'Amazing' Grace chooses the race of faith as cancer steals her time

Sunday's swim wasn't about the time on the clock, it was about the time Grace has left. But cancer had other plans. On the day before the meet, her team learned she wouldn't be racing.

They’ve been waiting for this day.

In a venue built for Olympians, young swimmers get a glimpse of what the pool must have felt like during the ’96 Games. The stands are packed with spectators and there’s an ocean of possibilities for these fourteen-and-under athletes who qualified for the state championship meet.

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But one of Swim Atlanta’s most admired athletes couldn’t be there to compete. Just days before the competition, Grace Bunke was hospitalized.

“It’s heartbreaking following her journey, because I was with her when she was in remission,” explained family friend Kate Parker.

Parker has documented Grace’s cancer fight in photographs. Grace learned of her osteosarcoma diagnosis at age 11, then celebrated remission at 13.

Before the rare cancer attacked her leg and her lungs, Grace had been an avid runner and soccer player. Surgeons at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta amputated part of her leg. They reversed the direction of her leg and reattached her knee at her hip. It is a procedure called rotationplasty. The extraordinary procedure offers amputees a better shot at living an active life.

AMAZING GRACE | A story of faith and tough choices

Grace, always the determined athlete, decided she’d give swimming a try, reluctantly. At first she didn’t like it. After a couple of weeks, she found a love for the sport. There was a freedom under the water, simple strokes offered a lightness to life.

But at age 14, the cancer returned. This time alongside her spine. Still, none of it stopped her from racing. While enduring chemo, Grace achieved her fastest time in the water ever. She earned a place on the US Paralympic Team and qualified to race in the state championship meet.

“What's amazing is that she's swimming with half of her leg against girls with two full legs. She was sick and getting sicker and getting faster. I don’t know how that's possible. Only Grace can make that possible,” Parker said.

However, cancer can steal possibilities. It doesn't play fair. It’s never a good sport. Grace made the decision to stop treatment last Fall. Sunday’s swim wasn’t about the time on the clock, it was about the time Grace has left. But cancer had other plans. On the day before the meet, her team learned she wouldn’t be racing.

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“When we compete we have different mindsets, and during practice if we think something is hard we think about grace and what she’s going through. It changes our attitude,” explained Swim Atlanta teammate Ashley Buonno.

“She goes after it. She never gives up,” said coach Pat Eddy.

Grace’s team won’t give up on her. To honor Grace at the state championship meet they recruited Olympic silver medalist Amanda Weir.

“It was really inspiring to me to hear how badly she wanted to swim and that she loves our dear sport so much,” Weir said.

She delivered video messages to Grace from USA Swimming teammates Missy Franklin, Ryan Lochte and others before diving in to the pool in honor of Grace.

As she swam the 50 free in Grace’s lane, number 8, Weir noticed traces of red unfolding all around the aquatic center.

“I saw everyone in the stands and everyone at the pool decks put their umbrellas up,” Weir said.

Photos: Kate T Parker Photography

Red umbrellas brought one of Grace’s favorite stories to life.

“A church was praying for rain. Everyone was praying and one little girl was the only girl that brought an umbrella,” explains Parker.

The moral of story: hope is praying for rain, but faith is bringing an umbrella. Even without her in the pool, symbols of faith in Grace were everywhere Sunday.

“So it’s really believing that your prayers will be answered and just going ahead like that will be answered. I really think that's what Grace has done this whole time. She never gives up. Her name is a perfect name. She’s amazing,” Parker said.

Grace’s return to the water didn’t happen at the state meet, but her fight against cancer surges on. If you’d like to support Grace, you can visit her Swim Across America page, where she’s raising money to help others battling the disease.