Grace Stokes of the Kapaa High School swim team had a pretty good meet last week.
“She broke a minute in the 100-yard freestyle event,” said her proud mother, Michelle Stokes. “But she felt it wasn’t done in her best, so she’s going to keep trying.”
Grace, known affectionately as Gracie, posted a 59.78 swim in the 100-yard freestyle during the Kauai Interscholastic Federation qualifying swim meet at the Kauai High School pool, bettering her previous swim of 1:00.70 for a first-place finish, one of three she picked up at the meet.
But instead of focusing on improving her times even more at state championships Feb. 20-21, the 15-year-old will be focused on a whole different battle. She will be undergoing brain surgery Feb. 19 at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children in Honolulu.
Grace, the third of five children of Michelle and Cory Stokes of Kapaa, was diagnosed Nov. 13 with a brain malformation called Chiari type 1.
“This is something Gracie was born with, and we did not know she had it,” Michelle said. “Some of the symptoms she has had for quite awhile is chronic headaches, sore eyes, and a bit of a balance problem.”
Michelle said prior to November, Grace had four vertigo episodes which led to the doctor’s visit during which they learned about Chiari malformations.
The news was a shock.
“Oh, wow,” was Grace’s initial reaction to the diagnosis. “This is crazy,” she said. “You never think stuff like this happens to people. I think to myself that there are seven people in my family and because we’ve had such a good life, something bad was going to happen to one of us. But I’m not scared. I just want to get it done.”
Following several trips to Oahu for doctor appointments and tests, an MRI came back with signs of cysts in Grace’s spinal cord, Michelle said.
“This means surgery should be done,” Michelle said. “The surgery should help the brain fluid to flow better which would reduce brain pressure. It should also collapse spinal cord cysts.”
While coping with the diagnosis and making arrangements for the surgery, the family asked the community for prayers.
“We still need your prayers through this,” Michelle said. “Grace, Cory and I have had a surprisingly huge amount of peace with this. Yes, brain surgery sounds scary to us, but we know it’s no biggie for God, if it’s his will. One way I look at it is, how thankful I am they found it and how the steps surrounding it all happen so quickly and smoothly — even down to how fast we were able to be seen by these specialists, and on Cory’s days off, too.”
Remarkably, through it all, Grace has stayed focused on swimming. Earlier in the year, she swam the opening leg of the girls 200-yard freestyle relay, and helped the team earn a consideration swim with its 1:56.58 finish.
Her will has served as an inspiration to her swim team. She even plans on finishing the regular season at the final meet on Saturday.
Micah Nobriga-Ferris, a Kapaa High and Mokihana Aquatics teammate, said he’s heard her talk about the headaches, but never thought it was this bad.
“When I heard her talk about the headaches, I never thought there was anything wrong,” Nobriga-Ferris said. “When her mother emailed my mom, it struck me hard because I never thought it was this serious. She is an awesome person, and is my first swim buddy because she joined Mokihana about a month after I did. She was the first real competition I had. She would push me, and I would push her.”
Catherine Shimabukuro, a board member of the Mokihana Aquatics Swim Club where Grace has been swimming since she was 9 years old, said the swim team is eager to support Grace. They want to help her and her family deal with the financial burden of airfare, transportation, housing, meals away from home, unpaid leave from work, and care for the younger children.
“Grace is a fighter, very positive, and as only a child can be, unafraid,” Shimabukuro said. “As a USA swim official, I frequently watch Gracie swim and I see the competitive spirit she has individually and for her teammates. She is a great team member and beloved by all.”
Mokihana Aquatics coach Orlando “O” Anaya said Mokihana Aquatics is in the process of establishing an account to help the Stokes family.
“This is not something the family asked,” Anaya said. “We are doing it on our own because Gracie is one of us. She is the next-longest swimming member next to Sara Funtanilla. She is really tough.”
Michelle said Gracie is very thankful and blessed to have such “awesome friends and a thoughtful support group.”
“She, at present time, is just really concerned about her schoolwork getting behind and is adamant about being able to finish this school year and swim season first before surgery,” Michelle said. “Coping with all of this, schoolwork and swimming, we have created a blog, gracieunderpressure.weebly.com, where people can follow her journey through this.”
“We are all very relieved that this will soon be over,” Michelle added. “But know that the next few months will be hard and painful for Gracie. She is a strong, brave girl, though, and God is good!”
Jeremy Haupt, a swim coach with Kapaa High School, said when he heard about Grace’s condition, it reminded him of when he had to have heart surgery while in high school.
“She’s a tough girl,” Haupt said. “She’ll come through this just fine, and I tell her to ‘Eat it up while you can.’ Grace has got the right attitude — just get this thing over with and get back to life.”
Haupt said he’s looking ahead to states next year with Grace.
“Just take care of this thing and get back into the water,” he told her. “We’ll be at states next year!”
Because setting up an account takes time, and Grace’s surgery is so soon, Anaya said people who want to help can write a check directly to Michelle or Cory Stokes and mail it to Mokihana Aquatics, c/o Coach, P.O. Box 1996, Lihue, HI 96766.
Kapaa High School swim coach Kara Kitamura said the kids have been going around collecting money to help, and parents have dropped off checks at practice.
“This is the amazing thing about Kauai,” Kitamura said. “People always come together in situations like this — especially if it involves young people.”
Kitamura said when she first heard about Grace, who has been homeschooled, it reminded her of another student who faced a similar situation.
“I was sad I couldn’t do anything, but Grace has an amazing positive attitude,” Kitamura said.
“She doesn’t let anything slow her down. She keeps coming to practice and works harder than most. She’s a non-complai-ner. I never ever heard her complain, and when she talked about her headaches, I couldn’t believe it. The one good thing coming out of this is it helped her break the minute in the girls 100-yard freestyle. She now stopped worrying about the little things.”
Grace said her one wish through this is to be able to thank all of the many people who have supported her.
“I just want to thank everyone who donated things to help our family,” Grace said. “There are so many people, and it’s been a huge help. I hope each and every one gets blessed.”