Olympians and Paralympians were in town Friday ahead Swim Across America this weekend.
They spent the day at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta talking to young cancer patients and showing them their medals. Five-time gold medalist Missy Franklin, who goes to the University of Georgia, was also there.
It’s a moment Grace Bunke would have loved.
Grace spent a lot of time at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta as she battled an aggressive bone cancer. An avid runner, surgery made her find a new sport to love. She traded in a track for the pool.
Vicki Bunke knew that in the water, Grace found a momentary escape from sickness and worry. It’s something she is now coming to understand for herself.
“The very first time I ever swam a lap was when I went to practice,” Vicki Bunke said. “The first time Grace swam a lap was in that pool as well.”
She said there is something special about being in the water and swimming.
“I’m grateful to have gotten a little glimpse to what it must have been like for Grace,” she said.
Just like Grace, her mom faced fears and doubts to do it. At first, she was hesitant to even put her head under water.
PHOTOS: Olympians, Paralympians visit young cancer patients in hospital
“I’m a little claustrophobic,” Vicki Bunke said.
Dr. Karen Wasilewski didn’t consider herself a swimmer either. Wasilewski swims for Grace too; the girl she cared for from the diagnosis until her last breath. Together, they train to race in Grace’s honor. Every stroke is a continuation of a life inspired.
“I think people would be surprised how fun and how joyous it has been to do this together and to feel Grace with us as we do," Wasilewski said.
It is joyful to help fulfill a final wish. Shortly before Grace died, friends gathered outside her hospital room at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta with Grace’s signature red umbrellas. Upstairs Grace was thinking about others.
She announced that her final wish was to be the top national fundraiser for the Swim Across America race. The money benefits the Aflac Cancer Center and research to find a cure.
Photos: Grace Bunke's incredible journey
“Once she really knew that she was going to die soon, she became more intentional about the event and her goal to raise money to find a cure," her mom said.
It was that SAA event on a day last September that Grace described as perfect.
“It was a magical day.” Vicki Bunke said smiling. “Those are beautiful memories.”
It was the day that Grace chose to fully live each day she had left.
“She had stopped treatment because it was affecting her ability to swim,” mom said.
Amazing Grace: Sunday swim
Grace said she wanted the time she had left to be full of what fueled her: her family, friends and swimming. Swimming made Grace feel everything cancer was not - free and strong.
In Lake Lanier that day, she was both of those things.
“It was amazing. She just kept going," her mom said. "Like nothing was going to stop her.”
Caroline Bunke is Grace’s younger sister. She watched from the beach as Grace defied medicine that day. She swam a mile with cancer in her lungs and spine. She wasn’t even out of breath as she rose out of the water and crossed the finish line.
It’s why Caroline knew she had to swim for her sister this year too.
“Everyone is sad that Grace is gone,” Vicki said. “But out of everyone, Caroline lost the most. ... I’m still a mom, Bryan is still a dad, but on this planet, she is no longer a sister.”
Caroline teared up thinking of her big sister. She still talks to Grace.
“I tell her I wish she was still here with me, and that I miss her,” she said. “I tell her I wish she could be swimming with me. But I am going to swim for her.”
They swim for Grace, who proved that joy and hope are not cemented in circumstances. Just before Grace died, she achieved her goal of being named to Team USA in the Paralympics.
Grace’s final message to us all is the title of the fundraising page that she finished in that hospital room at Children's: Hope has no finish line. In a world where everything else has a finish line, hope is the exception.
“There is a finish line in racing and in life; but not in hope and who doesn’t want hope," her mom said. "Even in the worst circumstances."
'You have been an inspiration' | Amazing Grace continues to touch lives even after passing
PHOTOS: Grace through the years
At 14 years old, Grace showed us all how that is possible. She still does.
It is Grace’s spirit, the hope she brings now, that brought her mom and her doctor to a place that they didn’t expect to be - let alone be there together.
Vicki said she can’t even express in words how much it means for Dr. Wasilewski to do this with her.
“It’s nice that we can continue and honor Grace’s life and hopefully live a little more like she did.”
Grace may not be at Swim Across America, physically, but will still be a force - through her team and all the people she has inspired to keep fighting to make a difference.
Her mom knows she is proud.
“I kind of envision when it is my time and I get to see Grace in Heaven that I’ll give her a little fist bump,” she said.
Be a part of making Grace’s final wish come true by joining her fundraising team here.