Even her aggressive cancer could not stop Grace Bunke from tapping out of sports as she bravely continued to swim while battling the deadly disease.
A Georgia mother set out on a cross-country swimming mission to honor her daughter who lost her cancer battle. It was Vicki Bunke's daughter, Grace, who inspired her to swim in the first place as she "was not a swimmer before this all happened" and that she "knew how to swim and grew up with a pool, but I'm a little bit claustrophobic and I don't like putting my face in the water... I credit Grace for inspiring me and giving me the courage to do something that's really difficult." Through this, the mom hopes to keep her brave daughter's memories alive, who battled the deadly disease for three years, remained fearless even as cancer overtook her body.
"She was super adventurous," said the 52-year-old speaking about Grace on Tuesday's PEOPLE (the TV Show!). "We always said she was always going too fast, too far and too high." Vicki also revealed that her family never had to push Grace to stay "engaged" as she would always be one step ahead. "We never had to encourage her to stay engaged in life. Even during her cancer treatments and through her illness, we were still the ones who had to set limits with her... we didn't want to hold her back, but you know, just being in terms of what was safe for her to do," she explained.
As a child, Grace became extremely involved in sports and ultimately began running. Tragedy struck when she was just 11. "She started having knee pain in the spring," recalled Vicki of the devastating condition. "And she kept pushing through the pain until finally, she ended up running at her last — what turned out to be her last — track event on her two natural legs, kind of crossing the finish line in tears." Concerned about her unexplained pain, Grace's parents took her to see a doctor who gave them a heartbreaking diagnosis that Grace had osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that had caused a large tumor in her left femur. Unfortunately, it had already metastasized to her lungs as well.
But Grace and her family were not ready to give up yet. Thus, the teen underwent 18 rounds of chemotherapy and many surgeries, including rotationplasty, where her backward foot was used to replace the movement of her knee. "It was the best choice for her because it allowed her unlimited ability to be physical in the world," said Vicki. While waiting to be able to run again, Grace began swimming to get in shape at the age of 12 and immediately fell in love with it. She almost made it to the Paralympic team. "There's something different about being in the water versus running around a track. So I think that it really kind of gave her spiritual kind of emotional strength," said the mom.
"She just had this attitude [of] we're going to get through this and I can't wait to get back. And she lived her life throughout the treatment. She went to school anytime she wasn't in the hospital... so she made it easy on us going through that," she added. Grace also got involved with the Swim Across America (SAA) program which helps raise money to beat cancers like hers before she died. Her inspiring story was later featured in WaveMakers, a six-part docu-series about SAA. Watching the video is extremely difficult for Vicki understandably but it is also a "meaningful" experience as it "brings back so many great memories," she explained.
The teen passed away in 2018 a day before her 15th birthday and knew she could not make it to an upcoming SAA event. So she asked her mom to participate on her behalf. "I committed to swimming in 14 open water charity events with Swim Across America to honor the 14 years at Grace lived on this earth," said the 52-year-old of her resolve. "Grace also swam in 14 swim meets in her entire life. So we've labeled it appropriately: the Amazing Grace Swim Across America tour. And I have completed four of them. I have ten to go." The open water charity event has already raised $80,000 and there are still ten more to go which is set to be held in many cities across the country including Seattle, Baltimore, Dallas, Louis, and Atlanta.
The mom plans to continue this endeavor as she feels that her daughter is cheering her on from above as the weather remains perfect for each event. "We feel like heaven is cheering us on. You can't have a better cheering section than heaven. Grace had the best laugh, the best smile, so I think she's smiling... and not only cheering me on, but she's showing up at each of the events in small ways," she explained. "It's a very special experience that I get to have, and I feel like it's a healing process for me as well. Grace always remained hopeful in what most people would be considered kind of a hopeless situation. And that's really what she left for all of us and how she inspired all of us... how to live your life and make the most of it," she added. If you wish to support Vicki's journey, click here to donate to Team Amazing Grace.