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Grueling fight continues for swimmer Morrison

Seattle Times

BELLEVUE, Wash. - Marin Morrison stands at the edge of the pool.

She waits for this moment every day, when she can disappear from the doctors, therapists and the prying eyes of strangers. The water forgives her half-paralyzed body. It lets her be 16 years old.

People always tell her she's an inspiration. Sports fans, reporters, fellow swimmers. They know about the records she broke as an Olympics-bound champion. They wonder what swimming will mean to her now.

Inside the Bellevue Athletic Club, the clock moves to half past noon. She unsnaps the brace from her leg. A swim cap hides the surgical scar across her scalp.

Her right leg trembles as she steps into the pool.

Swimming was the one thing Marin always excelled at. Her parents noticed her ease in the water when she was 2 years old. By the time she was 7, she had participated in her first meet.

"She dove in, swam to the other side, and waited 10 minutes watching the other kids finish," said her father, Matt Morrison. It made her name, derived from the Latin word for "sea," all the more fitting.

As a Collins Hill High School freshman, she started receiving recruiting letters from Notre Dame and Duke University. The family of five then lived in Gwinnett County, where Marin was a nationally ranked swimmer at SwimAtlanta.

She owned the freestyle and backstroke, and held the school record for finishing the 100-yard freestyle in 52.86 seconds and the 100-yard backstroke in 1 minute, 1.45 seconds. At 14, she was 11⁄2 seconds away from qualifying for the Olympic time trials.

Quietly, the tumor grew.

Fierce headaches and dizzy spells were the first signs. During a state swim meet in 2005, Marin emerged from the pool, saying, "I'm seeing double." Her words slurred. An emergency MRI revealed a growth covering the 14-year-old's left temporal lobe, the part that controls movement and speech. Doctors removed 30 percent of the pear-sized mass in back-to-back surgeries in March 2005. Pathology reports showed the tumor was benign.

Marin recovered well enough to swim after 12 days. In four weeks, she was diving.

But three months later, the tumor grew back.

Another operation was scheduled for Aug. 15, 2005. Three weeks before, Marin swam in a county meet where she and three of her friends broke a national record for the 200-meter freestyle relay. It was her last competitive win.

The surgery was a gamble. Marin's tumor resided deep in the brain, its tentacles winding through her healthy tissue. And it was growing fast. Without the operation, death was certain.

This time, doctors excised 70 percent. The rest, they said, would have to be fought with chemotherapy and radiation.

But something was wrong when Marin awoke. She could not move her right arm, right leg or the right side of her face. Words lay trapped in her mouth.

"It was like she was in a massive car wreck," said her mother, Nancy Morrison.

A large blood clot in her brain - a complication from the surgery - impaired her language and motor centers, said Dr. Roger Hudgins, pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, who performed the procedure.

More bad news arrived. New pathology reports showed that Marin's growth was malignant. She had a rare cancer known as anaplastic astrocytoma ganglioglioma.

Before this, Matt and Nancy had clung to the hope that there was a chance, however slight, that Marin's tumor was one of those strange blips in life, something their daughter could overcome.

The fight was just beginning.

The daily struggle

"Pa, pa, pa. Paaaa ... per. Paper?"

Marin looks at her teacher Ashley Doran for affirmation. It is a rainy February evening and the two sit with a workbook inside the Morrisons' Sammamish home. The family moved to Eastside a year and a half ago, after Matt was offered a job in Seattle.

Marin has spent that time relearning how to read, write and walk. She's made strides since the surgery, but the damage is permanent. She suffers from aphasia, a neurological disorder that has mangled her ability to communicate. Speaking is a daily struggle; long pauses stretch between her words.

The cancer has also left her immune system vulnerable, and her white blood cell count is too low for her to go to school. So Doran, a special-education teacher from the Lake Washington School District, visits her house every day.

"Good, OK. Next word," Doran says.

"Sa, sa, saaaaa ... nd. Nd. Saaa-nd. Sand?"

"Excellent," Doran says.

Marin smiles. When she does, which is often, she looks like a shy, pretty teenager, a young girl at that point in life when nothing matters more than fitting in. Making friends is tough now - she's home most of the time, where her schedule consists of speech, occupational and physical therapy sessions. Or she's at Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center, taking an experimental chemotherapy drug to fight the cancer.

She swallows 80 to 100 pills a day, mainly therapeutic supplements. Her mother put her on a strict macrobiotic diet a year ago, so her energy wouldn't be sidetracked with digesting difficult foods. Meat, dairy and refined sugars are out.

"I miss ... what it's called? ... sweets," Marin says, pouting as her 5-year-old brother, Michael, reaches for a cookie.

Swimming is one of Marin's few social outlets. She joined the Eastlake High School girls swim team last fall. Video footage shows the crowd screaming her name as she finished last. She smiles, recalling the thrill of being part of the sport again.

Then she lowers her eyes.

"I fe-felt people ... looking ... at me," she says. "I'm sooooo sloooow."

She met a boy recently at the Bellevue Athletic Club, a lifeguard who helped her out of the pool. He asked Marin to her first high-school dance in February. She wore flowy black pants and stylish boots. A white hat covered the patch where radiation stole her hair. She blushes when her younger sister, Camie, brings up the boy's name.

"I called him ... after ... the ... dance," Marin says, giggling. "I said ... I'm sooorrrry for shaking."

Marin's slack right leg often erupts with tremors when her brain fires stress reflexes that she can't control. Muscle tension or anxiety can trigger it.

Frustration jabs at her during these times.

She remembers how her body used to twist and bend and accelerate to her will. Photographs show her as she once was, toned legs, lithe torso, receiving yet another swimming award.

Pride comes with quieter victories now. Like walking across the room without her leg brace. Or knitting colorful hats, one-handed, on a knitting wheel.

Her swimming medals lie stashed in a box.

Balm for the spirit

A coach's whistle pierces the air of the Bellevue Athletic Club. Swimmers dive on cue, sprinting through their freestyle and breast strokes.

In a smaller pool, in a lane closest to the wall, a girl who was once like them, even faster, pushes forward with one arm and one leg. She glides and turns with surprising grace.

It's been 45 minutes. She's hungry and tired. But she's not ready to come out yet.

Swimming is more than a sport now; it keeps her spirit alive. She's lost the words to explain why. So her mother does it for her.

"Swimming is Marin's catalyst to fitting into the world," she said.

One year ago, doctors at Children's told the family they had fought the cancer with their best weapons and failed. The tumor wasn't responding. They suggested a clinical trial, reserved for those with nothing left to lose. So far, doctors are optimistic. MRI scans show the mass getting smaller.

She's focused on the Paralympics now, and she and her father are flying to Michigan next month to attend a meet.

The whistle sounds again. Other swimmers empty out of the pool.

One last lap.

Marin tightens her goggles and eyes the distance: 50 yards, back and forth. As she vanishes under the water, a glint of afternoon sun bounces off the waves.

The light scatters in a thousand different directions.

The above story was reprinted with permission from The Seattle Times. Sonia Krishnan can be reached via e-mail at skrishnan@seattletimes.com.