Walker dreamed of being a Lancer

Waterford High School freshman Marissa Walker, right, waits at the starting blocks for the start of her heat in the 50 freestyle at Saturday's ECC swimming championship. Walker, 14, survived cancer and fulfilled her dream of being a high school athlete.
Waterford High School freshman Marissa Walker, right, waits at the starting blocks for the start of her heat in the 50 freestyle at Saturday's ECC swimming championship. Walker, 14, survived cancer and fulfilled her dream of being a high school athlete.

Groton - Marissa Walker and her cousin, Walker Sutman, were born on the same day, Dec. 5, 1999.

"Our moms used to hang out a lot, so we did, too," Sutman said.

The two competed against each other in whatever sport was being played at each family gathering. Walker and her two sisters. Sutman and his three brothers. Both the cousins became left-handed pitchers. They dreamed of arriving at Waterford High School as freshmen, the way they did this fall, and playing sports. They couldn't wait to be Lancers.

Only when Marissa Walker was 9, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer.

Walker had an expandable prosthesis inserted in her left leg. She had major surgery three times and had the prosthesis lengthened 16 more times, each time traveling to University Hospital in Newark, N.J. She underwent months of chemotherapy. It changed things, a lot more than her approach to sports, but that was one. Without being able to run, there would be no more soccer, one of her favorites.

"It stinks sometimes to know you lost something you love, even just the option to go do things with my friends," Walker said.

But Walker's competitive spirit never faded.

Just ask Waterford High swimming coach Brett Arnold. Arnold watched as Walker swam the freestyle leg of the Lancers' 4x100-yard medley relay B team, as well as the 50 freestyle event Saturday at the Eastern Connecticut Conference swimming championship before an overflow crowd at UConn Avery Point.

"At the beginning point of the season, we had an intrasquad meet and she jumped in and swam," Arnold said this week, recalling Walker's eagerness to jump-start her high school career. "She kind of reinjured herself a little bit. I told her, 'Marissa, you've got to see the big picture. I want you at ECCs.'"

It's easy to understand her motivation, though.

Walker, 14, is now cancer free, undergoing her final surgery in January, in which she received her permanent knee. And she has discovered a way to feel like herself again.

In swimming, which she began with the Thames Aquatic Club at Connecticut College, she can compete on an even plane. The scar that runs the length of her leg becomes invisible.

"I can go as fast as I want and my leg isn't holding me back," Walker said. "I can swim and not have to feel like I'm different. … If you told me when I got to high school I was going to be swimming, I would say, 'No way.' I wanted to play soccer."

Walker already has a career highlight, too. In a home meet against Norwich Free Academy on Oct. 14, Walker was part of a 1-2-3 finish in the 50-meter freestyle which helped the Lancers to a 95-83 victory. Walker followed Asia Langley in first place and Charlie Dimmock in second. Arnold, in his report to local newspapers, named the event as the turning point of the meet.

"That's a really big thing to be able to go 1-2-3. It doesn't happen all the time. There are probably two or three examples of it all season," Arnold said. "It was exciting. I was watching the computer and I kept looking up and said, 'We're going to go 1-2-3. Holy (crap) that's Marissa!' There's certain things you're always going to remember and that's one of them."

"Some things are still hard for me," Walker said. "Seeing my name in the paper, in the same sentence as Asia, was so cool. I was proud of myself. I got to be recognized for something I got to accomplish."

Said Sutman, who hopes to play basketball and baseball at Waterford: "She was the first to be in the newspaper for high school. I'm really happy for her. She deserved it. And she's only a freshman. When she's a senior she'll be swimming a lot better."

The cousins, who their families jokingly refer to as "twins," come by their affinity for sports naturally. Walker's dad, Pete, was a major league pitcher for eight seasons and is currently the pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. Sutman's mom, Liz, Pete's sister, is the successful Waterford High softball coach, winner of three state championships.

"Sports has been a part of my life always, playing catch with my dad or shooting hoops, I'm so competitive. If you tell me to do it, I do it 100 percent. I want to do so well," Walker said.

That's one reason swimming plays such a therapeutic role.

Walker still suffers through nagging leg pain from her surgery, nothing Advil can fix. There are days she can't participate in drills in the pool, instead turning into Arnold's assistant coach.

This summer, she played Senior League softball, but had to walk to first no matter how far she hit it, something which resonated with her.

Walker's doctor, at her last checkup, told her it would take as many as three years for the pain to subside. That's most of her high school career. Walker wasn't waiting.

"I've never been a patient person and I've been so patient," Walker said. "I asked him when would I be 100 percent-feeling. He said three years. I'm like, 'What?!' That's, like, upsetting. But maybe I could get there sooner."

If there were days Walker wanted to feel sorry for herself, she never has.

She says there are no parents anywhere better than hers, Pete and Kari Walker, even if at times she's "stressed them out."

She's happy to be a high school student, saying it gives her a greater sense of independence. Now she has goals.

"There are days it's like I want to feel bad for myself. I want to be able to walk around. I don't want to be known as the girl who had cancer. There are other characteristics of myself," said Walker, who was 14th in the 50 free Saturday in 30.68 seconds, her name and lane assignment broadcast by meet public announcer Scott Black.

"You come to terms with what you have. I still am blessed. I still have two good legs. I'm still active in high school. Each day gets better and better. I should be happy just to be out there. But I don't want people to think, 'She's the cancer girl.' There's more people don't get to see. I want people to find different things about me, then find out I used to have cancer."

One thing to know about Marissa Walker, for instance. She's a Lancer.

"She hasn't ever looked down," Walker Sutman said this week of his cousin, whom he calls inspiring. "She's just always stayed positive. She just wanted to get through cancer and be back to normal. She just wanted to get better.

"It's amazing. It's just incredible what she's been through. A lot of people would just give up."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

Twitter: @vickieattheday

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