CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCN) — On Saturday, October 8th 2022 UNC Swim and Dive is hosting a Swim Across America Event to benefit the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center.
From the outside looking in, it looks like your everyday philanthropic endeavor, but this one means just a little more to UNC Swim and Dive because it’s personal. They’ve seen firsthand what the Lineberger can mean for someone battling Cancer.
“We’re here to help you get through it mentally, we’re here to be therapists if you need emotional help if you just need somebody to talk to,” UNC Senior Diver Emily Grund recalls from one of her conversations with a Lineberger Center staff member. “We’re here to listen, we’re here to help you through it.”
Emily Grund was once one of their clients.
2021 was going to be her year, she could feel it. Emily was fresh off her third straight NCAA Championship Appearance, and had competed in the USA Swim and Dive Olympic Trials earlier in the summer. She knew her goals, she knew what she had to work on and she knew she’d find a way to accomplish them.
What Emily didn’t know was why she was feeling lethargic and getting sick so often, but being a student-athlete with all those early morning wake up calls for lift and practice, her teammates were tired too, so that made sense.
“Growing up, I got sick all the time and we were going back to in person classes again after Covid so that’s what I attributed to my tiredness too,” Emily said.
She didn’t think much of it, figuring once she got adjusted to classes, practice and real college life again she’d feel like her old self. So she set out to do just that.
Emily was in the locker room getting ready for platform practice when another irregularity came about. This one she couldn’t find a rational cause for.
“A teammate came up to me in the locker room and she was like ‘Emily, how did you get that bruise on your hip?’” Emily recalled.
It was the size of a golf ball, and by the end of the day, it had expanded to the size of a softball. Emily spent her life sending her body into the water at all angles from three meters up and never bruised particularly easily. This bruise was so dark, surely she would have remembered where she got it, but she didn’t.
By the next morning, the bruise spanned across her entire hip, deep shades of purple, blue and black. After nearly passing out from trying to brush her teeth or think straight, Emily decided to go to the doctors.
“He (the doctor) was originally going to do an ultrasound to see why my hip was still bleeding,” Emily said. “The more questions he asked me, the more specific they got and I could kind of see the worry in his face and he was like let’s skip the ultrasound and go get some bloodwork.”
She hadn’t made it home from the hospital yet when the doctors called her and told her to go to the Emergency Room.
“He called me and was like ‘have a friend drive you to the emergency room right now,’” Emily said. “I was like ‘oh okay, this is something serious.’”
How serious, she didn’t know, so with her family in Dallas and not wanting to be a nuisance to her friends, Emily returned to the hospital alone. A nurse came into her room and told Emily they were going to test her for everything, whether it was an infection, a virus or potentially cancer.
That was the first time she’d heard that word in relation to her own body.
She was 21, less than 24 hours ago an Elite Athlete.
She was alone, she was crying.
“I freaked out,” Emily said. “I called my mom and was balling and she was like ‘don’t jump to conclusions, you don’t know anything yet.’”
She underwent a myriad of tests and CT scans, and they also did a bone marrow biopsy. Emily was still in the dark until a man came in and introduced himself. An introduction that changed her life.
“He was like, ‘hi my name Dr. Verlander and I’m the Leukemia Specialist here at UNC Hospital,'” Emily recalled. “And I was like ‘oh so I have Leukemia’ and he was like ‘yeah.’”
The word that rang through her head back when it was just a possibility was now her reality. Emily had cancer, acute promyelocytic leukemia to be exact.
“I was completely alone in the emergency department – if I had thought it was something serious like that I would’ve asked my friends to come hangout with me today but I had absolutely no idea,” Emily said.
Emily’s father, Jay, had started driving from Chapel Hill to Dallas once the initial test results came back. His rationale was that if it was serious, he was on his way – if not, he could always turn back around. Once the diagnosis came through, her mother, Laura, had booked a flight for the next morning.
They’d spend the next few months rotating shifts in Chapel Hill – helping Emily with her first dosage of treatment and push toward remission.
Emily was in remission by October of 2021, and she began chemotherapy treatments a month later. Four weeks on, four weeks off and a green light to return to diving in moderation.
“I dove like three or four times but it took a lot out of me,” she said. “I would try to go lift, stretch if my health and my feeling of the day permitted it. There were some days when I couldn’t get out of bed. It was a learning curve trying to figure out what I could and couldn’t do but the further I got in my journey, the healthier I got, the healthier I felt and the better I felt diving and lifting.”
It wasn’t until she was completely done with her treatments that Emily was able to return to diving full time.
386 days after being diagnosed with Leukemia, Emily Grund returned to competition on Friday, September 30 – technically an exhibition – but that didn’t matter. She was back.
“I remember getting on the board for my first dive and the rush of adrenaline and the enthusiasm I had about you having one opportunity to do this one dive,” she said. “I missed that feeling.”
There were moments in the journey Emily didn’t know if that feeling would come back, brief moments, but they were there and make the return all the sweeter.
“If it’s not the greatest season in the world, that is okay,” she said. “This will still be the best, and most memorable season of my collegiate and my junior diving career ever.”
Three words defined the start of this journey for Emily, the end is defined by one — survivor.