Sam Grewe competes at the IPC World Para Athletics Championships on Nov. 14, 2019 in Dubai.
The postponement of the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 has left high jumper Sam Grewe in a bit of a tough spot.
Had things gone as scheduled this year, he would have been missing the first couple weeks of his senior year at Notre Dame in order to compete in Tokyo. As it stands now, if all goes according to the new plan, he’ll be missing his first couple weeks of medical school.
“Which is so unbelievably far from ideal,” he said. “I can’t really fathom how I’m going to handle that. It’s med school, you can’t really miss it to begin with. That being said, there is quite a bit that has to happen between now and then and worrying about it will make no difference. I’ve been through worse. I can make that work.”
Difficulty, uncertainty and challenges are nothing new to Grewe, now 21. He was only in the seventh grade when he had to make a choice that would be hard for most adults. Diagnosed with osteosarcoma, Grewe decided he’d rather have his right leg amputated and live a life where he could enjoy playing sports than keep his leg and never be active again. April is Limb Loss Awareness Month.
Grewe is now a Paralympic silver medalist and a world champion in the high jump while still a student in college.
“There’s no doubt I made the right decision,” said Grewe, a member of the Notre Dame track and field team as well as a pre-med student. “I’m so glad I decided to do that, especially in the position I’m in today.”
Grewe first attributed the pain in his right knee while playing basketball on his middle school team to growing pains, but on Christmas Eve 2011, he learned he had bone cancer. Three weeks later, he was presented with two options. One would be limb salvage, in which surgeons would cut out the tumor eating away his femur then build an artificial knee joint.
“It wouldn’t require amputation and cosmetically I’d look the same,” he said. “The downside would be that it would be so fragile I couldn’t even bike, no running, even going in the ocean was risky because if a wave hit it wrong it could shatter.
“The other alternative was amputation.”
For about two months, Grewe said, he and his parents were settled on limb salvage. As he underwent chemotherapy, however, Grewe started to wonder if he’d made the right choice. Playing sports and being active was a part of who he was, and he began to think about if he’d be able to get out and throw a ball with his kids one day like his father did with him.
Just a week or two before the limb salvage surgery, Grewe decided he’d have the above-the-knee amputation and rotationplasty, in which his healthy ankle and foot were rotated 180 degrees and reattached at the amputation site to provide better flexibility and support for the prosthetic.
“Initially I think (uncertainty) was the biggest thing keeping me away from it because with limb salvage it’s far more predictable what I’d be experiencing,” he said. “I’d walk the same, look the same. With amputation there’s so much uncertainty and so much is up in the air and I really didn’t know to what extent I’d be able to come back. After the surgery there was rigorous chemotherapy and a lot of uncertainty and fear as well, but I think I knew that going in and was prepared to cross those bridges when I came to them.”
Grewe continued treatment into 2013, and eventually was pronounced cancer-free. He returned to school and sports, playing on the basketball, lacrosse and football teams. The support he always felt in the community, he said, was outstanding.
“I’m from a small town in Indiana called Middlebury and everyone’s super close,” he said. “During the whole ordeal there were fundraisers and people were wearing shirts supporting me and people understood what I was going through. It was definitely tough going back to school and learning to walk again and do all that because it’s middle school and high school, but everyone knew I got my leg cut off. I never felt like an outcast and always had great support.”
Grewe found a community of a different kind in the Para sports world.
His dad learned about a Para track and field competition taking place about two hours away through the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association. He signed up for all eight events and even though he didn’t fall in love with any of them right away, he did find something special in the people around him.
“I was seeing people who were missing legs just like me, or in wheelchairs, and just doing whatever it may have been but doing these remarkable athletic things,” he said. “For lack of a better word, because it’s cliché with Para sports, it was inspiring and it pushed me to keep working and find success there just as they had before.”
Before long, high jump became Grewe’s new event. Initially it was because it was the one he was best at, he said, and could use his good leg to launch. It took time and trial and error to dial in the process, and he looked up to athletes such as four-time Paralympian Jeff Skiba, who won one gold and two silver medals in high jump, to set his sights on what was possible.
In 2016, Grewe would join Skiba on the U.S. Paralympic Team for Skiba’s last appearance and Grewe’s first. Skiba finished fifth and Grewe won the silver medal in the high jump F42.
One of the biggest misconceptions Grewe sees when it comes to amputees, and especially when it comes to Para athletes, is people not understanding some of the everyday challenges they face.
“I think especially with Para athletes you see these people who, yes, have a disability but are very capable of performing almost every daily task,” he said. “Some people lose sight of what’s going on and that I do need accommodations in some aspects of my life. I can jump with the best of them but it’s hard for me to walk a mile in boots in the snow because I don’t have an ankle. Just because I’m very functional with my disability doesn’t mean I don’t encounter obstacles that might seem easy otherwise.”
Grewe hopes to go into either oncology or orthopedic surgery—natural fits given his life experience, he said. Things are a bit up in the air right now because the MCAT exam he was scheduled to take was canceled and so far, there are no make-up dates. Like many students hoping to soon apply to higher education programs, there is a lot of uncertainty.
The bright side of the Paralympic postponement, he said, is that he’ll have one more year of training and competing with the Fighting Irish.
“I’m sad it’s postponed, I was very much looking forward to it, but I believe next year I’ll be in much better shape,” Grewe said. “It’s another season of training all year and I’ll have a better opportunity to show what I’m capable of.”