By Amanda Randle
That’s the number of rounds of chemotherapy De Kalb High School senior Grace Waller has gone through in the last two years.
In the summer between Grace’s sophomore and junior year, she started complaining of pain in her right knee – not something the breastroke and individual medley swimming star was known for. Test results later showed that it was osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Grace went on to have surgery to replace parts of her femur and knee and started chemotherapy. However, she didn’t look at the rounds of chemotherapy as poison entering her body. Twenty-one was just another number, very similar to the numbers of yards Grace is used to swimming in practice.
But this story isn’t about dwelling on Grace’s past; it’s about looking to her future with the experience of facing, battling and beating the odds. The following ‘Twenty-One Amazing Points’ are the key factors that pushed Grace through her battle with cancer, how she’s grown in this journey, and how she hopes to be an inspiration to others dealing with similar struggles.
21. The words no one wants to hear
Sitting in the doctor’s office, hearing that Grace’s pain in her knee was cancer, Grace’s parents Jackie and Brad Waller were baffled.
“I don’t even have words to describe how devastating it is,” said Jackie.
Grace’s father, Brad, shared the initial shock.
“The only worse thing is having your child pass away before you. It’s horrible and your heart just bleeds for them,” he said.
But Grace was the glue that held the family together and ironically where the family looked for strength.
20. Amazing Grace
Although some might call it cliché, there is truly no other way to describe the way Grace has handled herself over the last few years other than ‘amazing’. ‘Amazing Grace’ was the nickname Grace received throughout her battle with osteosarcoma and it was a name that would spread across the country through wristbands, t-shirts, caps, and donations.
19. Nineteen units of blood
During the course of her treatments, Grace had to have nineteen units of blood and spent a total of 101 days in the hospital. There came a breaking point, but it was as unique and out of the ordinary as Grace.
Jackie recalls Grace saying, “I’m tired of thinking about myself,” as she lay in the hospital bed. “I need to think about other people.”
Grace then proceeded to put names in an envelope of people she knew and even of some she didn’t. Every time she wasn’t feeling good, she would draw a name from the envelope and encourage, think about and pray for that individual. Whether it was a friend she had known for 10 years, or just a girl she passed in the hall at school, Grace was always thinking of others, even when she had a whole town thinking about her.
18. Don’t fear failure
The relationship Grace held with her high school coach Leah Eames was much more than a friendship. Eames was a “blessing in disguise,” according to Grace.
Not only did Eames push her in practice during the chemotherapy sessions, she was her tutor, mentor and friend.
“I didn’t want her to fear failure. She was so used to success, so we had this thing where she wasn’t afraid to fail,” recalls Eames.
However, even with Eames designing practices where Grace was supposed to fail at the tasks, Grace somehow made it out.
“That’s the way that she is,” Eames says with a laugh. “She’s one of the hardest working people I’ve coached and ever been around. She’s constantly trying to improve her technique.”
17. Keepin’ it quiet
Throughout her struggle emotionally and physically, Grace never wanted to talk and dwell on the pain she was going through. She put up a brave front, fought strong and won. She saw the cancer as more of a hurdle than a road block.
16. Strong teammates
Instead of practicing one night when Grace was doing her regular chemotherapy treatments, Eames caravanned the team into Chicago to visit her on the pediatric floor of Rush University Medical Center.
“It is definitely something (all the kids) will remember,” said Eames.
15. Nerves can be a good thing
Walking to the platform … walking to receive chemotherapy, eerily similar in Grace’s world.
“Both of those feelings are the same for me. It was an adrenaline rush. I was nervous, but ready to go and fight through it.”
14. A new kick
What most people don’t grasp is that Grace truly lost something. She lost six inches of her femur and almost all of her knee in her right leg. Eames said she helped Grace work through the frustration of coming to terms with exactly what happened.
“It wasn’t just the time off. Realistically, it was about learning how to use a new leg,” she said.
13. Switching from breastroke and IM to distance
For someone who saw swimming as second nature and who was battling with something she had no control over on land, Grace also faced a monster in the pool – switching from her heavy-favorite breastroke and individual medley to distance.
“Going through treatments helped me mentally. It helped me sprint a mile out and do more yardage than I was used to,” she said.
12. Wii know how strong Grace is
Not only did Grace prove her strength in the pool by swimming when she could, she proved she had other athletic talents while she was in the hospital. Wii tournaments were a common site for nurses and doctors in Grace’s room, where she says she was “definitely the best at tennis.” From makeovers and bracelet making, Grace treated her hospital room more like a dorm room when she was there.
11. Bring a little humor in your life
The Make-A-Wish Foundation sent Grace to the set of her favorite show, NBC’s The Office. She met her favorite ‘Office’ character Jim and sat in on an editing session.
“I met the whole cast and got to be there for a filming of an episode. I laughed the whole time I was there.”
10. Summer lovin’ – Grace’s last summer at home
Aside from planning for YMCA Nationals in April, senior prom, and graduation, Grace “isn’t really doing a lot,” she says.
“I’m going to work as a lifeguard this summer at my pool,” she said. “Work on getting my tan on!”
9. Take a chance
Grace’s mom is a nurse and when she found out the cancer was in Grace’s leg, she immediately thought she was going to lose her leg. The doctors fed the positive atmosphere from the beginning. They chose to try a brand new device that Grace might get to keep forever.
8. New starting blocks
After the last round of chemotherapy and Grace was cleared to finally swim in a race, it was very relieving for not only Grace, but everyone in her life.
“I felt like I had opened a new chapter to the rest of my life,” she said.
7. “I’ve been swimming since I was seven. You become like a robot … get in, get out.”
Grace was always a swimmer who stood out in the pool. What her coach described as “raw, natural talent,” Grace was accustomed to winning meets and swimming against the boys for competition.
“For someone who’s seen a lot of success in the sport, more often than not, they’ll burn out. They’ll lose the drive,” Eames said.
“I think (the cancer) changed my outlook on swimming. I always have goals when I get in the water, but (after the diagnosis) it really made me think about how blessed I am to be doing what I am,” Grace said.
6. Family bonds
Even on the bad days, Grace had a strong support system in place that never let one ounce of negativity come her way. Along with her parents, Grace had two older siblings who watched after her and tried to keep things as normal as possible during her treatments.
Her older brother Kyle took that comfort to a new level when he shaved his head to match Grace. Her older sister Emily also donated 10 inches of her hair to Locks of Love, a company that makes wigs for cancer patients.
5. Break five minutes
Starting a new swimming regime and starting college in the fall, Grace has one thing on her mind – to break five minutes in her 500 IM.
“I will do any and everything (the coaches) tell me to, to reach that goal.”
4. “Swimming helped her bounce back quicker,” says father, Brad
During Grace’s treatments, her father, Brad, believes it was her athletic background that kept her motivated and driven throughout the life-changing experience. Throughout the chemo, Grace swam as much as she could to keep a feel for the water.
“Swimming was a motivating factor,” her father said. “I think it would have been much tougher on Grace if she hadn’t come from an athletic background. She was able to take all the difficulties swimmers go through and relate those to the chemo treatments.”
3. The three goals
Grace had three goals when she first found out about the cancer One – how fast she could clear the chemo. Two – Get her body healthy. Three – get back to where she was as quickly as possible.
2. Two states away, a new journey begins
Where does the next chapter of Grace’s amazing story begin? At Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., where she will be swimming next fall for Pete Hovland and Sean Kornoelje.
“I’m ready for the next four years and I’m ready to swim for them,” she said.
1. One state record and one huge smile
This past season was the hardest season Grace had ever had.
“(Coach Eames) punished us. She pushed us day in and day out. I knew she had a goal for me in mind and we worked towards it every day,” Grace said.
That goal was to qualify for the state meet.
“In my mind I knew I could do it, but I wanted to see if my body could.”
And it did. Grace qualified for the state meet by breaking the school record in the 500 freestyle that had been standing for 10 years.
“It was one of those things where she came in freshman year and wanted to (break a record). The funny thing is that she didn’t even swim the 500 at all her freshman year,” said Eames.
“As soon as I saw the time, I turned around and looked at my parents and just smiled as big as I could,” Grace said.
That same smile was the smile that took her through a life-changing battle with cancer, a smile that motivated the other patients around her at the hospital, and the smile that will grace the Oakland swim team this fall.
“She’s been on cloud nine ever since she got back in the pool,” said Eames. “I have no doubt I’ll see her at the Olympic Trials or the NCAA’s in the next couple of years.”
For advice on others dealing with similar struggles, or who can relate to Grace at some level, she encourages them to never give up.
“I want others to know they can do anything they set their mind to. If you want something, you shouldn’t let anything stop you. My motto through everything was that “it could always be worse,” she said.
Or, it could simply be amazing.