Cancer won’t stop for COVID, and neither does this 24 Hours of Booty team

Bicyclists ride by the home of Dennis Whittaker, the captain of Team Cootie Jones, ahead of the...
Bicyclists ride by the home of Dennis Whittaker, the captain of Team Cootie Jones, ahead of the “Unlooped” 24 Hours of Booty in Charlotte on Friday.(DUSTIN DUONG DDUONG@NEWSOBSERVER.COM)
Published: Jul. 25, 2020 at 12:45 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - When Laura Whittaker’s battle with cancer was over, she told one of her friends, they would throw a huge party.

Nearly three years after her death, her namesake team’s annual participation in 24 Hours of Booty is the way of giving her that.

Team Cootie Jones, dubbed for Laura’s childhood nickname, started participating in Charlotte’s annual cycling event in 2016. The event means so much to her family that even COVID-19 couldn’t stop it.

That’s why Dennis Whittaker, Laura’s father and Team Cootie Jones’ captain, created his own “Cootie Loop” in place of the event’s “Booty Loop.”

24 Hours of Booty made the switch to a live-streamed, virtual event dubbed “Unlooped” to avoid the large crowds that would generally gather around the “Booty Loop” in Myers Park to raise money to benefit cancer patients.

Traditionally, Whittaker said his team would set up a base camp along the loop. Not being able to do that because of COVID restrictions was disappointing, he said.

“I was not happy about it, but a day or so later I thought, well you know I’ve always wanted to have a SouthPark biking thing,” he said. “… Why don’t we just do our own Cootie Loop?”

The one-mile loop started in front of Whittaker’s home in Sharon Woods Friday night. Even through rain, Whittaker family members, friends and neighbors donned their purple jerseys that showed Laura’s image in the center and the team’s mascot, her comfort dog Penny, on the sleeves.

Penny, whose breed Whittaker described as “mutt,” roamed through the yard greeting the team, her collar reading, “Laura always loves you.”

More than 30 people brought their bikes, set up tents and prepared to walk or cycle through the neighborhood.

Even after Laura’s death, Kathryn Rizzo, a team member and one of Laura’s former co-workers, said she “can’t ever back away from” the event.

“I think Laura would be absolutely thrilled to see this event shifting into the neighborhood she grew up in,” Rizzo said. “That her brothers and her dad are going to be riding their bikes in the street that she grew up riding her bike through.”

But 24 Hours of Booty’s virtual element has also allowed for more people to participate. Before the event’s start time on Friday, 115 people had registered as members of Team Cootie Jones — some members in Charlotte and others in New Orleans, San Diego, Houston, Gainesville, Fla., the U.K. and Barcelona, Spain, Whittaker said.

In total, the team raised more than $40,000.

Rikki Cudic, who met Laura in sixth grade and is now a nurse in San Diego, said she tried to visit Charlotte each year for the event but couldn’t this year with COVID restrictions. Instead, she’s able to participate, albeit across the country.

“Being so far away last year, that didn’t really feel like an option, so I’m really excited to participate,” Cudic said.

Reina Clark, who went to college with Laura, said it made sense to spread membership across the globe. Clark said after Laura’s death, she became closer to people Laura grew up with or met in high school, some of whom participated on Team Cootie Jones.

“That is a really wonderful thing that came out of this,” Clark said. “And I think that she would love to know that the people that she cared about have come closer together.”

Laura is the common “glue” that holds the team together, Whittaker said.

The 24 Foundation was important to Laura, both because she worked there as an intern and because as a cancer patient, she directly benefited from some of the programs it offered.

“She’s so infectious, and she just exudes this positivity and love,” Clark said. “And it’s just hard not to want to get involved with something when she has so much passion behind it.”

Laura participated in 24 Hours of Booty with the team twice. In 2017, she rode on a bike tandem with her father. That moment was the first time Clark noticed something was different.

“Seeing her at that event, being so tired, it just kind of made it real, and why it was so important to be a part of this,” Clark said.

Six weeks after 2017′s event, Laura passed away.

Even though she’d had the disease for nearly two years, Clark said Laura’s death felt sudden.

“She never, ever let on that she was suffering,” Clark said. “Even in the most difficult time of her life, she was always putting out positive energy, smiles, and never, ever letting on that she was having a problem.”

Whittaker admits that he may be biased, but Laura “was a pretty special kid.”

“Obviously I’m quite partial,” Whittaker said, “but (she was a) fiercely independent, intelligent, beautiful woman. She really was. And I daresay you’ll find a lot of other people to say the same thing about her.”

Her friends remembered her for her love of singing and themed parties, as well as her positivity and independence.

Katie Dale, Laura’s friend since middle school, said there was nothing ordinary about her.

“Laura was an incredible free spirit,” Dale said. “She really lived her life to its fullest, and she … didn’t fear anything.”

The members and fundraisers of Team Cootie Jones each repeatedly referenced “Live Like Laura,” a mantra her loved ones came up with to honor her shortly after her death.

“We all strive to live like her,” said Erin Middlebrook, who met Laura in middle school. “… And I think this event embodies that. Regardless of loss and regardless of struggle, we all are there. We all are positive. We all come together, and we’re there for each other.”

While Team Cootie Jones prepared to kick off its 24-hour event, Whittaker walked down to his basement bike studio. The pink jersey Laura wore each year she participated hangs framed on the wall. When asked why he does this each year, he pointed to it.

“She is the why,” he said.

“We really miss her, and we love her,” Whittaker said.