As top-notch athletes, members of the Gustavus swim team are accustomed to overcoming physical and mental hardships. This year the team’s strength was tested when Sophomore Swimmer Grace Goblirsch was diagnosed with leukemia midway through the season. What could have been a devastating hurdle has served as a source of inspiration as the Gusties and fellow MIAC swimmers have made it their mission to “Race for Grace.”
Goblirsch and her friends first knew something wasn’t quite right at the end of fall semester. Grace had been routinely falling ill and felt exceptionally tired. Her friends took her to Health Services where she was advised to meet with her physician as soon as possible.
On Christmas Eve Day, Head Women’s Swimming Coach Jon Carlson received news no coach ever wants to hear. Goblirsch had sent Carlson an email informing him she wouldn’t be attending the team training trip to Florida. While at home over winter break she’d been diagnosed with leukemia and was to begin treatment immediately.
“I was in shock,” Carlson said. “Right away I knew I wanted to show her as much support as possible in any way we could.”
When Carlson broke the news to the team, the swimmers responded with a fighting spirit.
“In my four years swimming for Gustavus this is the hardest thing our team has had to go through, but I’m so proud of how it brought us together,” Senior Captain Sarah Hund said.
Immediately after hearing the news, swimmers from across the team began reaching out to the captains with ideas of ways to help. While traveling to Florida that January the Gusties officially gathered together to see what they could do.
Sophomore McKenna Jones took the lead in organizing a t-shirt sale and bone marrow drive to spreading awareness about Grace and her condition.
“I’ve never really had something like this happen to someone so close to me, so when it happened to Grace, I knew I wanted to do anything I could to help her and raise awareness,” Jones said. “[These events] won’t fix anything for Grace, but bringing attention to this awful sickness and to her is important to me.”
Shirts and bracelets with the phrase “One Team/One Family” were created and distributed throughout the team. Every swimmer has done their part to live up to that motto.
“Grace is always on our minds at every race and every practice. Swimming has more meaning than just winning when one of your own is racing for her life,” Hund said.
In a community as close as collegiate swimming, it wasn’t long before word spread about Goblirsch and her story.
“It’s been so moving to see the response from MIAC. Every single team reached out in their own way to offer their support,” Carlson said.
At their dual meet against Gustavus, St. Thomas University hung up a giant poster in honor of Grace. Multiple coaches from other schools reached out to send cards and care packages. Additionally, a coach for Macalester College who works with leukemia survivors to train for triathlons contacted Goblirsch to offer support and serve as a resource.
Perhaps the biggest display of support came at the MIAC Championship swim meet on Saturday, Feb. 16 at the University of Minnesota Aquatic Center. Swimmers from every team wore “I Stand With Grace” t-shirts and lined up to get Sharpie tattoos of the orange leukemia ribbon. The whole stadium even came together to perform one of the biggest trends of 2013, the Harlem Shake, in dedication to Goblirsch.
“I threw the idea out for the Harlem Shake and everybody immediately got behind it. It was something the whole conference could do together to show support,” Carlson said.
The resulting video shows a packed stadium dancing to stand behind one of their friends and fellow athletes.
“Having a group that large come together and support one person is something that I will always remember and will always be proud to have been a part of,” Jones said.
The outpouring of support didn’t end there. After the Gustavus women clinched their fourth consecutive MIAC championship, the whole building went wild. “One of the most moving moments was when the women’s team won the conference championship and took the podium. The whole stadium started chanting ‘Race for Grace,’” Carlson said.
Throughout all of this Goblirsch has been standing strong while undergoing chemotherapy and other treatments at United Hospital in St. Paul.
“Grace’s attitude has been outstanding. I’ve gone and visited and she’s been in a great mood. The nurses all comment on how strong she is, recognizing that she must be an athlete by how well she is handling the treatment,” Carlson said.
Goblirsch keeps a blog tracking her experiences with leukemia at www.caringbridge.org/visit/gracegoblirsch. As she continues with her fight she is far from alone.
“I didn’t realize when I joined the Gustavus swim team that I would gain another family,” Goblirsch said. “My love for the team has grown even deeper than it was my first year, and I didn’t think that was possible! My diagnosis has made me love my team and school even more because of all of the wonderful support they have given me.”
The support and appreciation for Grace shows no signs of diminishing anytime soon.
“Grace is an amazing, strong and beautiful woman and we all love her so much. We are standing behind her as she fights this battle, and we know she will come out on top!” Jones said.
Future events for Grace include a bone marrow drive being held on Tuesday, Mar. 5 from 4:30-6:30 p.m. and Friday, Mar. 8 from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. in the Heritage Room. The process is painless (just a cheek swab) and will take about 30 minutes to complete. That Friday “I Stand for Grace” t-shirts will be sold for 10 dollars outside of the bone marrow drive. All of the proceeds will benefit Be the Match, an organization that matches patients in need of bone marrow transplants with potential donors. T- Shirts can also be purchased online from http://www.gustavusswimming.com/istand-alongside-grace.cfm.