Refusing to sink

Senior Grace Waller just finished her final season as a member of Oakland University’s swim team.

She helped the Grizzlies extend its streak of conference titles from 17 to 21, had second and third place finishes in the conference meet her sophomore season, and her 10:19.93 finish in 1000 freestyle her junior season is the sixth fastest time in Oakland history.

She will graduate in May with a degree in communication. She spent the last year working as a sideline reporter for volleyball and men and women’s basketball for the Horizon League Network, which airs on ESPN3.

But what makes Waller special is what she overcame on her journey here.

When the Illinois-native was 15 years old, she was a high school superstar swimmer and two-time state qualifier who believed she was invincible.

After experiencing pain for several months from what she thought was either a torn ligament or tendonitis in her right knee, she went in for an X-ray the Monday after her state swim meet in 2008.  

Doctors discovered a tumor, and a biopsy a week later confirmed Waller had osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that occurs commonly in children and teenagers.

“I remember my mom coming into the bedroom because I was recovering from the biopsy, and my world kind of flipped upside-down,” Waller said.

She spent a total of a year and a half at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, where she had six initial rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor before undergoing surgery to replace her knee and six inches of her femur.

Her treatment concluded with 15 additional rounds of chemotherapy.

The changes in her life challenged her physically and mentally. She had to relearn how to walk and it took her brain a while to adjust to the metal in her knee.  

But, Waller was strong. She never felt sorry for herself and she never wanted to give up.

She found ways to cope with the obstacles she faced and maintain a positive attitude.

“My mom and I had this thing where when I started feeling sick or started feeling sorry for myself, I’d pull a name out of a hat and I’d make a craft from them or pray for them,” she said.

“The more I thought about other people besides myself, the better I felt both mentally and physically.”

She swam in between rounds of chemotherapy to exercise. Getting back in the pool – the place she calls home – was the only thing she could do to make her life feel normal.

In 2009, just weeks after she finished her 21st and final round of chemotherapy, she swam in the 200-meter freestyle at her high school sectional championships.

It was her first competition back and the only meet she competed in her junior year. She was still bald from treatment and she finished last.

One year later, she swam in the same event at the same meet.

She took first.

She also qualified for states, broke the high school record in the 500-meter freestyle and achieved her dream of becoming a college athlete by signing with the Grizzlies.

“We are really, really fortunate and blessed that Grace chose us,” head coach Pete Hovland said. “She is an outstanding young lady in every sense of the word and our program, my staff and our lives were enriched by having her in our presence.”

Hovland said he’ll miss Waller’s happy and vibrant spirit. He said she’s unlike any swimmer to come through the program, not only because of what she’s overcome, but also because of how she made people feel better just by talking to them.

In December of 2014, Waller went in for her five-year follow-up appointment, where she was officially declared cancer free, a moment that she is unable to put into words.

The disease gave Waller a new appreciation for competing and taught her to enjoy the little things in life.

She wants her story to inspire others to never give up on their dreams, even when times are hard.

After 15 years of swimming, Waller wants to step away from the pool. She plans on job searching when she moves back home after graduation.