Amazing Grace: Mother Vicki Bunke Swimming in 14 Swim Across America Events to Honor Her Daughter

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Vicki Bunke at the finish line of the Swim Across America event in Detroit, one of her 14 swims this year -- Photo Courtesy: Swim Across America

Amazing Grace: Mother Vicki Bunke Swimming in 14 Swim Across America Events to Honor Her Daughter

Swimming was never part of the Bunke family’s life. Daughters Grace and Caroline played soccer and ran. Vicki Bunke, their mother, knew how to swim but never swam seriously. “I wouldn’t have drowned,” Vicki said. “But I splashed around. I didn’t swim. I had never swum a lap before.”

But when Grace was 11 years old, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (bone cancer) in her left femur, and it had metastasized into both of her lungs. That earth-shattering diagnosis would forever impact the family, but it also brought swimming into the Bunkes’ lives. Grace beat the cancer into remission, but when she was 14, the disease returned, this time in her lungs and her spine. Grace passed away the day before her 15th birthday. And more than three years later, swimming is the means by which Vicki and her family honor Grace, by their full support of a cause near and dear to Grace’s heart.

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Grace Bunke (right) at her first Swim Across America event in 2017 — Photo Courtesy: Swim Across America

When Grace’s cancer returned in 2017, she became acquainted with Swim Across America, which had made the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Hospital of Atlanta one of its beneficiaries. Since its first event in 1987, Swim Across America has held charity swims throughout the country to raise money for cancer research. Each swim raises money to donate to a local medical organization funding projects seeking new treatments and therapies for various cancers.

Grace already knew her long-term prognosis was poor when she learned about the one-mile race taking place in Atlanta through Swim Across America, but she was desperate to participate. So she pulled out all stops to make sure she could swim.

“She wanted to participate so badly and swim the mile that she stopped her chemotherapy regimen because the chemotherapy wasn’t allowing her to swim,” Vicki said. “So she swam the mile in Lake Lanier for Swim Across America. This is in 2017, September 2017, and she ended up being the top fundraiser in Atlanta. She swam with one of our nurses. And it was really kind of a magical day. It was awesome.

“They have kindred passions, curing cancer and swimming”

Grace was starting high school at the time, and she was even able to race for her team in a handful of high school meets before her condition worsened in early 2018. She had every intention of participating in Swim Across America when it returned to Atlanta later that year, but Grace realized she would not be able to compete. So she presented her mother with a new plan.

“When she knew she wasn’t going to be able to swim, she challenged me to swim in her place, and she wanted to be the top national fundraiser,” Vicki recalled. “She said, ‘I won’t be there in person, but I’ll be there in spirit.’”

So that’s how Vicki, she who “had never swum a lap before,” got involved in swimming. Vicki joined with Dr. Karen Wasilewski, one of Grace’s oncologists, to participate in a SwimAtlanta Masters group with Coach Pat Eddy, who had been Grace’s coach. The two would be preparing to swim one mile in just a few months.

“I actually went to the first practice wearing a scuba mask because I didn’t know how to breathe,” Vicki said. Eddy’s response was, “I don’t want to hear anything. All you need to do is get in the water and get to that end of the pool and back.”

After a few early hiccups, Vicki began to get the hang of swimming, and she did complete the swim in 2018, with Wasilewski swimming with her. And that’s how Vicki Brunke’s journey with Swim Across America began.


Grace’s Inspiration

When Grace was first diagnosed, she underwent a 10-month treatment protocol, and doctors realized her leg would have to be amputated. The diseased portion of Grace’s leg was above the knee, so she chose to undergo a unique procedure called rotationplasty.

You had to get the tumor out, so it would have been up here,” Vicki said, pointing to the upper leg, “but why waste all the healthy leg?”

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Grace Bunke in 2017 — Photo Courtesy: Swim Across America

In rotationplasty, doctors amputate the leg near the thigh but then turn around the calf and foot 180 degrees and reattach them. So the backwards ankle and foot now serve as the knee joint, and a prosthetic can be attached below that. “She now has a knee, even though it’s her ankle, and it’s meant to bear weight, whereas your thigh isn’t,” Vicki said. “When her foot was in her prosthetic, you couldn’t tell that her foot was on backwards.”

With this procedure, Grace would technically be a below-the-knee amputee, and she hoped she could participate in activities she had enjoyed prior to her diagnosis. “It shows you a little bit about her personality that she chose something that unique just because she wanted to be active,” Vicki said.

Grace planned to have a special prosthetic built for running, but before that was completed, she tried swimming for the first time, simply to stay in shape. “But then she fell in love with swimming,” Vicki said.

Grace practiced and eventually competed with SwimAtlanta, and she also swam with an adaptive sports group called Blaze Sports and eventually connected with Paralympic swimming officials. But from the beginning of her life post-amputation, she chased any opportunity she could to swim, all the way up until her condition deteriorated in her final weeks.

By that point, swimming and Swim Across America had become so central in Grace’s life that Vicki’s excursion into the water would not be for just one single event.

“We did the first year, and then Grace had wanted to do the 5K the next year, so we did the 5K in Atlanta,” Vicki said. “We used fins because there’s no way we would have finished on time. We’re slower. But we did it. With fins.”

In late 2019, she thought of her next goal: complete 14 different swims in one year, representing the number of years Grace lived. She had originally intended to complete the daunting task in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled all SAA in-person events that year. So the challenge was pushed to 2021.

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Vicki Bunke after completing a Swim Across America event in July — Photo Courtesy: Swim Across America

“I’m doing it because I feel like I was compelled to do it. I was sitting in a Swim Across America sponsorship lunch in an auditorium. It is like someone, like a friend who is sitting next to me, leaned over and said, ‘Vicki, you need to do 14 of these next year,’ and that’s literally what happened,” Vicki said.

“I leaned over to the person next to me, and I said, ‘Are there 14?’ I just didn’t even know. It’s really an idea that originated outside of myself. I felt compelled that I actually had to do it. And then obviously symbolically, Grace lived for 14 years. That’s how it actually started. I kind of thought it was a crazy idea, and then Rob Butcher said, ‘I hear you’re willing to do 14.’ I’m like, ‘Willing? Oh my gosh. I want to do this.’ Just do support from different people, it’s been able to happen.”


Amazing Grace Tour

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The T-shirt showing the full list of swims on the “Amazing Grace” tour — Photo Courtesy: Swim Across America

The “Amazing Grace” tour began on May 8, Mother’s Day weekend, in Tampa. Next up, Bunke swam three events in July, in Detroit, Nantucket and Larchmont, N.Y., followed by a pair of events the first weekend of August on Long Island and then in Fairfield County, Conn. Sunday, August 15, brought her to Kiawah Island, S.C., located 45 minutes south of Charleston. Bunke had flown to each of the previous stops on the tour, but she drove the five hours to the South Carolina coast for this ocean swim.

When Swim Across America offers multiple distances of swimming at an event, Bunke has to do the one-mile swim or the distance greater than one mile. “I can’t do anything less than a mile because Grace would not approve,” she said. “I would never do less than a mile because it would insult Grace. It wouldn’t go well. I feel like I would be jinxing myself.”

The Kiawah swim offered 1.5-mile and one-half-mile options, so Bunke swam in the longer one. Friends and family were joining her at each stop of the tour, and Kiawah brought an especially impressive turnout. Wasilewski joined Bunke in the 1.5-mile swim, while Caroline Bunke, Grace’s younger sister, swam in the one-half mile event along with several of her friends. Caroline, now 16, is not a swimmer, but her mother described her as “athletic enough” to handle even the 1.5-mile swim, if she wanted to.

The swim took place on a sunny Sunday morning, beginning just after 8:30 a.m. The race asked swimmers to swim straight out into the ocean and then go parallel to shore before turning towards the beach at the finish. Tropical weather offshore made conditions extremely choppy and difficult to swim through, but that did not dampen the mood of Grace’s friends and family swimming in her honor.

Remaining swims on the tour include Chicago on August 21, followed by St. Louis, Denver, Seattle, Baltimore, Dallas and finally, at home in Atlanta on October 3. She will have a swim every weekend until then except for Labor Day weekend.

Symbolic reasons aside, why is Bunke swimming 14 open water races? For Caroline.

“This sounds so cliché. I’m sure a lot of people say they’re best friends with their sibling. They really were. Caroline feels like they were meant to be that close because in the end, they weren’t going to have that much time together,” Bunke said. “Caroline was 9 (when Grace was diagnosed with cancer), so she lived a large part of her life watching Grace go through all this. I swim also for Caroline and to recognize the loss she experienced and hopefully, by raising money, fewer people will have to experience that same loss.”

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Three-time U.S. Olympian Amanda Weir (middle) with Vicki Bunke (left) and Dr. Karen Wasilewski (right) — Photo Courtesy: Swim Across America

The purpose of Swim Across America, of course, is to raise money for cancer research, and for this 2021 season, Team Amazing Grace has raised over $88,000. Bunke said the original goal for the season was $100,000, but they are aiming higher now, for $115,000. And after this year, the Bunke family will not be done with Swim Across America, even if Vicki might not again attempt 14 swims in just a few months.

“I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve actually been able to figure out a way to really carry on what I think Grace would want me to do in her memory,” Bunke said. “It hasn’t been easy, and it can be difficult because a lot of the events, I love sharing stories about Grace, but at the same time, it’s also difficult. It’s kind of like, I’m in the water and swimming, and this organization was Grace’s happy place. It’s kind of like I can borrow some of the joy that she experienced while I’m doing it.”

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