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Saturday June 25th

How Emily Grund is overcoming cancer and working her way back to the pool

UNC senior diver Emily Grund, as pictured on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, was declared cancer-free in February after a five-month battle with leukemia. Grund plans to return to competition next season.
Buy Photos UNC senior diver Emily Grund, as pictured on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, was declared cancer-free in February after a five-month battle with leukemia. Grund plans to return to competition next season.

Emily Grund sat in an emergency room at UNC Hospitals, waiting for a doctor to come in and perform a bone marrow biopsy. She was alone, and she was crying.

On Sept. 9, 2021, her life had spiraled out of her control.

Some of her teammates on the UNC swimming and diving teams had noticed a bruise. Soon, bruises formed all over her body, caused by simple activities like wearing her backpack and crossing her legs.

Then, after almost passing out while brushing her teeth, she went to the emergency room, where doctors rushed her through a myriad of tests and CT scans.

Now, she was about to go through yet another unfamiliar procedure, with no friends or family beside her. The biopsy was necessary to verify Grund’s diagnosis — acute promyelocytic leukemia. APL. Bone marrow cancer.

The biopsy was traumatic, Grund said — it was painful, and she didn’t know what to expect. That whole day was surreal, a blur. In 24 hours, Grund had gone from an elite college diver at the peak of her power to a lonely girl with a terrifying diagnosis, wondering whether or not she’d get to compete in her senior season, let alone ever dive again.

“I remember going to bed and waking up the next morning and being like, ‘That’s right,’” Grund said. “That’s sort of when it hit me and it was, ‘Oh, this is real.’”

That was the scariest day — but it was also the last day Grund was truly alone.

From that day until today, Grund has been surrounded with love, attention and care. It’s allowed her to remain positive throughout the treatment process. And come next year, that love and positivity will be what leads her back to the pool deck for a true senior season.

‘A great attitude from the get-go’

When her first tests became a cause for concern at the emergency room, Grund called her parents, Jay and Laura Grund, who were back home in Dallas, Texas. Those initial tests didn’t diagnose cancer, just something wrong. 

But Jay Grund was already in the car, driving to North Carolina.

“We were all in shock, I think is the first way to explain it,” he said. “But then it was a lot of just, kind of, fear and wondering, you know, what this is all about and what the next steps were.”

Jay and Laura would spend the foreseeable future alternating between Chapel Hill and Dallas, helping Emily through her first and toughest month of treatment — the push toward being declared in remission, when Emily would have to remain in the hospital full-time.

APL has a higher long-term survival rate than other forms of leukemia, especially when it’s caught as early as Grund’s was. Her chances were good, but the road would be rough. Chemotherapy would make her feel weaker than she already felt.

“When I first was admitted, I couldn't take a shower on my own,” Grund said. “I couldn't go to the bathroom.”

At the height of the diving season, Grund was forced to watch as her team practiced, traveled and competed together during what was meant to be her senior season. But even during a busy schedule, the team made time each week to go to a small outdoor area right outside the hospital, where they could all spend a few hours with her.

“She had a great attitude from the get-go,” head diving coach Yaidel Gamboa said. “Of course, I’m pretty sure she was scared at first, but she understood what she had and what she was diagnosed with and what the treatment was like.”

Grund tried to be positive, but it was hard. On the days where she just broke down, that support became crucial. That wasn’t the only support she got from the diving community, either.

After announcing her diagnosis on Instagram, Grund’s profile was inundated with videos and posts from her team, as well as diving teams across the U.S., the NCAA and even USA Diving — all showing their love and appreciation using #WeDiveForEmily.

“She’s been doing this since she was five years old,” Laura Grund said. “I don't think she ever realized what an impact she may have had on the sport to other people.”

‘Do you want to go home today?’

Working as a provider and physician’s assistant in the ER, Ashley Reed always tries to set boundaries, to protect herself from befriending someone she might not see again.

Maybe it was the similarity in age, maybe it was the energy she gave off — but when Reed walked into Grund’s room at the beginning of a weekend shift in September and saw this college girl 24 hours removed from a cancer diagnosis, those boundaries went out the window.

“I promised myself that day and I promised her, even though I did not share that with her, that I was going to do everything to get her through this,” Reed said.

For the next 34 days, Reed made sure she was there for Grund whenever she could be. She was always on her treatment teams during her shift, and made sure to spend time with her even when she didn’t have to.

“When she would finish her shift or when she had a break, she would come sit in my room and just talk to me for two hours,” Grund said. “Not even about cancer, just about life and like, ‘Oh, when you're done with this, me and this nurse and this nurse and you, we're all going to get margaritas!”

Over that month, Reed was continually impressed by Grund’s strength and poise. When others were around, she was always positive and looking to the future, to the next steps of treatment and pushing forward.

But she also saw the other side — this treatment was hard, and she could tell when Emily wasn’t okay. Especially in that last week of treatment, Reed could see she was restless.

Which is what made Oct. 13 all the sweeter.

Reed and the medical team got to walk into Grund’s room and tell her patient and friend the news she had been waiting for — she was in remission.

“When we went in there, and I looked at her and I was like, ‘Do you want to go home today?’” Reed said. “And we both just lost it. It was really special.”

‘I’m a badass’

In a video posted to her Instagram story in early April, Grund hopped off the Koury Natatorium deck and flipped into the pool.

It was a simple flip with a single rotation, something any diver could do in their sleep. But to Grund, that flip — and being able to complete a full practice alongside her teammates — meant everything.

It was a symbol of the 34 days of intensive treatment she underwent last fall, of the ensuing weekly outpatient chemo and arsenic treatments that led to her being declared cancer-free on Feb. 28, and of the continued treatment she’ll have to undergo until May 20 — when her plan officially ends.

“That will signify that she can enjoy her life fully and that this is hopefully behind her forever,” Reed said. “And that will be just a beautiful day to celebrate with her.”

And what’s more, since Grund medically redshirted this year, she’ll be able to rejoin her team next year for a true senior season.

That’s another road that needs traversing, though. The lingering effects of her treatment mean that Grund will have to work extra hard this summer to get back into competition condition. 

“Hopefully, if her body allows her to handle the training, she can get back to full go-mode,” Gamboa said. “I think that's ultimately the goal.”

Since that very first day of treatment, Emily Grund has been surrounded by people all working toward her well-being and improvement. They were crucial in getting her to where she is right now.

But this process also taught her how strong she is, a strength she’ll have to use to forge her path back to the pool deck next fall.

“It made me understand that like, I'm strong and I'm a badass,” Grund said. “You're doing this. And also, it's cool to say, like, I’m a cancer survivor.”

@pjdaman12

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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