As 14-year-old Grace Bunke faced numerous rounds of chemotherapy to combat bone cancer, her friend McClain Hermes gave her a wall plaque with “Just keep swimming” etched into the wood.
That motto epitomizes their relationship.
The two teenagers met during a swim practice for BlazeSports, a nonprofit that supports children with physical disabilities through adaptive sports.
Hermes had double retinal detachments in both eyes at the age of 8, the result of Wagner Syndrome. She became completely blind in her right eye and is progressively losing her vision in her left eye.
McClain was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2014, faced 18 rounds chemotherapy and had a partial leg amputation known as rotationplasty to attempt to remove the cancer from her left leg.
“One day we were thrown in the same lane together and just instantly became friends,” said Hermes.
They help one another in and out of the water.
On land, Bunke provides a guiding arm to Hermes, who otherwise uses a cane. When they jump into the pool together, Bunke kicks ahead so that Hermes can follow her bubbles in a straight line.
All the practice has paid off. Hermes became the youngest Team U.S. athlete to compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio and finished eighth in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke.
Bunke also won several medals in recent races in her home state of Georgia.
“We can compete in elite level sports and kick butt and win medals,” said Hermes.
After hopes that Bunke’s cancer had gone into remission following the extensive chemotherapy process, the cancer reemerged in her spine earlier this summer.
Hermes read about the life-threatening condition on Bunke’s mother’s CaringBridge page, where family and friends support one another through challenging health journeys.
“The day that we found out that [Grace’s] cancer had come back I wrote ‘Grace’ on my hand because she’s my best friend and that morning I just lied in bed crying because I don’t want to lose my best friend,” said Hermes.
Grace’s name stayed on Hermes’ hand throughout her qualifying heats for the Para Sport Festival in Mexico City. A number of other teammates and friends followed Hermes example and a sign of support for Grace.
“I know my friends and family are basically going through it too. So it’s like everyone’s fight,” said Bunke.