Zoo elephant motivates Indiana woman in cancer fight

Sophi, an African elephant at the Indianapolis Zoo, wears a special blanket for Race for the Cure.
Published: .
Updated: .

The Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure is this Saturday, April 20, beginning at Military Park downtown.

The event is expected to draw more than 20,000 participants, lots of volunteers and an "unofficial" mascot back for her seventh year.

Sophi, a 47-year-old African elephant at the Indianapolis Zoo, has watched the race from the top of the hill along Washington Street since 2007. She stands there, decked out in a blanket adorned with a large pink ribbon as a show of support.

Sophi is a favorite among participants, but perhaps no one has been more inspired by her than Carla Schneiderwind.

"When you see her massiveness, her enormity, you know the enormity of what Komen is trying to do," she said.

Carla, who has MS, was diagnosed with breast cancer December 31, 2009. She planned to walk in the Race for the Cure in 2010, but wound up hospitalized for another illness. She watched race coverage on WTHR, hoping to see several of her nurses taking part.

She did. She also saw video of Sophi.

"They showed her and my heart instantly melted," Carla said. "I just felt my heart smiling."

She said "something just clicked." From that moment on, Sophi became a source of strength and inspiration.

"You can do anything you put your mind to. You just have to focus and put one foot at a time," Carla said.

When the zoo's Jon Glesing heard about Carla and how Sophi had inspired her, he knew he had to introduce the two.

"Elephants are unique, gracious and powerful animals and Sophi is such a great symbol of strength that everyone fighting cancer can relate to," Glesing said.

So he invited Carla to the zoo to meet Sophi in person.

Carla was filled with emotion as she approached the nearly five-ton elephant.

"Sophi, you have no idea what you have done for me," Carla said, patting her on the side. "See those feet? We need those feet as we go thru the jungle of cancer to stomp out breast cancer."

Meeting Sophi came at a key time for Carla as she's now being treated for a different type of cancer. She says she will walk Saturday...and seeing Sophi will be a highlight.

"Every year, I don't care how I feel, I will come out and see Sophi, because I get my boost from her, my trunk is filled with 'Sophiness'," Carla said. "I have to see Sophi...She's the motivation for getting through everything."