By most accounts, Gaela Normile
is the hardest worker on every team she's a part of. A midfielder for her Kellam (Virginia Beach, Va.)
soccer team and the Virginia Rush, a traveling club, Normile's reputation is one of a worker - coaches can't overwork her, teammates look up to her and she holds herself responsible for pulling her weight.
She's a leader. But during the past year, she's been one in a much more important setting: While carrying her soccer teams through competition, Normile has lifted her family through tragedy.
At 16, Normile is the oldest of five children. In late May, that number was devastatingly reduced to four when her brother Charlie - not yet 3 years old - fell into the family's backyard pool and, six days later, succumbed to the injuries sustained from it.
"He was in the hospital almost a week, and so were we, right there with him," said Jay Normile, Gaela's father. "We didn't go anywhere. But Charlie didn't come back."
Unquestionably, it was a blow to the Normiles. But Gaela wouldn't let it cripple her family. She first suggested a memorial race for Charlie, to be held on Thanksgiving, to help alleviate some of the pain through community support.
Gaela and her mother Elise began organizing the race, creating a website for "Team Charlie," and quickly gained support. The family's decision to donate Charlie's organs struck a chord, a selfless act in its time of grief, and Team Charlie grew exponentially, helping create a support group for other grieving families.
It started with the Normiles. Now it's in the thousands, and the races today - a 5-kilometer Turkey Trot, plus a "Normile Mile" and a children's race - will cap off an emotional year.
"It's going to heal my family to have all these people there," said Gaela, who took over the organization of the entire event two and a half months ago. "I'm doing it more for my family, and to let people know how special my brother was. Over 700 people came to his funeral, and that shows how big our community is for each other."
The race planning started with Elise at the helm of it, and Gaela right by her side. When Gaela, a straight-A student - "She's never had a B," Jay says - displayed her tenacious attention to detail during an organizing meeting for Team Charlie, it was suggested that she take the load off her mother's shoulders.
And she didn't shy away from it.
Off the soccer pitch, she's impressed Matt Dacey, a director for her club team, even more than she has on it.
"She's dealing with adversity the best she can, with no self-pity, no shying away or quitting in the face of adversity," Dacey said. "It's an opportunity for her to grow and she's making the best out of a deplorable situation.
"The amazing thing is she's taking her family with her. For her to take on a leadership role within her family, it's amazing. Very few kids could do that."
She carried the movement the rest of the way, organizing everything from police and barricades for crowd control, getting the race insured, having it Track and Field-certified and handling volunteers. She's also gotten Kellam High and its track team involved.
"It's a massive undertaking for anybody, not just a 16-year-old," Jay said. "But she's a grinder and she's up to it. Between all of it … it's incredible."
Normile's story has extended beyond Virginia, as she has earned a spot in the semifinals
of the Inspireum Soccer Awards
. She's in the Top 50 and is competing for a spot in the Top 12 most inspiring soccer athletes, which is good for a scholarship award. Fan voting is still open.
Team Charlie's reach isn't just the Thanksgiving Day races. A toy drive in Charlie's name will highlight the event as well, and Team Charlie has even provided fresh-water wells for people in Uganda. The recipients recently sent back a picture of it, with Charlie's name on it. And all the profits from the race, which figures to be a sizable amount considering there are 500 entrants, will go to the Navy Seal Foundation.
"When I first started playing soccer in rec leagues, our goalkeeper's dad was a Navy Seal, and he came to every game," Gaela says. "I'd see him on the sidelines with my parents, and he'd have two broken legs from falling through a roof in Afghanistan. But he always wanted to go back. Then he died while he was over there.
"We've always had people around us like that. This is a way for us to give back and keep Charlie in our thoughts too. When you see that it can help other people it makes you work harder at it."
It doesn't mean it's been easy for Gaela. Every email she responds to or question she answers brings back memories of Charlie, fondly recalled as a goofy kid with an easy smile, who'd respond to a funny face with a dance or a laugh.
May doesn't seem long ago at all.
"It's been rough. In the beginning, if I heard or said his name I'd start crying," Gaela said. "Now it's to the point where I can talk about him with anyone, which I'm happy about.
"I don't want to forget about him."