This week's row2k Interview is with UCLA rower Jessica McGuire. We chatted with Jessica on how she got her start as a novice at UCLA, and how she beat a teratoma tumor growing in her left lung. Read below for all the mind-boggling details.
row2k - How did you get your start in rowing and what was your athletic background in high school?
Jessica McGuire - As a freshman at UCLA, I had big dreams, they were just slightly undirected dreams. I have been taught my entire life to be the best I can be because everything I do is meant for the glory of God. I knew I wanted to be a Division I athlete. I knew this was the highest level a college athlete could achieve. I played soccer for 8 years, year-round, both high school and club. I was the first in my family to play a sport and to go to college. I had no understanding of the steps it took to become a college athlete or even a college student. But I was committed to doing my best with what I was given to open the most doors possible and to make a difference in the world. When I got into colleges, I knew I had to go to the most-applied-to college in the world, that was in the best location in the world, had the most national championships of any college in the country, and the best coaches in the world: UCLA. I had offers to go to Division II or III schools for soccer, but I decided to go to the college that I felt would push me to my potential. My dreams of playing Division I soccer had not faded, however.
When I arrived freshman year, I knew the season had already started and that it would be at least another year before I could try out. I was training with the club soccer team when I found out that I could try out for a DI team, women’s rowing. I had no clue what it was, but I did know it would be a way I could fulfill one of my dreams; especially when I was so uninformed about the soccer program to that point. I called my mom in a pickle one day. The rowing meeting was at the same time as soccer practice. I never went to the meeting.
I prayed over the next week and I emailed the novice coach, Justin Price, to see if it was too late for me to try out since I hadn’t attended the meeting. It wasn’t, and his encouragement and enthusiastic passion for the sport brought me to tryouts every day for the next couple weeks. In October, I won the challenge of being one of the top walk-ons to race with the novice boats in the annual Newport Autumn Rowing Festival, along with my new best friend, Christa Czer. I learned to feather the day before and I rowed pretty close to arms only, but I fell in love with the discipline and the beauty the hard work rowing demands. I knew I was where I was supposed to be, challenging myself with one of the toughest majors (Psychobiology), at one of the toughest schools, and one of the toughest sports at the most challenging level.
row2k - You had some major health problems come up during the middle of race season of your sophomore year. When did you start to think something may be wrong?
Jessica McGuire - I wasn’t aware, that when I made the UCLA rowing team that it would not only change my life, but go on to save my life. My 5k and 2k scores were good for a walk-on and I continued to improve that first year. I was even given the chance to stroke the Second Varsity Eight at NCAAs that year--still rowing pretty much arms only. I earned most improved at the end of that year, and kept improving. The next fall, I was awarded the Bruin Athlete of the Quarter among our team, which meant I was able to lift the most weight on the team. That same fall quarter of my sophomore year, I won the Turkey Triathlon, which is a triathlon tailored to rowing that we do the day after Thanksgiving break. It includes rowing 7500 meters, running about 4 miles, and finishing up sprinting two sets of stadiums. I was setting personal records whenever I had an erg test. I was excited to see my 2k score drop that spring.
When the first test arrived, I only improved marginally, from a 7:22 the year before to a 7:18. It continued to be that way for the rest of our tests, except for one which I scored an 8:00. Now that was weird because I didn’t think I could break down that much mentally. I wasn’t any more tired than any other erg test, so I knew it wasn’t my fitness. I thought I had a serious problem with my fight.
My three-time Olympian coach, Amy Fuller, thought I was not receiving proper nutrition, as I actually had lost about 10 pounds in a couple weeks. Despite her overwhelming knowledge of fitness and rowing, I still found it hard to believe her. My strength coach, who pushed me to the brink in overtime hours and filled me with self-belief and motivation, Jill Robinson, noticed my legs were smaller, and it sounds funny, but I was offended. I loved being strong, and I started lifting extra on Wednesday mornings when we had morning practice off. Strange things kept happening for about a month, but not too strange for me to think something was wrong. One day, I went from being one of the top runners before our weights sessions to dead last. I had also been going into our trainer for a pain in my upper back. It wouldn't hurt while rowing, only when I laid down at night. I started to wake up in the middle of the night, finding it hard to breathe, but I just thought it was because of the pain of an injured muscle. I took painkillers for a couple weeks.
row2k - So what was the final straw?
Jessica McGuire - I had a week break where it disappeared, and I almost thought I was imagining things. It came back the day we had the hardest practice of the year, 5 2k’s on the water. I was seat raced, and with the price of a deep cough and throwing up in the boat, coach says I had won. I just thought it was a hard work out, but that night I started heavily coughing. I got some cough drops and called it a day, but I couldn’t lay down. Every time I tried, I found the strangest pain I had ever encountered and lack of breath. I realized I couldn’t go to sleep and decided I probably should go to the hospital.
From the moment I decided that, I became immobile. I was afraid to move and trigger the weird pain response again. I made it to the car and the hospital, but by that time I couldn’t speak or move my torso. I stared at the Bible, trying to read as fast as I could for some comfort while waiting 2 hours for painkillers. As soon as I got them, I could move again. I was then informed that I would be staying in the hospital for a while. I either had a blood clot in my lung or pneumonia. I called my coach to inform her I wouldn’t be at practice on Monday, though I didn’t register that it was 4am when I called. She was there within 3 hours, and Bill Zack, our assistant coach and tank of wisdom, was there in about 5. Amy was there when the doctor told me it my health problems were not due to the former guesses, but to a lung tumor the size of a football that had lodged itself in between the upper and lower lobes on the outside lining of my left lung. I wouldn’t know if it was benign or malignant for 3 more days. I prayed to let the Lord use me, either as a surviving cancer patient or not.
I couldn’t laugh or talk or move much without inflating my lung and causing pain. I had an oxygen tank and a bed pan. My team, coaches and family all showed up that Sunday and encouraged me, brought me leopard gifts, Starbucks, and Jamba Juice. But those were the least of my blessings.
row2k - What was your treatment for the tumor?
Jessica McGuire - My best friend on the team, Christa Czer called her dad, who is a doctor at UCLA. He was in Africa at the time, bringing medical assistance to the poor and diseased Africans there. I am bringing this up because he helped me to have two lungs again today. The doctor at the hospital I was at didn’t know if the tumor was benign or malignant, but was just “going to see” after they took it out. She told me they might have to cut out my lung, break ribs to get there and cut through my muscles, “but she didn’t know.”
Dr. Czer called his friend, who happens to be a leader in thoracic surgery, Dr. Robert McKenna and helped me to transfer hospitals to Cedar Sanai, a branch of UCLA Medical Center, one of the best hospitals in the nation. Dr. McKenna identified the tumor right away. It was a teratoma, a germ cell tumor with tissue or organ components resembling normal organs. Mine had teeth, hair, brain tissue, nerve tissue, cartilage, skin, and various other components (Editor's Note - not for the faint of heart...) that had been growing since I was born. Basically, a small piece of me as a fetus attached to my lung and developed there. (Some think it was my twin and I ate her/him). It just took the place of my left lung and fit right into my chest cavity, to where I never noticed a football-sized tumor. What had been causing me pain and problems was that many liters of fluid had developed around the lining of my lung, making it hard to breath. This explained why laying down hurt; the fluid would press on my lung. This is how rowing saved my life. The fluid was a result of the intensity of rowing, the constant back and forth motion.
The miracle that God worked on me was not just that I was able to row and excel for 2 years rowing and 8 years of soccer with my whole life never noticing a massive lung tumor, but that I met my best friend, whose love for Jesus both attracted me to her and saved me. Her dad was the one that knew the awesome surgeon who took the tumor out of my chest confidently and successfully. He broke no ribs, said he “pinned my rowing muscles out of the way so that he could see a gold medal”, and left me with two lungs. The fluid drained out of tubes in my side for a couple of days, and I left the hospital walking with a thin line of stitches about a foot long. I was walking around my neighborhood a week after the surgery, and I actually tried to run the perimeter of my school after 2 weeks! I made it about 2 miles, though that was the end of my running for a while, I must say.
row2k - So how has this season gone so far and what are your goals for the spring?
Jessica McGuire - Running hurt me but erging was fine--Coach Fuller’s dream. I erged all summer, starting with crazy splits and one set of 4 by 1 minutes. I was committed to training and getting back, and it was a good practice to aim for improving 1 split per week. When we were tested in the fall, I had achieved the checklist of goals our coach had for us by the first week of school. My 5k is now faster than ever, and keeps improving each time. I have improved from the slowest runner to middle of the pack now. I didn’t win the turkey triathlon this year, but I was only 1 minute from my last year's time. I am lifting with the strongest on the team again, when in the summer, I couldn’t lift 10 pounds. We haven’t tested 2k’s yet, but I am excited to see what I can do. My goal for the spring is to keep improving each week. I’m not too sure where my scores will start, but my personal goal is to be sub 7:10. After our 5 by 2k workout this year, I was stroking the varsity 8, and Coach Fuller thinks it is safe to say “UCLA is the fastest we have ever been”. My goal is to win NCAA’s in New Jersey. I am also striving to become a better leader, along with my fellow captains Britta Syverson and Ariel Handler.
row2k - What are you studying and do you have any plans for after graduation?
Jessica McGuire - I am a pre-med student planning on going to medical school after graduation. I pray every day about what kind of doctor God is calling me to be, and/or if He has other dreams for me. He may want me to train to become an Olympic rower. My life goals right now are to be a disciplined leader in my church and sharing the faith that has blessed me so much, to open a Christian hospital, especially focused on the elderly and those facing death who need comfort and strength in their last days, and to go to the Olympics and inspire girls and athletes everywhere to become the best athletes they can be by going as far as I can myself. Either way, through pushing myself to be on a DI team while simultaneously following the pre-med track, and serving my Savior, Jesus, in church, morning prayer, fellowship, evangelism, and volunteering, I have learned to have poise in stressful situations.
John Wooden, the greatest coach of all time at UCLA and life coach describes poise as “Being yourself. Not being thrown off by events whether good or bad.” I know I can use this skill to be a great Christian leader, doctor, and rower, but if the Lord has another plan for me, I am ready. I don’t know what my life will hold, but I always have done and always will do my best. My faith in Jesus inspires me daily to move forward with these goals no matter what happens by meditating on the Word of God and spending time in prayer. 1 Corinthians 9:24-25 is great for rowing (and life), “Do you not know that in a race runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run (row) in such a way as to get the prize.”
That is the least I can do to thank all the people who helped me through this adventure. My mom, Denise, catered to my every request and put her life on hold for two weeks. My sister, Jackie, made me a website, contacted everyone she knew about my situation, skipped school, and brought me a continual supply of presents, fattening food, prayers, and laughter that both made me laugh and cry from the pain laughing caused in my lung. My best friend, Christa, spent the night on my hospital room floor (along with my mom and sister), wrote, sang and played me songs with her beautiful voice and guitar skills, and did homework in my hospital room. She even made music videos around my hospital bed, along with myself, my sister, and Monica Harvanchik (another teammate and best friend who hitched a ride from Northern California as soon as she heard the news). My dad, Kevin, asked if he could give me his lung. My brother, Jake, encouraged me from Florida. Even my best friend since first grade, Taylor Barnett, left Colorado State and flew out to visit me. There was so much more abounding love from my family, extended family, friends, oversized stuffed animals, and even some people I had met for the very first time, that I was NEVER without a visitor. The love they all showed made one of the hardest times of my life also one of the very best, and honestly, one of the most fun.