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Originally published April 21, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 21, 2008 at 7:12 AM


Steve Kelley

Tenacious teen with brain cancer determined to achieve Olympic goals

Marin Morrison earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympic swimming team. In Beijing, she will compete in the 50-meter freestyle, 50 backstroke and 100-meter freestyle.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Morrison's road to Beijing

Preparing and making the trip to Beijing is an expensive proposition. There are pre-Olympic meets across the country and around the world, as well as training sessions in Colorado Springs and day-to-day expenses. To help, visit

BELLEVUE -- As the flight from Seattle was beginning its descent into Minneapolis, Marin Morrison felt that much-too-familiar grip of vertigo approaching.

The plane's cabin began to spin and she became nauseous, one of the recurring symptoms of her brain cancer.

After the landing, paramedics entered and suggested Morrison get to the hospital quickly.

They didn't know Marin Morrison. They weren't familiar with her stubbornness. They didn't understand her will. They didn't know they were going to lose this debate.

"Hospital? I've got cancer. Why would I go to the hospital? You think they're going to cure me?" is a reasonable facsimile of what Marin said and thought. "I came here to win a place on the Olympic team. I'm going swimming. I'm not going to the hospital."

The paramedics harrumphed that if she refused their advice, she had to sign a stack of waiver forms, absolving them of liability.

"Fine, then go get those forms, so I can get out of here and into the pool," she said.

Spend part of an afternoon with 17-year-old Marin Morrison at the Bellevue Club's swimming pool and you can see how the paramedics were woefully outgunned. She already has beaten every prognosis. She already has stared down every dire diagnosis.

Marin doesn't look at herself as a cancer patient. She is a competitive swimmer, has been for most of her life. Yes, she has a very aggressive form of cancer, but she has even more aggressive goals.

She can't use her right arm, has limited use of her right leg and wears a skull-and-crossbones patch over her temperamental right eye. But her goals stretch to Beijing and beyond.

"She's a gamer," Nancy Morrison, Marin's mother, said. "And I have to nurture that. She just keeps going and I have to let her do what she wants to do."

On April 6, one week after the vertigo attack on the plane, Morrison earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympic swimming team and broke two of her American records in the process.

In Beijing, she will compete in the 50-meter freestyle, 50 backstroke and 100-meter freestyle.

"She showed such resiliency and drive," said her coach, Andy Hay, who also coaches at Eastlake High School. "She just didn't want to quit. Now she's really dedicating herself to competing on behalf of the United States and that's got to be a great relief for her. If that's what your life is about, and not the cancer, that's a lot better."

Marin Morrison is one of those people you instantly love. An entire column could be written about her smile. It spreads across her face the way the sun emerges from a cloud and spreads across a valley.

She should win a gold medal for her smile.

Marin often has trouble forming complete sentences, but when I ask how she felt when she knew she had made the U.S. team, that smile lights up and she says, "Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh!"

And when I ask her if she ever had a doubt about making the team, after getting so sick on the plane, she looks at me quizzically and says, "Of course not."

Marin was an Olympic swimming hopeful before her diagnosis. But one morning, three years ago, after she climbed out of the pool, she complained of double vision. She was diagnosed with brain cancer and told she had four to six months to live. She had the first of her three surgeries on March 5, 2005.

Dramatically, her life changed after that, but her goals didn't. Her thirst to get back in the pool was unquenchable.

"She has the most incredible spirit of anybody I've ever met in my life," her mother said. "She has this undying energy, force and will. Believe me, there are days when she's not feeling well, when all I want to do is nurture her. Wrap her in a blanket and make her some hot tea. But she won't let me. She puts her suit on, heads for the car and says to me, 'I'll be waiting for you in the car.'

"For your child to be sick, it goes against nature. This goes against every natural progression of life. It's heart-wrenching. Being a parent, you would do anything, give up anything, for your kid. I mean, I tell people, if we had to live in a tent, as long as Marin was in that tent, everything would be fine."

Two years ago, Make-A-Wish, the nonprofit organization that fulfills the dreams of terminally ill children, thought about sending Marin to the Beijing Olympics but was concerned that she wouldn't live long enough to realize that wish.

Two years later, Marin isn't merely going to Beijing. She's swimming in Beijing. And she not only is swimming in Beijing, she says she expects to medal.

The pursuit, the training, the opportunity to be an Olympian -- all of it, for Marin, has been lifesaving.

"When she's in the pool, it's like she's not sick," Nancy Morrison said. "She pops up from the water, and there's this big smile on her face. She's happy. She's comfortable. It's like all of this is gone and it's just swimming. She has very serious cancer and a lot of people in her situation wake up wondering if they're going to live.

"Their whole focus is the illness. But every day for Marin, instead of waking up and thinking, 'I'm really sick,' her focus is, 'I've got to get to the pool to get ready for my next race.' She still has that drive and willingness to work hard at something."

Marin Morrison is extraordinary, not because she has cancer, but because she has life. She is a one-person celebration of the indomitability of the human spirit. She isn't defined by what she has overcome, but by the remarkably incandescent way she lives.

"She is truly my hero," her mother said. "There's never a moment when she's angry. She's never once asked, 'Why is this happening to me?' She amazes me. She's an inspiration and she's inspiring a lot of those other Olympians out there with her drive."

Last week, on her Web site (, former Olympic swimming gold medalist Steve Lundquist wrote, "You are the true meaning of an Olympian."

On the days when the vertigo whips her, Marin simply tells her mother, "Tomorrow will be a good day."

"What she teaches me without even trying, I mean, that's like several generations of wisdom," Hay, her coach, said. "Words like resiliency and courage and work ethic, all those other qualities fall pretty short when you try to describe her.

"It's nothing but extraordinary the way that she has not only been battling on a daily basis these very aggressive cancers that she has. But to be able to produce the effort that she has and the results that have come based on that effort can't be matched."

A week ago she had her latest MRI exam and before she slid into the machine, Marin told her doctors, "This better be good because I'm going to the Olympics and I don't have time to be sick."

The results were encouraging and when she heard the good news, she turned to her mother, smiled that smile and confidently said, "I told you."

Marin Morrison knows the seriousness of her illness. She understands the odds.

But she's also an Olympic athlete and knows instinctively that odds are merely coldhearted numbers that don't take into account the magic of will and courage and spirit.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation. | 206-464-2176

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