Jeff Jardine

Beyer teen eager to hit the pool after beating back cancer

James Ramirez practices Wednesday in the pool at Beyer High. Ramirez missed his junior high graduation because he was battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After transfusions, spinal surgery and chemotherapy, the cancer is in remission.
James Ramirez practices Wednesday in the pool at Beyer High. Ramirez missed his junior high graduation because he was battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After transfusions, spinal surgery and chemotherapy, the cancer is in remission. jlee@modbee.com

Less than two years ago, James Ramirez’s best-laid plans were waylaid by disease.

In May 2013, Bee education reporter Nan Austin wrote about his plight. Ramirez was an eighth-grader at Somerset Middle School at the time, battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. His best friend, Tyler Gilbert, planned to push Ramirez in his wheelchair to get their diplomas during the school’s graduation ceremonies.

Then his cancer worsened to Stage IV. Instead of rolling up for the traditional handshake and diploma grab, he rolled into Children’s Hospital Oakland for transfusions, spinal surgery and chemotherapy. Gilbert, meanwhile, carried a photo of his friend to the front and accepted the diploma for him.

Fast forward to Wednesday, when Ramirez peeled off his T-shirt and baggy gym shorts down to Speedo swim trunks. He pulled goggles over his eyes, adjusted the rubber strap and headed into the pool at Beyer High for a workout.

A week from Friday, he’ll compete in four freestyle events and the 100-meter breaststroke in the season’s first official meet.

“I can’t wait,” the 15-year-old Beyer High sophomore said.

Win, place or show, it will be a moment of triumph just to compete, considering what he’s been through over the past several years.

As if battling cancer wasn’t enough, he missed most of his freshman year because of whooping cough, something he likely caught because his body, weakened from chemotherapy, couldn’t fight it off.

“It wasn’t the cancer directly,” he said. “It was an issue with my immune system.”

But at least it wasn’t the cancer, which has been in full remission since September 2014. And now, for the first time in many years, he can concentrate on school and swimming, and he has been training with increased regularity and progress since fall.

“I was still weak,” he said. “I just wanted to get into the pool.”

He swam in a meet in San Jose earlier this year, “and I didn’t do too bad. For my standards, I did fairly well,” he said. “Every day, I’m trying to get back into the groove, even though I’ll feel horrible after a workout. I’m just really hungry.”

Ramirez’s story has been one of triumph even if he never wins a race in the pool. He refused to let the disease defeat him.

“I took it as just another obstacle,” he said. “I told myself, ‘You don’t have to be mad or sad or worried about it.’”

Did it ever scare him?

“Not once,” he said. “I understood the problem. I knew it was bad. I didn’t feel good. I thought, ‘That sucks, but that’s life.’”

Mature for his years, he looks only ahead.

“I would say I’m looking at this as a new beginning,” Ramirez said. “Every day, I want to make myself better, make progress. The experience made me stronger and drew out who I am.”

He’s gained more than 50 pounds since the worst point of his illness, when his weight dropped to 110.

At next week’s meet, against Gregori High, Ramirez has an added incentive. His mom’s first cousin, Eric Corgiat, coaches Beyer’s boys team. Eric’s brother, Matt Corgiat, coaches Gregori. Add family bragging rights to Ramirez’s personal comeback.

“We beat Gregori, we get a little barbecue,” Ramirez said.

“He’s doing OK, considering the challenges he’s had,” Eric Corgiat said. He moved the sophomore up to the varsity level, “which you don’t do unless he’s going to contribute.”

Even so, it’s different coaching an athlete coming back from a serious disease than merely returning from an injury.

“I have to stay on him to check his (blood) sugar and understand when he needs to take a break,” Corgiat said. “That kid’s a battler. That kind of cancer is the kind of thing we talk about with 45- to 50-year-olds. He’s dealing with not only physiological but also psychological issues at a time when most kids are trying to decide who to ask to the prom.”

Indeed, Ramirez has come a long way since missing his middle school commencement ceremony 22 months ago. It appears he’s passed a far more important test by beating back cancer.

And now, it’s time for a swim.

Bee columnist Jeff Jardine can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or (209) 578-2383. Follow him on Twitter @JeffJardine57.

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