Hello, my name is Paul Buerck. I am head coach of the Monmouth Barracudas, Rachel’s swim club. Rachel’s parents asked me to write a blog about coaching Rachel in her return to swimming.
The journey with Rachel has been one that was, sadly, too familiar.
Rachel has always been a hard worker. She loves to swim and dance. She would come into practice straight from dance class and apologize if she was even a minute late. Having had sisters that danced growing up, I respect the amount of strength and energy needed to dance. To have Rachel come directly to swim practice and jump right in without a complaint showed her drive and dedication. As we began the swim season last year, Rachel (who never complained) mentioned that her leg hurt. At first we thought maybe it was the kicking action in her breaststroke, and then thought maybe she had pulled a muscle while dancing and that it hurt more in the pool. The truth turned out to be more serious.
We have a great coaching staff and Coaches Cheryl Criscuolo (who was a college teammate at Monmouth University with Rachel’s dad, Kurt), and Coach Michelle Davidson tried to figure out if she was doing something incorrect in her swimming to cause the pain. We didn’t see anything wrong in her technique, so we thought maybe it was a badly pulled muscle.
I had an eerie feeling as Rachel continued to struggle at practice. The prior year another athlete Lilly Daneman (a dancer and swimmer) had the same kind of pain and was ultimately diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma. Because of that experience, I sensed that something was not right with Rachel, but didn't want to even consider the chance of a repeat. I mean what are the odds that two athletes on the same team will both have Ewing’s sarcoma?
Then came the phone call from Rachel’s mom, Mari. Mari called me at home with news that Rachel had Ewing’s. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Could this be real? Mari asked me if that is what Lily was going through, and if I knew anything about the treatment.
I immediately connected her with Lily’s mom, Gerri Daneman. Sometimes the world works in strange ways, and to have a resource of a teammate's family to help in a journey like this was a wonderful stroke of fate.
From the beginning of her diagnosis, Rachel knew she wanted to return to swimming. Her teammates also took up the challenge, hosting a swim meet named Race for Rachel last February that raised over $18,000 for the Make Some Noise for Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation. Rachel attended, and, of course, wanted to race.
From the coaches' perspective, the most difficult challenge for us was not how we handle Rachel’s return to practice. Rather, it was how to keep her from doing too much? Over the summer I had the chance to swim with Rachel at Seashore Day Camp along with some of her teammates. Lily Daneman, some former Barracuda swimmers who are also coaches at Seashore Day Camp, Rachel and I raced a length of the pool. Of course, Rachel beat me. What I couldn’t believe was how tremendous Rachel looked. Here was a young lady who literally had to lift her leg with her arms to get it in the pool. As I watched her move through the water with beauty and grace, I was truly impressed and amazed.
As we approached the swim season in September, Rachel was still going through treatment. Her parents and I made a plan to have her start slowly in our warm-up lanes and then take it one day at a time. Well, that lasted about one hour. Rachel would warm up and then join Coach Michelle and her group to take on as much as she could handle. Her desire and dedication were an inspiration. Her personality and sense of humor are tremendous. One day she was walking past my senior swimmers who were complaining about their workout. Rachel stopped and said to them, “I just came from chemo and then did swim practice and you think you have a complaint?” She proceeded to laugh and walk away.
Rachel is a reminder to us all that friendship, kindness and a sense of humor go a long way. She is practicing three or more days per week, and has already competed, performing her best time in the 50-yard butterfly. She is back to being just a Barracuda. We are excited for her as she continues to improve and get stronger each day.
I have been blessed to have Rachel touch my life and the life of all her coaches and teammates. She is an inspiration, and we love her.
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