IT is the photo that captures the spirit of Race for Life and will inspire thousands. Tears roll down little Sophia Banger’s face as she reaches the finish line of the annual 5k fundraiser for cancer.
Each step is sheer agony for the nine-year-old schoolgirl who suffers from cerebral palsy who just 21 months ago was unable to walk and facing the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
Yet on Sophia’s face was the look of sheer determination and she made it over the line thanks to thoughts of her brave friend, Jack Joslin battling brain cancer, an army of total strangers and a helping hand from her mum.
Now mum, Stephanie, and dad, former Saints star Nicky Banger, hope their daughter’s courage will encourage this year’s competitors to get their final sponsorship money collected and handed into organisers.
Stephanie, from Chandler’s Ford, said: “We are so extremely proud of Sophia and we’re already getting together a team for next year. A lot of people have been reduced to tears by Sophia’s strength.”
As reported in the Daily Echo, the Hiltingbury Junior School pupil, who suffered with spastic diplega, underwent a pioneering operation in America to relax her muscles and enable her to walk unaided thanks to £60,000 donations for the Sophia’s Footsteps appeal from readers.
The operation was successful and 21 months later, Sophia is undergoing gruelling physio.
But determined to help her school friend Jack, Sophia was thrilled to find out the race on Southampton Common was open to wheelchair users.
But to raise as much money as possible, she wasn’t content on staying in her chair, instead she challenged herself to complete the last kilometre unaided and walking alone in her frame.
Sophia with dad Nicky Banger, mum Stephanie and brother Harvey
Stephanie, explains: “Without the operation thanks to Daily Echo readers, Sophia would never have been able to attempt to walk any of the race.
“She got all the way through to the home stretch before she broke down in tears.
“When we walked up towards the cemetery, things were getting really hard for her with pot holes and uneven tarmac.
“She literally had nothing left in her, her shoulders and arms were aching so much as she has never walked this far before in her frame, but she would not get back in her wheelchair or sit and take a rest.”
“She said to me ‘mum, I’m going to finish last, I don’t want to be a loser’but there was a lovely group of ladies behind who said ‘don’t you worry, sweetheart, we’ll finish behind you whatever happens.”
With that everyone began cheering for Sophia.
The youngster beamed as she reached the pink carpet, but she did not realise it was not yet the finish line.
Mum-of-two Stephanie, said: “She was devastated to hear there was another 50 yards to go to get there.
“She literally had nothing left in her, nothing left to give. She couldn’t lift her feet to put one in front of the other, it was so emotional for everyone there.”
Exhausted Sophia asked her mum if she could carry her and the pair finished in tears raising £750 for Cancer Research UK.
“I can’t tell you just how proud we all are of what she set out to do and was able to achieve and everyone was just so kind. She can’t wait to do it next year.”
Elizabeth Frisby, Race for Life event manager for Southampton, said Sophia’s efforts were incredible – and has urged the entire pink army of more than 5,500 people to make every step count, like Sophia, by paying in their sponsorship money as soon as possible.
To support Sophia go to facebook.com/sophias footsteps
For information on returning sponsorship money or to make a donation go to raceforlife.org