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Junior Olympics Athlete Battles Cancer, Gets Back in the Water

By Alex Markley, USA Artistic Swimming | June 28, 2022, 10:09 a.m. (ET)

In artistic swimming, athletes must put their hearts and souls into what they do in the water. For 18-year-old Najla Brannin, her ability to do so was taken away. While in the midst of a pandemic, Brannin received the news that she was not only going to have to worry about a global health crisis, but she would also be fighting against cells in her own body.

In 2018, Brannin was diagnosed with endometriosis that had formed tumors in her lower abdomen and would need to be removed. During a removal surgery in October of 2021, doctors found that she had stage three Rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS). This rare form of cancer is usually found in soft skeletal muscle tissue or organs like the bladder or uterus. Brannin was also informed she had a rare genetic mutation, DICER1 Syndrome, that makes her even more susceptible to developing cancer. The news all came as a shock to her, but she knew the fight to get back in the water had just begun. 

Brannin started her artistic swimming career when she was six years old. She initially was visiting the local pool for the diving team but fell in love when she caught a glimpse of the synchronized swimmers and never looked back. She swam through middle school and high school and will continue to swim in college at the University of Florida this fall. Her hard work and dedication had taught her resilience in the water, but now she was going to have to use that skill to fight for her health.

Shortly after diagnosis, Brannin immediately started her battle with the cancer. In the span of eight months, she received six rounds of chemotherapy and underwent another surgery. Due to COVID-19, she could only have one visitor at a time when receiving treatment. Even with restricted physical numbers, her supporters still showed up in high volumes to show support with t-shirts, posters and fundraisers all throughout the country and at different levels of the sport. Her favorite memory was when the University of Florida coach and a few of her future teammates paid her a visit in the hospital. It reminded her that she has support from not only her current team and family, but also her future team and family. She made the most of what she could with each visitor and greatly appreciates everyone who took the time to help make the journey a little more bearable.

With her senior year of high school and sense of normalcy taken from her, artistic swimming was her motivation to keep going. Even with her compromised health situation, Brannin, who is a team captain of the Palm Beach Coralytes, still made it a priority to show up and be a leader. She always found a way to be with the girls at practice whether through phone calls, facetimes, videos or actually being there to help coach. Being with her teammates in any capacity gave her the purpose she needed to remind herself what the end goal was; to beat cancer, get back in the water and compete again. The journey was a long eight months of therapy and waiting, but Brannin was officially declared to be in remission and deemed cancer-free in April of 2022.  

After being in remission for almost a month, she finally got the green light to get back in the water after doctors made sure her immune system could withstand the chlorine and other chemicals in the water.  Brannin said that the hardest part about getting back into the water was being patient with herself and understanding that she may not be at the level she used to be at. She knows it will take time to get back to where she was, but she couldn’t be happier to swim again and get the chance to compete at the 2022 Junior Olympics in Gainesville, Florida. She is taking the road back to full recovery in strides as she prepares to compete for the first time in almost two years.  

This experience has changed not only the way she looks at her sport, but the way she values it on a daily basis. There are no more days of not feeling up to practicing or not wanting to be there. She now looks at practice as a privilege and a gift to get in the water every day. The long journey for Brannin may not be done, as it is common for her type of cancer to come back, but she will do what it takes to get back in the water every time. She hopes her story inspires others who are struggling with injuries and other things to keep going and never give up. She also wants to bring more awareness to childhood cancer with her story. Be on the lookout for Brannin’s comeback routine and first swim back at this year's Junior Olympics. It may be just a swim, but this one just means more.