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Cara Dunne-Yates, 34, earned medals, gave inspiration in sports

Cara A. Dunne-Yates was a scholar-athlete who graduated from Harvard College and UCLA Law School and earned medals in biking and ski racing, despite losing her sight at the age of 5 and enduring three bouts with cancer.

Ms. Dunne-Yates, 34, who was saluted as a True Hero of Sport in 2002 by Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Society, died of Wednesday in her home in Sutton, after cancer struck again.

''She was influential in increasing the opportunities for people with disabilities in sports both in this country and internationally, " Eli Wolff, director of disability at the Northeastern center, said yesterday.

Ms. Dunne-Yates was born in Chicago with bright blue eyes. Shortly after birth, one eye began to wander. It was eventually determined that she had retinoblastoma, a genetic disorder in which a gene that suppresses tumors is missing. One of her eyes was removed before her second birthday. She endured bouts of chemotherapy and radiation treatment in order to save her other eye, but it was removed before she turned 6.

But that didn't stop her from wanting to have a normal childhood. ''She wanted to be just like the other children," her mother, Mary Zabelski of Chicago, said yesterday.

So, when Cara wanted to ride a bicycle, her mother helped her. ''We bought the smallest bicycle we could find," she said. Soon Cara was riding up and down an alley near her house, first with training wheels and then without.

''She was supposed to stay in the alley," said her mother, ''but she started slipping away."

In no time, Cara was riding around the block by herself.

In a story published by the Colorado Spring Gazette in 2000, she recalled once bumping into a pedestrian. ''What's the matter with you, kid?" he asked. ''You blind?"

Her stepfather, Rich Zabelski, encouraged her to try skiing and soon he was leading her down the slopes. Eventually she was making it down on her own and entering competitions.

She won Paralympic and world championship medals and competed in events around the world.

After graduating from Harvard in 1992, she took time off to enjoy herself on the slopes of Utah and volunteered at a ski school for the disabled.

Doctors soon discovered that she had cancer in her cheekbone, perhaps as a result of the radiation treatments she received to save her second eye. Her right cheekbone and part of her throat were removed in two operations.

''It was at about this time she began cycling again and really enjoying it," said her mother. ''Soon she was competing in tandem cycling events. "

Ms. Dunne-Yates decided to become a lawyer like her stepfather and she entered the University of California at Los Angeles law school, where she graduated with the help of readers who guided her through the intricacies of the law.

''She was always lucky in attracting the support of a wide range of devoted supporters," said her husband, D. Spencer Yates Jr.

She and Yates met at a bicycle competition at the Atlanta Paralympics in 1996. He was the sighted rider on another tandem team.

They fell in love and were married in November 1998.

''How many people get to say they were married to their hero?" her husband said yesterday.

Though Ms. Dunne-Yates figured chemotherapy and radiation treatments made it impossible for her to get pregnant, she gave birth to a daughter on Jan. 13, 2000. The couple named her Elise after a Beethoven composition.

''She is my true gold medal," Ms. Dunne-Yates said in 2000.

Shortly after competing in the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney, Ms. Dunne-Yates discovered a growth in her abdomen that was diagnosed as sarcoma, cancer of the soft tissue.

She continued her motivational speaking and was copresident of the New England Retinoblastoma Family Foundation.

''I felt like my life has been saved through sports," she said at the True Heroes award ceremony in 2000. " I feel like God's put me in this position where I can help people see that you can really be sick and have a disability and still have an awesome life."

Tonight at the 2004 awards in the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Eli Wolff intends to say a few words in Ms. Dunne-Yates's honor

In addition to her husband, daughter and parents, she leaves a 16-month-old son, Carson David Alexander. A funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. tomorrow in Buma Funeral Home in Whitinsville.

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