Sam Grewe celebrates victory in the men's high jump T42 at the IPC Athletics World Championships at Suhaim Bin Hamad Stadium on Oct. 22, 2015 in Doha, Qatar.
Sports fans live for underdog stories.
And right now, there’s no better tale in Paralympic sport than that of Sam Grewe — a Team USA athlete who won a shock gold medal in the high jump T42 at the IPC Athletics World Championships last Thursday in Doha, Qatar, just four years after losing his right leg to cancer.
The 17-year-old leapt a personal-best of 1.81 meters in his worlds debut, an astounding 20 centimeters better than his previous-best set at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in June and a mark that would have won him gold at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“It’s indescribable,” Grewe said. “I came into this looking for a personable best, looking for the experience to get ready for future big events like this. I wasn’t even expecting to bring home a medal, let alone gold.”
And what does the newly crowned champion do immediately after the breakout performance?
“I borrowed my coach’s phone right away and called my mom,” Grewe said. “She started screaming of course, because you know how moms are. She was watching all of it, and she said she was down to a tank top because she was sweating so much just from cheering and yelling the entire time.”
Let’s now pause for a moment to explore where those emotions — building up for the last four years — came from.
Just before Christmas in 2011, Grewe was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and underwent surgery to amputate his right leg because the cancer was spreading in his knee. At the time, he was a four-sport athlete and the leading scorer on his middle school basketball team.
In 2012, the Notre Dame football team adopted Grewe, with the Fighting Irish supporting him and allowing him to be on the field for games during their undefeated regular season.
“That was a big part of me getting back into athletics because that was going on when I was going through chemo,” Grewe said. “Being able to get into that world of sports — I wasn’t competing but I was with the team and went to games — really motivated me to get back to the point where I was in the game and I was playing.”
Nearly a year later, Grewe found out he was cancer free.
It was time to return to his prospering athletic career.
“Losing my leg took a lot of that away, but I was eager to get back into sports, so I played basketball for my high school team, lacrosse and football,” Grewe said. “I was back into sports, but I definitely wasn’t at the level I wanted to be. I couldn’t keep up with the guys with two legs.”
|Grewe was greeted to a hero's welcome in his hometown of Middlebury, Indiana with a parade and reception.|
That’s when Grewe stumbled upon Paralympic sports.
While looking for more sports opportunities for amputees, Grewe came across the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA), a Paralympic sport club based in Lake Forest, Illinois, which serves nearly 500 athletes in 30 different sports in the Midwest region at the grassroots level.
From there, everything just snowballed.
He jumped 1.55 meters at May’s Desert Challenge Games, which doubled as an IPC Athletics Grand Prix Event, and then topped that with a leap of 1.61 meters at June’s U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships.
That was good enough to qualify for August’s Parapan American Games in Toronto, where he jumped 1.60 meters, finishing fourth in the combined T42/44/47 class event.
Then came his breakthrough world championship jump, which placed him above the likes of London 2012 silver medalist Girisha Hosanagara Nagarajegowda from India and European champion Lukasz Mamczarz from Poland.
“(A few years ago), I was trying to get back to walking,” Grewe said. “I was trying to figure out how I could get from Point A to Point B without falling over or being in a wheelchair. Now I’m running around and jumping and winning world championships. I could have never expected that.”
Grewe’s gold-medal jump was live streamed via USParalympics.org at his school in Middlebury, Indiana, a small town of nearly 4,000 residents, and his family held a viewing party of the championships at their home. Social media lit up with photos, videos and congratulatory messages following his victory, and Grewe’s been the talk of his town ever since.
More than 100 people lined the streets of Middlebury to welcome home Grewe on Sunday night, escorting him in a fire truck down Main Street with a parade of a dozen cars honking behind him.
“Nothing big usually happens where I live, so they’re all being incredibly supportive,” Grewe said.
The high school junior personifies the new wave of charismatic Team USA youngsters who have already surpassed expectations at the world championships, with he and 17-year-old Hunter Woodhall (bronze in the 200-meter T44) already taking home medals.
“We are all very close, our group of me, A.J. Digby, Hunter Woodhall, Jack Briggs, Desmond Jackson,” Grewe said. “We’re all the same age. We’re all up-and-comers on this team, and we just want people to know that we need to be taken seriously.
“We’re not as old or as experienced, but we’re bringing it.”
After bringing it in Doha, Grewe said he’s going to take his training a lot more seriously now that a trip to the Rio 2016 Games — and perhaps even a Paralympic medal — is a realistic goal. He’s planning to leave the lacrosse field this school year in order to focus solely on bumping up the bar and eventually surpassing the world-record mark of 1.96 meters set by Canada’s Arnold Boldt in 1980.
“I was definitely an underdog coming into the world championships,” Grewe said. “Nobody knew who I was. But I hope that they think I’m a serious competitor now and they have a new person to look out for.
“I hope that they remember my name now.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.