Sam Grewe competes during men's high jump T42/43 and T63/64 at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 25, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Sam Grewe has already experienced and accomplished a near-lifetime's worth, and he's just getting started.
A pre-med junior at Notre Dame, where he is also a member of the Fighting Irish track and field team, the Paralympic high jumper is doing all he can to keep pace with both his teammates and his classmates as he prepares to represent the United States at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
In combining an aspiring medical career with the rigors of being a world-class athlete, the Middlebury, Indiana, native lives a life quite different than your typical collegiate undergrad.
“There's a lot on my plate for sure,” he said. “I've learned to kiss any sort of regular routine goodbye and just roll with whatever the day might bring.”
Three years into his time at Notre Dame, a “good day” for Grewe consists of four to five hours of classes and another three hours of practice and training, with “showering, getting ready and eating” sprinkled in, followed by class work through the nighttime hours. All the while, fitting in some sleep when he can.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
“It's getting harder and harder with the workload from classes picking up as I get further along in my pre-med career,” he said. “It gets exponentially more difficult and the stakes get higher the further along I go.
“There's very little room for anything big.”
Big, as in a week-long international competition held halfway across the world?
“For Dubai, I'm already hanging on just to stay on track with my peers. It makes it that much more difficult when you factor school into it,” Grewe said. “But it's all worth it.”
Just 21 years of age, Grewe is only eight years removed from making a life-changing decision that was forced upon him after an osteosarcoma diagnosis on Christmas Eve 2011.
As a seventh grader who was a year-round athlete and had grown eight inches through the year, Grewe didn't think much about it when he first began experiencing pain in his right knee during the basketball season.
“I just figured pains like that were to be expected,” he said. “We just assumed it was growing pains.”
However, after a lump began to appear, a trip to the doctor over the holiday break confirmed something much more dire — Grewe had developed a rare and aggressive form of bone cancer.
“I was devastated. It was crushing,” he said. “It felt like my whole future had been taken away from me. I had so many questions and no one could give me any answers.”
After the initial shock of the diagnosis, matters began to come into focus at last. Grewe did have a future, but he also had a powerful decision to make.
Surgery was required, but it could take one of two forms. He could salvage his right leg by replacing his knee with an artificial joint, or amputate the limb.
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“Limb salvage was an option, and a good one,” Grewe said. “The problem is, while it would still be cosmetically my leg, the joint would be extremely weak and I could not return to sports.
“I began to consider amputation. The doctor assured me that while it would be hard, it would also give me the best chance of returning to an athletic lifestyle.”
Barely a teenager, Grewe made the call that would affect the rest of his life: he chose amputation.
“I didn't want to live the lifestyle prescribed with limb salvage,” he said. “That's just not who I was.”
Following the surgery came 21 sessions of week-long chemotherapy, along with regular sessions of physical therapy to craft his right leg in its new form “into what I could work with.”
Fitted with a prosthetic, Grewe returned to the basketball team as an eighth grader, while also playing lacrosse and football. He was back to being a year-round athlete. It was at this time that he was introduced to the world of adaptive sports.
Grewe discovered the Great Lakes Adaptive Sports Association (GLASA), a Paralympic sport club based in suburban Chicago. After sampling a number of athletic opportunities, he “fell in love” with high jumping.
The love affair blossomed quickly between athlete and event.
It took less than a year for Grewe to progress from his initial Para track and field competition in 2015 to stunning the field by winning the gold medal despite being seeded last at the world championships in Doha, Qatar.
“At first I was just banking on natural athleticism, but after qualifying for Doha realized that I need to be taking this seriously,” he said. “I began working with a coach, Kyle Mishler, and just began chipping away at it.
“After having a 20-centimeter personal record and winning gold at Doha I knew I had a future, so I quit my other sports and began training in high jump exclusively.”
After earning the silver medal at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, Grewe again claimed the gold medal at the 2017 World Para Athletics Championships in London before breaking a world record with a leap of 1.90 meters to win the gold at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 in Peru this past August.
“Jumping a world record in front of a sold-out crowd that included my family was really special,” he said.
Not one to rest on an already impressive stack of laurels, Grewe is already eyeing the possibility of a two-meter leap at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 as he prepares to compete in Dubai.
“Right now Tokyo is everything,” he said. “I want to go to Dubai and have a lights-out performance, but what's happening now is a preparation and a buildup to Tokyo.”
The Tokyo Games are scheduled to take place just two months after Grewe's 22nd birthday. Come what may in Japan, he is slated to graduate in 2021, with a hoped-for trip to medical school to follow and a world full of opportunity either on or off the track from there.
“After Tokyo, I'm going to have to sit down and really consider what my priorities are and where I want to be,” he said. “I need to consider what the possibilities are as far as competing while being a med student. Hopefully I can manage both, but that's a conversation I haven't had yet. There is still so much to do in this next year.”
Tom Carothers is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.