“To represent Team USA is so cool,” Paralympian and University of Notre Dame graduate Sam Grewe said, according to WNDU. “To have the support of so many Americans behind me has been amazing. But also just to push forward the Paralympic movement, to spread the idea of adaptive sports and inclusivity, has been kind of just a really big goal of mine.”
Despite the coronavirus pandemic forcing the postponement of the Tokyo Paralympic Games until the summer of 2021, Grewe was not going to miss the opportunity to inspire millions across the globe, even if it meant delaying his enrollment in medical school for a few weeks.
Being an inspiration was one motivation for Grewe, but he had another thing in mind as well. Although he has seen international success in the past — with three gold medals at the World Championships and a silver medal in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Paralympics — there is one thing that has avoided his grasp: “The Paralympic gold is the one thing left. So that’s the one thing I really, really want so bad.”
In Tokyo, Grewe did just that with an inspiring and hard fought gold medal performance.
Career at Notre Dame
A lifelong Notre Dame fan, Grewe made the difficult, but liberating, decision in the seventh-grade to have his leg amputated after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that was eating away at his femur. He credits his family, the community and Notre Dame football with helping him through the darkest months of his life.
While in South Bend’s Memorial Hospital, Grewe and his family developed a relationship with former director of player development and engagement, Ernst Jones, that blossomed into a unique friendship with the Notre Dame football team. An honorary member of the 2012 football team, Grewe’s fight against cancer and the toughness he demonstrated became an inspiration to the team.
Michelle Grewe, Sam’s mother, could not have anticipated the impact that this relationship would have on her son’s health. Although Sam was intimidated at first, she said attending Notre Dame football games “became a strong motivation for him getting up, getting out of bed, getting healthy,” in a story written by Notre Dame.
After the successful amputation and long months of recovery, Grewe found that his previous athletic abilities had not been taken
with his leg, as he continued to play basketball and picked up lacrosse as well as track and field. Grewe would eventually find a home competing in the high jump and quickly became one of the best Paralympic high jumpers in the country.
That same skinny, insecure middle schooler that was both intimidated and inspired by Division I athletes at Notre Dame would become one himself. When it came time for a college decision, there was only one place where Grewe wanted to be. As a freshman pre-med major studying oncology, he joined the track and field team at Notre Dame. Competing at the Alex Wilson Invitational, Grewe finished third in the high jump before setting a personal record at the Victor Lopez Classic during his freshman season.
After earning his degree from the University of Notre Dame this past May, Grewe decided to continue his education at the University of Michigan where he will earn a medical doctorate.
While the postponement of the Olympics delayed some of his future plans, Grewe attributed his ability to stay prepared to Notre Dame.
“Thankfully I was on the track and field team at Notre Dame and was able to continue training with them and had the scheduling and the facilities and the coaching there,” Grewe said, according to WNDU. “Otherwise I think it would’ve been so easy to lose sight again.”
Prior to his arrival in Tokyo, Grewe discussed the potential emotions that winning a gold medal would induce.
“Should I end up at the top of the podium and have the National Anthem playing and know that Team USA is rooting for me back at home would be incredibly powerful for me,” Grewe said. “I think it would be so special. I think it would be kind of just an example of what hard work can do.”
After completing that feat in the men’s T63 Paralympic high jump, he commented on how well he handled that overwhelming emotion as he topped longtime rivals Mariyappan Thangavelu and Sharad Kumar to win gold.
“I had to make a lot of adjustments tonight and I’m really quite proud of how I handled it mentally,” Grewe said, according to the South Bend Tribune. “There’s some crazy emotion, just thinking about it all and realizing I’m a gold medalist. It’s really so incredibly cool to be in this position.”
Although he acknowledged how different the experience would be competing on an international stage without fans and the resulting difficulty in retaining adrenaline, Grewe could not have been more excited to represent his country.
Had there been fans in attendance, there is little doubt that the stadium would have been raucous as Grewe completed multiple jumps under a great amount of pressure to secure the gold medal.
Grewe and rivals Thangavelu and Kumar were the only jumpers left at the 1.86 m jump after all three cleared the 1.83 m jump on their first tries. Kumar came up short on all of his jumps at 1.86 m, followed by Grewe and Thangavelu both knocking the bar off on their first two jumps.
On his third jump, however, Thangavelu cleared the 1.86 m jump to put all of the pressure on Grewe, hoping to avoid another silver medal on the biggest stage. Splashing through a puddle and soaked through due to the wet and dreary conditions in Tokyo, Grewe cleared the bar with several centimeters to spare to force a two-man showdown at the next level.
“I was completely drenched. It was a torrential downpour and unlike any meet I’ve had in my life,” he said. “But I think my training in the elements up in Indiana and Michigan made a big difference tonight.”
Once more, Grewe was down to his final jump after Thangavelu knocked the bar over on his three attempts, and once more, he was prepared for the pressure and delivered a clean jump to send him flying into a gold medal finish.
After finally achieving his dream of winning the Paralympic gold medal, Grewe acknowledged the challenges awaiting him as a medical student at a prestigious school while continuing to train for future competitions. But the allure of the Paralympics is too great to turn away from, and Grewe promised a return to Paris in 2024.
“Just being a Paralympic athlete is such a special identity for me, and being a part of this community is so powerful that I can’t step away from it,” Grewe said. “With Paris being just three years away, I have to push for it.”
Inspiration to All
While in Tokyo, Grewe shared an inspiring note that he received from a local who was working at the track. In the note, Masaki Kando shared the story of his son who had the same rare cancer as Sam Grewe. In addition, the family decided to go ahead with the same amputation that Grewe had in hopes of giving their son a chance to walk and run going forward.
The note stated: “You gave us great courage to my family. We are grateful to you.” It continued later, “My son is watching on TV today. We are all supporting you.”
Regardless of how Grewe performed in Tokyo, he has provided great inspiration to individuals across the globe. In response to the letter, Grewe posted to his Twitter, “Win or lose, this is what it’s all about. This makes it all worth it.”
Sam Grewe, once weak in a South Bend hospital for several months, proved to himself and the rest of the world that anything is possible. Gold medalist one week, medical student the next. There are few like Sam Grewe.