Despite Cancer Diagnosis, Gaby Jimenez Plays Key Role for AAC Champion Houston

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Gaby Jimenez (second from left, front row) celebrates Houston's fourth straight American Athletic Conference title with her fellow seniors on Saturday. Photo Courtesy: Ben Solomon

Gaby Jimenez Peon was where she wanted to be in the final weekend of her college career, but it was far from the circumstances she had envisioned.

Jimenez was on deck with her University of Houston teammates at their home pool, vying for a fourth straight American Athletic Conference title. She greeted teammates, dripping wet and beaming, as they exited the pool or headed for the podium. By Saturday night, when she and her nine fellow seniors had completed their clean sweep of conference titles, she massed with her teammates for a group picture, then lined up on the bulkhead for a celebratory dip.

That part was normal. But it’s been the only thing in Jimenez’s senior season that has been. Instead of competing for the Cougars last weekend, Jimenez’s duties as a senior captain took different forms – as a motivator, as a cheerleader, and as an occasional lunch-getter.

That’s the new reality the six-time AAC finalist had to come to peace with in 2020. Instead of a capstone campaign, the Mexican international’s career took a detour, via a diagnosis of thyroid cancer in December. And while she’s on the road to recovery since surgery, it brought an abrupt end to her swimming career.

It didn’t stop her, however, for participating wholeheartedly in the final conference meet she’d looked forward to for years, even if she wasn’t in the water.

“It was a rollercoaster,” Jimenez said. “I was so excited to be around the team and being able to help with anything needed, getting coffee, lunch, dinner, just cheering on my team. But I also had the bad moments where I wish I was swimming and scoring points for them. But it was fun. It was fun winning.”

‘This is not me’

What appeared to be the high point of Jimenez’s career was, in hindsight, really the beginning of the end.

Nov. 21 - 2019 UH Phill Hansel Invitational - Houston NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving (Joe Buvid / For Houston Athletics)

Gaby Jimenez swims at the Phill Hansel Invitational last November. Photo Courtesy: Joe Buvid/For Houston Athletics

Jimenez parlayed a tremendous junior season with Houston – finishing third in the AAC in the 100 breaststroke and 400 individual medley and fourth in the 200 breast – into her best achievement yet in long course. She redoubled her training after the college season with Houston coach Ryan Wochomurka and qualified to represent Mexico at the 2019 World Championships. Though she’d been to the Junior Pan Pacific Championships and the Central American Games, this was an international step up.

But her swims in Gwangju, South Korea, started to sow concern. She added time in the 100 breast (from a seed of 1:11.04 to 1:11.83 in finishing 38th) and an alarming amount in the 200 breast (from 2:33.02 to 2:37.49 in taking 29th). It was possible, her coaches said, that a grueling 11-month season had caught up to her.

The prescription was rest, and Jimenez returned to her native Naucalpan for an abbreviated vacation around family. When she returned to Houston in September, all seemed normal, if uneven, at first. Wochomurka, for instance, recalls dual meets where her 100 breaststroke would seem fine, but her times over longer distances would be way out of whack.

By October, Jimenez got to a point where she couldn’t finish workouts, starting a stretch where she didn’t finish a training session for four months. It started as cramps, in her legs or her arms. When the cramping reached her neck, her concern ratcheted up. She was used to swimming through pain, as so many swimmers are. But this felt like more.

“When I first started feeling tired and fatigued and all that, I thought, I’m a swimmer, this is how I’m supposed to feel,” she said. “But it was not only the pool. I would wake up and get tired.”

The lack of endurance in training was a warning sign for Wochomurka, too.

“The thing that we’ve known about Gaby since she got here as a freshman is that she’s a worker,” Wochomurka said. “She takes pride in that and she works hard, and obviously with the events she’s been more inclined to swim for us, those are aerobically challenging races. … It would be about halfway through practice, and she’d be drowning. She’d have a hard time moving.”

The symptoms started to spread. Constant fatigue meant Jimenez started going to bed at 7 p.m. She couldn’t make it through classes or study sessions. Her parents worried she might fall asleep while driving. Wochomurka availed the university’s resources, like nutrition help or time management changes to lessen stress, but those didn’t help as they had in the past.

Even as blood tests kept coming back normal, Jimenez knew something more than just heavy training was to blame.

“I would wake up and be tired already,” Jimenez said. “I told the coaches, this is not normal. This is not me. … I was just tired and couldn’t control it, not even with coffee or anything. It was just my body shutting down. That’s when I knew it wasn’t the training or swimming or anything like that.”

Through it all, Jimenez continued competing. She swam in all of the Cougars’ fall dual meets and was markedly slower at the Rice Invitational in October, but recovered slightly by the dual meets in the second half of the season. As much as being around teammates offered support and normalcy, the results disheartened her further, her body unable to achieve what she wanted to give the team as one of its leaders.

By time the Phill Hansel Invitational rolled around in November, Jimenez took a step back. After conferencing with Wochomurka and her parents, she decided to skip the team’s December training trip to Florida. She instead went back to Mexico, ostensibly for Mexican Nationals, but mostly to push through the specialists that had returned clean blood tests, urging for them to keep search.

After a biopsy in mid-December, she got the news on December 26: Thyroid cancer, which would require surgery and a regimen of hormone pills for her life.

“It answered a lot of questions for us,” Wochomurka said, “but it wasn’t the answers we wanted to hear.”

A swimming decision

For all the terror that the C word carries, Jimenez at least had an explanation. Her intuition told her something was very wrong, and she’d advocated for herself until a culprit was found. She also had a choice: Surgery could be put off until after the conference meet, her doctor told her.

Nov. 21 - 2019 UH Phill Hansel Invitational - Houston NCAA Women's Swimming and Diving (Joe Buvid / For Houston Athletics)

Gaby Jimenez. Photo Courtesy: Joe Buvid/For Houston Athletics

Jimenez considered that possibility. For four years at Houston, she’d positioned the AAC Championships as the last meet of her career. Despite the Worlds trip, qualifying for the Olympics was a longshot, and the team’s dedication to winning four straight championships had defined her career.

Initially, Jimenez was tempted. But within a day of putting a name to her all-encompassing malaise, she made a firm decision.

“That’s kind of what I wanted, and then after a couple hours, I just said, you know what, ‘I’ve been thinking about it all day, and I don’t think I can swim for two months knowing I have cancer,’” she said. “My body is just not right, so what’s the point of swimming when I’m not even swimming fast or not where I want to be?”

Jimenez had surgery January 9, but there were complications. Doctors found more malignant tissue than expected, requiring incisions through the shoulder muscle that would require longer rehab and definitely end any chance of her returning this season. Her parents made the call, mid-operation, to make sure doctors removed as much of the tissue as possible. Jimenez also spent a week in the hospital waiting for her calcium levels to stabilize. She remains on hormone pills and daily calcium supplements to replace hormones a healthy thyroid would produce.

Jimenez retained some outside hope that she might heal quickly enough to take part in AACs. But on Feb. 2, she announced in a Facebook post that she was effectively retiring. It was the first time she’d opened up about her condition to anyone outside her family and her extended Houston family. Despite the finality, that announcement only solidified what she’d felt weeks earlier.

“I always had this plan of finishing my career at Houston with the conference meet,” she said. “I wasn’t able to swim but I was still part of it. So for me, my career ended when I found out about my cancer.”

The return to deck

Six weeks on from her surgery, Jimenez is only in the water as part of physical therapy, rehabbing her shoulder. But staying involved with the team was a priority from the outset. She’s got one year of studies left at Houston and hopes to stay involved with the team in some capacity. So was the academic side of it: The extended hospital stay delayed her return to Houston by a week, but the impact on her studies was minimal for the double-major in supply-chain management and marketing who’d twice been an all-AAC academic selection.

Wochomurka has seen the impact she has on deck. He admired Jimenez from her first days on campus, especially how quickly she adapted to the team-centric aspect of dual meets and conferences that is largely absent for international swimmers. He sees great potential in her as a coach, if she chooses that path, and witnessed how her former teammates respond to her, out of a respect that her commitment has earned.

“The biggest thing that she brought to our program over the last three months has just been much better perspective for our student-athletes and myself included, that what an incredible opportunity we have,” Wochomurka said. “This is such a gift that we get to compete in a collegiate environment at a Division I school. Sometimes, that can get lost in the daily grind of chasing this or chasing that.”

At AACs, Jimenez’s role involved whatever she could do to help teammates, many of whom had #4gaby inked on their arms and backs. Sometimes it was running to get lunch or snacks. Other times it was offering helpful advice on deck, a high five or a pep talk.

All of it required Jimenez to put herself second. There were tough moments, when thoughts of what could’ve been encroached upon what was. Wochomurka saw it on Friday, the day of Jimenez’s two signature events, the 400 IM and 100 breast, a daunting double that she had navigated so successfully.

Cancer had forced her to put herself first, a decision her teammates wholeheartedly supported. So her final weekend as a college swimmer involved her putting others first.

“It’s amazing to me the strength she showed just this week,” Wochomurka said. “I know inside must’ve been heart-melting for her. But she came out cheering louder as much as she could, just her presence there made us better, because of who she is and being there.”

“There was one time I needed to cry, I went to the bathroom, cried for like three seconds and went back to the pool deck,” she said. “I was like, OK, this is not my time right now. I have to be strong for them. … I was like, no, just hide the pain. They don’t need to see your pain right now. This is their time to shine. It’s not about you; it about the team.”

From the pictures and videos, and from the way that Jimenez describes the weekend, being a spectator didn’t demonstrably diminish what she felt. It was different, for sure. But as Jimenez slides away from first-person and into third-person, her focus at AACs sharpens in focus.

“It was fun. That’s all I can think of,” she said. “We won our first title at home my freshman year, so my class always had these goals of getting our four championships, getting four rings. We always said we wanted to finish our business at home. So we were so excited our senior conference was going to be at home, so we wanted this championship so bad, and we all went for it. So we were so excited. We felt like we did everything to get it, and it turned out the way we wanted.”

11 comments

  1. avatar
    T

    Amazing inspiration ❤️

  2. avatar
    T

    Amazing inspiration ❤️

  3. Robin Kaleta-Warner

    This story makes me very emotional. My daughter is a senior in high school and is also a swimmer. At 12 years old she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and three surgeries later and still not clear of disease, swim is her therapy. What a great story of a strong survivor with much to be proud of!

    • Carolina Cuco Rivera

      Carlos Lomba gracias – god bless her 🙏🏽 – increíble gesto de sus teammates

  4. avatar
    Jorge Arturo Jimenez

    I’m so proud about her…she is my daughter…1/3 of my heart…

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