Grace Bunke Makes Waves to Fight Cancer

Photo Courtesy: Vicki Bunke

By Xonzy Gaddis, Swimming World College Intern.


Photo Courtesy: Vicki Bunke

In the year 2017, Swim Across America – a charity foundation which raises money for cancer research – gained a swimmer who was passionate about the sport and the cause. Diagnosed with osteosarcoma, Grace Bunke swam the Lake Lanier mile to be the top fundraiser in the country for the event.

At the same event just a year later, Grace Bunke would not return to compete. Osteosarcoma take taken her life in March of 2018. Instead, her mother, Vicki Bunke, and doctor, Karen Wasilewski, swam in her honor, feeling her presence with every stroke. After the swim, the Bunke family was shocked to see that they had raised nearly $120,000, topping every fundraiser across the country.

Grace Bunke’s memory lives on and is one of strength, patience and perspective.

Uncommon Strength

The young Grace Bunke was first diagnosed with bone cancer in 2014 at the age of 11. Throughout the duration of her illness, her mom realized that her daughter was an active runner and later ended up in the pool of Swim Atlanta in the fall of 2015. Although physical exertion demanded more than average from Grace, her coaches stayed proud of her efforts. Bunke was determined to swim through her career at the fullest, setting goals such as meeting the qualifying times for the Can-Am Paralympic Open.

Inspiring Her Heroes


Photo Courtesy: Vicki Bunke

Young Bunke not only inspired her donors and fellow teammates but also was an inspiration for several Olympians. Among these Olympians include Paralympic gold medalist Elizabeth Marks, who wrote Grace an inspiring note containing a quote from Founding Father Thomas Paine: “The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.”

She also had the opportunity to meet Olympians Missy Franklin, Heather Petri, and Kristy Kowal at the Lake Lanier Lodge with the help of Swim Across America. Grace’s mother Vicki keeps an online journal through Caringbridge of the Bunke family journal, which goes into great deal of the actions and emotions since Grace’s diagnosis. One entry specifically details a conversation between a coach and a lifeguard. Both were amazed at seeing Bunke competing in a meet, considering she had recently undergone surgery to reduce the cancer in her spine.

Setting Goals


Photo Courtesy: Vicki Bunke

When it came time for the Swim Across America events to occur, Grace had a top goal in mind: to raise the most money for AFLAC Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Grace gave a speech on her reason for swimming and raising money for the event:

My name is Grace Bunke. I am 14-years-old and am a patient at AFLAC. Actually I have been a patient there for three years. And that’s because my cancer, called osteosarcoma, keeps coming back. First it was in my leg, then in both of my lungs, and now it’s in my spine. My cancer keeps coming back not because my doctors and nurses don’t know what they are doing, but because there aren’t any known treatments for osteosarcoma that keeps coming back. In fact, the number of new treatments that have been developed for osteosarcoma over the past 30 years is exactly equal to zero. None. Not a single new treatment in 30 years. I might not be great at math, but I know that 30 years is a long time. And even though I have never taken a statistics class, I know that the chances of me living to be 30 is also exactly equal to zero.

So, do you want to know why I swim? I swim because it helps me to forget. It helps me to forget that my cancer keeps coming back threatening to steal the air from my lungs and stop my heart from beating. I swim because in the water, I have a chance to be extraordinary despite the physical disability that my cancer caused. I swim because it is a chance to challenge myself, to fight through pain and discomfort, and emerge on the other side stronger and tougher and more resilient than I was before.

That is why I swim.

And today, I swam to help raise money for a place that I love; a place where the doctors and nurses that I call my friends work; a place that is dedicated to hope and healing – a place called AFLAC. Today, I swam for AFLAC so that hopefully there will be a different future; a better future; a future in which someone like myself has a chance to live.

Today I swam as a way to thank Dr. Wasilewski, Dr. Sutton, Melissa Martin, the entire Solid Tumor Team, and all of my AFLAC nurses for helping me through my illness. Today I swam for them. Today I swam for me. Today I swam for hope. Today I swam for AFLAC.

Grace Bunke’s Last Wish Comes True


Photo Courtesy: Vicki Bunke

On March 25 of 2018, Grace Bunke passed away a little before her fifteenth birthday. Her mother said that she “will live [her] life knowing full well who [her] strength lies in.”

Grace did have one last wish for her mother to fulfill: to finish Swim Across America of 2018. Grace’s mother began training along with Coach Pat (one of Grace’s Swim Atlanta coaches), Dr. Wasilewski (Grace’s oncologist), and Melissa Martin (one of Grace’s nurse practitioners). Together, they raised nearly $120,000 at the Swim Across America 2018 event for the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Along with the Team Amazing Grace and Take that Benedict, they were able to raise over $700,000 for the AFLAC Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.


Photo Courtesy: Vicki Bunke

Although Grace was unable to be in the water that day, her mother and everyone else felt her inspiration flowing through their veins. Grace Bunke’s memory is a force that pushes others to make as large of an impact on the world as they can. She not only swam for herself but also for swimmers around the country.

To learn more about Grace Bunke and her family’s journey, visit their Caringbridge site.

All interviews are conducted by the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Claire Kennedy
5 years ago

An inspirational read. ?

Ingrid Merlot
5 years ago


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