Juliette Walker finished seventh in her specialty, the 100-yard breaststroke, at the Middleton Sectional in 2007, which gave her the 22nd-best qualifying time for the WIAA girls state swimming championships.
Despite recent puzzling fatigue, the then 16-year-old Madison Memorial junior went out and had the meet of her life.
Walker passed five of the six sectional competitors who'd finished ahead of her and did the same to most of the field from around Wisconsin, placing sixth in 1:07.07, shaving nearly three seconds off her time and scoring 13 points that helped propel Memorial to within 3.5 points of rival Madison East for the Division 1 crown.
That was after she had been the second leg of the Spartans' third-place 200-yard medley relay team.
However, the exhilaration that Waker, her family and teammates felt disappeared a week later, when what was originally thought to be a benign cyst was diagnosed as pediatric ovarian cancer.
Instead of a much simpler laparoscopic procedure, she underwent three hours of surgery to have the cancerous tumor—the size of a grapefruit—removed. And because it was such a rare form, doctors started Walker on an intense regimen of chemotherapy that featured three week-long inpatient stays at University Children's Hospital.
Her treatments ended in February and then the slow but steady recovery—both mental and physical—began as she tried to catch up with school and life.
Well, she and the team have come full circle. The Spartans are again one of the top contenders for the trophy—which would be the school's 15th—this weekend.
Walker won't be competing in her final prep meet; that already occurred at the Big Eight Conference event. But she'll be at the UW Natatorium cheering on her friends nonetheless, and as this year's captain, an honor she earned with her actions long before her arduous journey began.
Coach Jason Verhelst, who served as head coach at Edgewood for two years and is finishing his ninth season at Memorial, said that Walker's attitude and determination during her ordeal have been a true inspiration.
"Irregardless of her having had cancer, she's the kind of kid that as a coach and father that I would want my 2-year old daughter to emulate," Verhelst said. "She's shown an unbelievable maturity beyond her years. She understands herself and her surroundings.
"To know now that she had cancer when she competed at state last year, I mean her performance almost single-handedly moved us from being seeded fourth to finishing second and almost winning the title," Verhelst added. "She's a leader because she does it with words and by example. She's definitely a tough kid."
Walker participates in forensics/debate and hopes to compete in track again after missing last season. She said it's hard to put into words the myriad thoughts that raced through her head upon hearing the diagnosis.
"I was in complete shock," she said. "I never thought that anything like that could happen to me."
Her mother, Terry, said that Juliette helped her and the rest of the Walker family—father Jeff, older brother Chris and younger brother Anthony—get through it as much or more than they helped her.
"This was hard on all of us, I mean, she had something that occurs once in every 40 million kids," Terry said. "Thank goodness it was confined to the one ovary. But Juliette is so mentally tough and always positive. She ignored the statistics and said, ‘Let's get on with it.' It's incredible how much more resilient and positive kids are than adults when it comes to something like this."
Walker has proved that and then some, although that's not to say she didn't have doubts or struggle along the way.
"They didn't think it had spread, but because it was a rare form they wanted to make sure, so I was on a potent schedule," she said. "That made it tough. I lost my hair and lost a lot of weight and muscle strength. I got really, really sick.
"But it was nice to have so many friends and teammates around all of the time, and that helped get me through it," she added. "It helped a lot to get back to school, and being around for practices and meets. Because I had taken plenty of credits as a freshman and sophomore, I didn't have to take summer school to catch up academically, but I had a lot of makeup work. Everything with school is definitely back to normal."
Subsequent scans and checkups have shown no return of the cancer. But when it comes to returning to her old form in the pool, well that's been a tough climb, especially considering she's been involved with swimming since age 6.
"I tried to practice and do everything that everybody else did, and when I couldn't handle it I took it easy," Walker said. "Because I just didn't have the same strength, it was hard to get back into the weight lifting we usually do. It was hard not being able to do the toughest practice stuff. As a breaststroker, I rely on my legs and a strong kick, and it was hard getting that rhythm back."
Verhelst, whose teams have won two championship trophies under his watch, said that Walker has been the ultimate trooper and team leader.
"Not once has she complained, even when she was tired or sore," he said. "So, it was a point about this year's team. Everybody knew what she had been through and that they would never make any excuses. Juliette gave the same effort this year, it's just that her body couldn't do what it had before.
"But she had goals in her mind, that she was going to achieve the times she had set before," Verhelst added. "She could have changed her perspective, but she never did. I believe swimming is what got her back to feeling normal again because it was such a part of her routine. She felt like she had her life back."
Walker doesn't know what she wants to study in college, but she will keep training at the local YWCA in preparation for track season, where she competed in the 400 and 800 her first two years of high school.
"Even though I knew that my body wasn't really recovered, it was difficult not seeing my times improve or knowing that I wouldn't be going to state this year," Walker said. "I definitely wanted to get back to state and kept telling myself that I could do it. But I got to compete in the conference meet. I did well considering everything I'd been through, so I'm happy."