After cancer treatment, UNC diver Emily Grund returns to the pool

There was a time when Emily Grund doubted the possibility of diving again.

But, in the words of her coach Yaidel Gamboa, she is better and stronger than before.

The UNC redshirt senior diver made her long-awaited return 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 has already qualified for the 2023 NCAA Zone Regional Championships.

She no longer has to wake up at 5 am every day to receive treatment. No more sitting on the sidelines and watching your teammates compete without it. No more doubts and fears about the uncertainty of your university career.

She’s back, remaking the senior season she missed.

“Everything that’s happened in the last year has really taught me to appreciate every aspect of what’s happening (in the pool),” she said. “Loved every second.”

In September 2021, Grund received his diagnosis and faced a five-month battle with leukemia. She was officially declared cancer-free on February 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 water in the Koury Natatorium pool against her skin again.

“I couldn’t wait to get back here,” she said. “And I wanted to get back as soon as possible.”

The transition was more difficult than she expected, as she still had some side effects from the treatment. After wasting so much time, her body still wasn’t prepared for the intensity of full-time training.

“I guess I thought I would be able to go back to that,” Grund said. “I quickly learned that I couldn’t do that. I did it midweek and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m dead.’”

In fact, it was a Wednesday morning in the weight room when exhaustion finally hit her. She could barely move the weights or her body and quickly realized she needed to slow down.

She called track coach Alex Hall to discuss possible changes to her training regiment. So her coaches and the athletic training team worked together to create a modified practice schedule to ease the transition.

Grund said he knew that if he kept a positive mindset despite this setback, he could regain his strength. In the end, the only thing that mattered to her was getting back to doing what she loves in the best way possible.

For a few weeks, she practiced once a day instead of twice 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 is stronger than before, and now she is in a really good place – much better than I expected and much faster than I expected.”

Grund’s absence last season was felt by everyone on the UNC dive team. Junior diver Aranza Vazquez said last year’s training was missing the usual level of positivity and joy that Grund always brings. In particular, Vazquez missed having Grund to root for the team’s dives – even the “awful” ones.

When Vazquez was in freshman year, Grund was always there to advise and encourage her. Vazquez still remembers Grund’s words that soothed the freshman before their first high school date.

“She always says ‘take it easy,’” Vazquez said. “‘You will get it. Don’t think too much about it.’”
Now, in Grund’s fifth year, she has the opportunity to do the same with new team members. In addition to her leadership, Grund’s work ethic throughout her time at UNC is why Gamboa considers her a role model for the Tar Heels.

“I think she’s a great role model – and I’ve told her this many times – a warrior,” Gamboa said.

It is her positivity and resilience that make her stand out to her teammates and coaches alike. And it is because of these two traits that she was able to achieve success this season and defy the odds against her.

Grund will compete at the NCAA Regional Zone Championships in March, where he will have a chance to earn a spot at the national championships. Coincidentally, his last competition before the diagnosis was the 2021 championship.

Having the opportunity to return to this year’s competition is an achievement she has not lost.

“Before my diagnosis, I think I took all of that for granted,” she said. “I would kind of come in every day, do my thing and go home, but I really try to absorb and appreciate every little aspect of it (now). I think qualifying for these competitions means so much more.”

With this potentially her last year as a college diver, Grund said she’s approaching this season with a different kind of attitude. No matter the outcome of a date, she is happy to be doing what she loves again.

Being able to compete at the same level as before her diagnosis both motivated and amazed her. It also serves as a reminder that she is stronger than she thought.

“I feel like (I’m doing this for) any other young adult who is an athlete who is suffering from cancer, any other mental health issue or physical injury that keeps him from playing the sport,” she said. “I’m just trying to do this with them in mind, because I was in that situation.”

Dylan Thiessen and Dylan Thiessen

UNC redshirt senior diver Emily Grund, pictured at Koury Natatorium on Monday, January 23, 2023, was declared cancer-free in February 2022 and is returning to compete with the UNC Swimming & Diving team this season.


@dthsports | [email protected]

To get the day’s news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

After cancer treatment, UNC diver Emily Grund returns to the pool

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to top