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High School Swimmer Overcomes Cancer With Courage
By Richard Kagan

Grace Waller, 18, is a senior at DeKalb High School in DeKalb, Ill. DeKalb is the home of Northern Illinois University. She is scheduled to graduate next spring and in the fall, and will swim for Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. She earned a four-year scholarship that will greatly assist her while at college. Waller’s story takes some pretty dramatic twist and turns. Waller was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that shows up in adolescence.

Waller was in her mid-teens when she came down with the diagnosis. She has been a swimmer most of her life, swimming every day in practice for more than 10 years.

Eight months out of the year, she swims up to three and a half hours a day. She swam the breaststroke in meets for the DeKalb Barbs, her high school team. Then cancer was discovered in her right knee.

She had six rounds of chemotherapy before her operation, then she had surgery that took six inches of femur bone from her right leg and most of her knee. It didn’t appear too likely that she would be back competing in the pool. The doctors put in a titanium rod in her leg, and she had a knee replacement. She underwent 15 more rounds of chemotherapy after the surgeries.

How did she deal with this trauma? Waller said she went back into the pool. She swam between rounds of chemotherapy treatments, as a form of therapy, to soothe her soul and calm her mind. In the pool she found some solace and a place that she felt at home.

Her dad, Brad Waller, an attorney in the DeKalb area, speaks of his daughter’s determination with admiration. “To have 21 rounds of chemotherapy, inpatient, ravaging her body, watching her white cell counts, receiving blood transfusions, to accomplish what she has is truly remarkable,” he said.

Waller had just finished her chemo rounds in the fall of 2009. But she was weak and lost strength in her leg because the surgery took 20 percent of her right quadricep muscle. Despite this adversity, she swam in the state sectionals held at St. Charles East High School not far from DeKalb. She couldn’t dive off the blocks, so she started from the pool and finished near last in her event, the 200-yard freestyle. She had switched strokes, having to give up the breaststroke due to the pressure put on her leg. So Waller worked on the freestyle, with the help of her club coach, Brian Bickner of the DeKalb Country Swim Team. She swam in the 200-yard and 500-yard freestyles. She became a mid-distance and distance swimmer requiring endurance, discipline and stamina.

“I never thought about not swimming,” said Waller. “I want to push my body,” she said. “Push through the pain.”

Last fall, Waller was in remission — her scans showed no return of the cancer, and her chemo rounds were finished. Her hair grew back and so did her strength.

“Swimming is a sport that you really can’t perfect,” Waller said. “[You] are setting new goals, trying to achieve new goals. Swimming requires a lot of self-motivation. I do believe I have a lot of that.”

In the meet at the sectionals, held at St. Charles North High School this past November, Waller swam in the 200-yard freestyle and won the event. She looked up to find her parents and saw everyone standing. She received a 30-second standing ovation from the crowd, who knew of her trials overcoming bone cancer. “It was very nice,” Waller said. When she got out of the pool she got hugs from her teammates.

Her dad, a former basketball player at Northern Illinois University, knew what she had gone through. “This was the most emotional sporting moment I had ever been involved in,” he said.

She continues to swim with her local YMCA club and has qualified in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle events at the nationals to be held in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., this April. Her five-foot-nine-inch frame is filling out and she is regaining her swimming stroke.

Bickner, her coach, has been supportive. Waller has a goal of “trying to get back to where she was” before she became sick, he said.

“I love getting in the pool,” she said. “Swimming is a great team sport.” She and her teammates have been friends for years.

Waller missed the second semester of her sophomore year and the first part of her junior year at school and has worked hard to make up the classes. Her swimming coach, Leah Eames, came to her home three days a week to offer encouragement and tutor her in math. She caught up and is on track to graduate this spring. She said her favorite subjects are science and English.

Now she is enjoying the life of an 18-year-old and is back at DeKalb High School. “I love being back at school,” she said. She credits her family, including her mother and a brother and sister, coaches and friends, for giving her care and support.

She has scans every three months and they indicate she is cancer free. Her doctors are optimistic. Her dad says, “So far, so good.” “It’s been a better 2010 than 2009.” #



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