individually.
Melissa was a 100-meter state champion as a high school senior but admittedly arrived at CCU without the proper running mechanics.
“We went all the way back to square one with her and just painted the picture, and she’s really taken it to a new level,” Goodman said.
She writes down “easy, medium and hard” goals for the year, and she underestimated herself on the ultimate goal, which she set at reaching the NCAA final and running a 7.16. “Then I go out there on Friday (in a semifinal heat) and run 7.10, and I’m like, ‘OK, well at this point it’s beyond me, we’ll just see what happens next,’” she said.
Melissa said she turned to God before the final, and it helped her get into a deeper focus than she’s ever had in a race.
“I had a talk with God, and I told him that I wanted him to guide my feet and I wanted him to show the world what he’s capable of doing,” Melissa said. “So while I was sitting there, I literally could feel his presence, and all I could see was my lane in front of me, and everything else was cloudy.”
Prior to the Sun Belt Conference Championships on Feb. 20-21, Melissa’s personal best time set this season was a 7.23, and Goodman expected that to get her into the NCAA meet. So his plan was for Melissa to peak at the national championships at the possible expense of the Sun Belt finals, which she still won in 7.22.
“The plan was in place for her to be ready for the NCAA meet,” Goodman said. “We were training all through the week of conference, and I said, ‘You’re going to have to go there with heavy legs and perform,’” Goodman said. “I said, ‘That was good; now we’re really in business.’”
When Melissa saw her time and place after stretching across the finish line in the NCAA final, her reaction was unbridled. She repeatedly jumped for joy and screamed, somewhat oblivious to a pair of competitors offering her congratulations. Goodman had a similarly astonished reaction.
“When I saw my name on the board, I kind of just lost it because I was like, ‘Oh wow. I actually did it.’ It was a pretty special moment for me,” she said.
Melissa has lost count of the amount of times she has watched a video of the race.
“That’s probably the only thing that will set it in reality for me, is that I can go on YouTube and see that I was in that race and I won,” she said. “I see fight. I see me fighting against the odds, and I see me not using the fact that I’m at a smaller D1 school to stop me from achieving what I know I can achieve.”
WHAT’S NEXT IN THE JEFFERSONS’ JOURNEY?
Melissa, 21, is slight of build at 5-3 and 118 pounds, especially compared to the sprinters she competed against at the NCAA championships, though she’s as strong and defined as she has ever been.
“Last year when I went to the (outdoor) national meet, I looked like a little kid compared to the girls out there,” she said. So one potential way to further improve is through gradual muscle growth.
But she easily squats twice her weight and has an explosive power-to-weight ratio, Goodman said, to add to the naturally fast frequency of step that she brought to CCU. Her length of stride has improved greatly as well.
“She’s only scratching the surface,” Goodman said.
Melissa hopes to reach the NCAA outdoor championships in June for the second straight year in the 100 and 200 races.
“As everybody else was getting to the finish and slowing down, she was picking up and pulling through, which also tells us — and this is exciting — that she’s a better 100-meter runner, so look out for outdoors,” said CCU director of track & field Sandy Fowler.
A more long-term goal is to set times that will qualify her for the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials in advance of the 2024 Summer Olympic Games in Paris.
“I think Melissa has the potential to be an Olympic athlete,” Fowler said. “I don’t even question that with how fast she has come through, and she’s so humble I don’t know if she sees that yet.”
God willing, Melvin Jefferson will be screaming as Melissa competes for a medal wearing red, white and blue rather than teal and bronze.
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