After cancer treatment, UNC diver Emily Grund makes her return to the pool
There was a time when Emily Grund doubted the possibility of ever diving again.
But, in the words of her head coach Yaidel Gamboa, she’s better and stronger than before.
The UNC redshirt senior diver made her long-awaited comeback to the pool this season after battling acute promyelocytic leukemia – a form of bone marrow cancer – last year. Since then, Grund has recorded six top-three finishes for UNC in seven diving events and already qualified for the 2023 NCAA Regional Zone Championships.
She no longer has to wake up at 5 a.m. every day so she can receive treatment. No more sitting on the sidelines and watching her teammates compete without her. No more doubt and fear over the uncertainty of her collegiate career.
She’s back, re-doing the senior season she missed out on.
“Everything that happened last year really taught me to appreciate every aspect of what’s going on in (the pool),” she said. “I’ve loved every second of it.”
In Sept. 2021, Grund received her diagnosis and faced a five-month battle with leukemia. She was officially declared cancer-free on Feb. 28, but was required to continue treatment until May 20.
After missing 11 months of practice, she returned in August, full of excitement to feel the pool water of Koury Natatorium against her skin again.
“I just couldn’t wait to get back here,” she said. “And I wanted to get back as soon as I could.”
The transition was harder than she expected, as she still had some lingering side effects from the treatment. After missing so much time, her body was not quite ready for the intensity of training full-time.
“I think I thought I was just going to be able to jump right back into it,” Grund said. “I quickly learned that I could not do that. I made it about halfway through the week, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m dead.’”
In fact, it was a Wednesday morning in the weight room when the exhaustion finally caught up to her. She could barely move the weights or her body, and she quickly realized she needed to slow down.
She called athletic trainer Alex Hall to discuss potential changes to her training regiment. Then, her coaches and the athletic training staff worked together to create a modified practice schedule to ease the transition.
Grund said she knew if she maintained a positive mindset in spite of this setback, she could regain her strength. In the end, the only thing that mattered to her was getting back to doing what she loves to the best of her ability.
For a few weeks, she would practice once a day instead of two times like the rest of her teammates. As she regained her strength, she added additional training until her body could fully handle the typical two practices a day.
By December, she was practicing full time again.
“I think she transitioned extremely quickly and well,” Gamboa said. “Honestly, she’s stronger than she was before, and right now, she’s at a really good place — way better than I ever expected and way quicker than I expected.”
Grund’s absence last season was felt by everyone on the UNC diving team. Junior diver Aranza Vazquez said last year’s practices were missing the usual level of positivity and joy that Grund always brings. In particular, Vazquez missed having Grund to cheer on the team’s dives — even the "horrible ones."
When Vazquez was a first-year, Grund was always there to lend advice and encourage her. Vazquez can still remember Grund’s words that calmed the rookie down before her first collegiate meet.
“She’s always like, ‘take it easy,’” Vazquez said. “‘You’re going to make it. Don’t think too much about it.’”
Now, in Grund’s fifth year, she has the opportunity to do the same for new members of the team. Aside from her leadership, Grund’s work ethic throughout her time at UNC is why Gamboa considers her a role model for the Tar Heels.
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“I think she’s a great example of – and I’ve actually told her this many times – a warrior,” Gamboa said.
It is her positivity and resiliency that makes her stand out to her teammates and coaches. And it is because of those two traits that she has been able to achieve success this season and defy the odds stacked against her.
Grund will compete at the NCAA Regional Zone Championships in March, where she'll have the chance to earn a spot at the national championship. Coincidentally, her last competition before her diagnosis was the 2021 championship.
Having the opportunity to return to this year's competition is an achievement that's not lost on her.
“Before my diagnosis, I think I took all this for granted,” she said. “I would kind of just come in every day, do my stuff and go home, but I really try to take in and appreciate every little aspect of it (now). I think qualifying for those meets just means that much more.”
With this potentially being her final year as a collegiate diver, Grund said she is tackling this season with a different kind of attitude. No matter the outcome of a meet, she is just glad to be doing what she loves again.
Being able to compete at the same high level as before her diagnosis has both motivated and surprised her. It also serves as a reminder that she is stronger than she thought she was.
“I feel like (I’m doing this for) any other young adult who’s an athlete who is undergoing cancer, any other mental health problems or physical injury problems where they’re not able to do their sport,” she said. “I’m just trying to do it thinking of them, because I was in that situation.”