Shelby Hardebeck was known for many things.
A loving sister to four younger brothers; a girl who adored outdoors activities; but above all else, she was a swimmer.
As a member of the Shoreline Lightning swim team, the girl known for her signature zebra swim cap dedicated herself to the sport by completing as many as 15 miles a week in the pool.
"She was really flourishing with it," said her mother, Kristen Hardebeck. "She loved being a part of the team and it really built up her self esteem."
Tragically, the sixth-grader at White Pines Middle School passed away from an unexpected illness on Feb. 26, 2012, sending shockwaves throughout her school and community.
Since then, many who knew the bubbly, red-haired girl have done their part at keeping her memory alive by organizing a swim-a-thon. The inaugural event at the Grand Haven Aquatic Center last year helped fund the construction of a kid-friendly outdoor classroom at her former elementary school in Grand Haven, Peach Plains. It will be completed later this spring.
Surprisingly, a person with no previous connection to Hardebeck other than a shared passion for swimming created another event that also paid tribute to her memory.
Grand Haven graduate Sam Schulze, a junior on the Michigan State University swim team, heard about the swim-a-thon and the tragedy surrounding it, and decided to do his part.
"I knew I wanted to get involved somehow," he said. "I have always been inspired by John and Connor Dault and what they have done for the community with the Mike Herman Memorial Soccer Camp, and using their program as a model, (I) started brainstorming how to bring something awesome like this to the sport of swimming."
Schulze called the Hardebeck family and pitched his idea, and he received their full support.
With the help of nine of his MSU teammates, Schulze ran a free two-day instructional swim camp for children, and the turnout was tremendous.
"There were 107 swimmers last year," Kristen Hardebeck said. "Unfortunately, we had to turn some away, just because of a lack of coaches. But it was still just a tremendous thing."
"We ran it pretty much by the seat of our pants, and it turned out wonderfully," Schulze said.
Now in Year 2, the swim-a-thon and instructional camp are expected to be bigger and better than ever. The swim-a-thon will be held at the Aquatic Center on April 20, from 5-9 p.m. Proceeds generated from the event will help expand Schulze's technical swim camp to more children, which is slated for June 15-16. The camp focuses on stroke technique and nutrition.
Shelby also had a passion for skiing, so a second goal is to construct an outdoor gathering structure and brick fireplace at the Ski Bowl at Mulligan's Hollow in Grand Haven.
“The Ski Bowl was a big part of Shelby’s childhood, and that community has been a great support to all of us, especially her younger brothers,” said Shelby’s father, Todd Hardebeck. “We want to show our gratitude and thought that a place to gather together in warmth was a fitting memorial to our beautiful daughter.”
At the swim-a-thon, there will also be baked goods for sale, raffle tickets, and concessions. A prize will be awarded at the door to the first 200 swimmers who raised $25 or more. Swimmers can raise money on a per-lap basis or by donation.
Pledge forms can be downloaded at the event's Facebook page, "I Swim for Shelby Jane Swimathon." Donations can also be made at the door, or in person to the Shelby Jane Hardebeck Memorial Fund at the Fifth Third Bank on Robbins Road in Grand Haven.
"I'm hoping we can attack about 200 swimmers (to the camp) this year," Kristen Hardebeck said. "It will help people learn more about Shelby and what type of girl she really was, but the chance to provide a free swim camp for kids, I think is pretty special. Our motto is 'to learn life skills and self-confidence through swimming.'"
That's what Shelby Hardebeck accomplished in the sport and now, hopefully several more will now follow suit.