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Nate Kramer: Race for life

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One year ago, former UC swimmer Nate Kramer was diagnosed with Leukemia months following his final race for the Bearcats. Now, the relentless swimmer fights for his life with the same tenacity with which he attacked the pool.

CINCINNATI - When toeing the edge of the pool, Nate Kramer always held the same race philosophy.

Whether before his first race as a seventh grader, in high school with the Anderson Barracudas club team or at the Big East championships for the University of Cincinnati, Kramer understood his strength.

"There's guys that will hang back and really push it at the end," he said. "I always had trouble with that because I went out very fast. I go out and just try to hang on. I knew it was going to hurt at the end, so may as well go fast when it doesn't hurt."

The prospect of pain never deterred this quiet, lanky kid from the East side of Cincinnati. During a surprising rise to prominence and a scholarship to swim at UC, this philosophy morphed into a reputation. Among his teammates. Among his parents. Among his coaches.

No matter the position in the race, no matter the significance of the event, Nate never relented. He never gave an inch. Until the final moment his outstretched 6-foot frame touched the wall he left no doubt how he would be defined in the race.

"He saw himself as the fight to the bitter end no matter what - in practice, in races," UC swim coach Monty Hopkins said. "I've seen people get in races, get behind and give up. He never gave up on anything. He was just always that way."

Nate Kramer is defined as a fighter.

"There were definitely times when it just hurt the entire race," he said. "You do it, because, well, you want to win."

One year following his final race for the Bearcats, the mentality and reputation of Nate as the fearless fighter hasn't disappeared.

Not at all. In fact, it's what those closest to him believe is saving his life.

Exactly one year ago -- June 28, 2011 - Nate Kramer was diagnosed with Leukemia.

In the year since, he underwent 30 procedures, six rounds of chemo, lost his spleen along with 31 pounds and spent the majority of his days buried in the bowels of Children's Hospital. His father, Vince, referred to the last 365 days as "a difficult journey." The polite, tactful father of three polite, tactful boys gently phrased his headline. In reality, enduring I-75 at rush hour would be considered a difficult journey. Nate faced a daily, year-long grind with his life hanging in the balance.

"He's going against the house here as far as odds on coming out of this," Vince said. "But he's beaten a lot of other odds along the way here. He seems to be an odds-beater. It's what is driving the family. He's just one of these kids that doesn't want to give up."

Nate's soft smile and even-keeled demeanor shadowed him since his childhood, rubbing off onto all those he met. Yet, even the most light-hearted, affable of young men felt the drain of this tidal wave of pills, procedures and prayers. Next to his bedside, however, have been friends, family and a fighting spirit.

Nurses and doctors come and go, will and optimism never leave.

"You have bad days, of course," Nate said. "Generally I was always a positive person no matter what. There's no reason to sulk around about it. It happened. You kind of have to get over it. It sucks, but you still have a life to live."

'LITERALLY DEVASTATED'

Kramer entered his senior year with expectations to cap off his UC swimming career with a memorable farewell tour. All signs pointed to that happening. The high point of his career to that point came the year before when during his junior season he qualified to swim in the Big East championship final.

He was swimming the 200-, 400- and 800-meter freestyle at the time and even volunteered to swim the mile when the team needed an extra distance swimmer. Kramer didn't finish at the top of any races at the conference championships, but did reach his goal of breaking 1:40 in the 200 meters.


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"He's a guy you could put on a relay and he'd give you 100 percent no matter what it was," Hopkins said. "His role grew as the team needed and as his capabilities improved. He was just a guy that you could count on. He was that way in everything he did. Nate's the guy that if he says he's got your back, he's got your back. You can count on it."

Midway through his senior season, however, Nate's times mysteriously began to drop. Nobody owned an explanation. Not coaches, teammates nor his parents. The disappointment continued through the end of his senior year when Nate failed to qualify for the Big East tournament finals he thrived in the year prior.

Nate enjoyed his final season despite the sluggish times. The friends, trips and camaraderie made it all worth while. Life went on. He was working to pay for the final quarter he needed to complete his accounting degree.

"Then June 28th happened," Nate said.

The date locks into the brain like a birthdate. Probably will forever for the Vice and De Ann Kramer, along with Nate's brothers Zach, 25, and Mitch, 20. A trip to the doctor sparked unusual results and consequential trip to the ER. On the way over, Nate made a joke in passing about the problem probably being Leukemia. In retrospect, the quip was ill-timed, but that's exposes how unfathomable being diagnosed with the disease seemed at the time.

Until it became a reality.

For Vince, the moment shocks him.

"Remember my wife telling me that in the hallway of the emergency room," he said. "It was literally devastating. I felt like I couldn't talk."

'FIGHT FOR NATE'

For three years the UC swim team took part in the Ted Mullins Hour of Power charity swim event with proceeds benefiting the university's Barrett Center for cancer research. In the years prior to being diagnosed with Leukemia, Nate took part along with the rest of his team.

The cause was worthy and it always seemed the right thing to do. Suddenly, after June 28th, the event took on a fresh layer of importance and urgency.

Hopkins witnessed the broken hearts that filled his swim team when Nate returned to inform them of his news. It only made sense to switch the December charity event to benefit the Nate Kramer Medical Fund. And did the swim team ever respond.

"People were very upset," Hopkins said of when they originally heard of Nate's diagnosis. "We raised two to three times more money (than previous years)."

Not only did the team dedicate time and money, they made up and sold "Fight for Nate" T-shirts and wristbands.

"They have school, they have swimming, some of them have a job," Nate said. "Then they still are willing to help someone out. It is crazy. College kids, putting down $20? There's a weekend. Kids that don't have a lot of money still donating and the team has been so supportive, just knowing that they are with me and care how I do is probably the biggest thing."

The family consensus suggests the response of the UC swim team made all the difference in remaining positive through the darkest days.

"I say this with absolute, total conviction," Vince said. "His teammates absolutely renewed my faith in the younger generation. We are going to be OK once these folks get out into the working world and become the next leaders of our country; they are amazing. I've had somewhat of a cynical spin on a lot of folks, but after this last year now really has softened that in me."

'HOME RUN OR STRIKEOUT'

Despite the support of his teammates, the last year has provided one trying roller-coaster ride with hopes of ending in a bone-marrow transplant that could deliver a cure.

A fungal, sinus infection suffocated the process from the beginning and was the reason Nate needed procedure after procedure. He spent approximately four straight months in the hospital as the infection stagnated the process. Eventually, he left for a little more than a week. Then it was back in the hospital for month after month.

During the most intensive two-week stretch, Nate estimated he endured a procedure every other day.

"That wears on you," Nate said. "You always hurt. You wake up from the surgery and you feel like you got hit with a baseball bat in the face."

The sinus infection was followed by a lung condition and Leukemia mutating into MDS - the same complication that recently struck Good Morning America anchor Robin Roberts.

His swimming weight his senior year was 170 pounds. His already skinny frame eroded to 139. The closest association he could find to a workout was sitting up for 15 minutes. For someone who was used to awaking at 5 a.m for swim practice many mornings, the routine strayed as far from normalcy as imaginable.

These days his primary job is to gain weight. And he's already packing on the pounds while enjoying his longest stint at home since beginning of the process. Being able to wake in the morning walk to the refrigerator instead of ordering hospital food has become a rediscovered joy of life.

Through all the adversity, though, Nate met the setbacks with little more than a shrug and knowing nod. In fact, he felt guilty even considering it while soaking in his surroundings at Children's.

"Hard to complain as a 23-year-old when there is a 3-year-old going through the same thing," Nate said.


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Any response other than head down, fight forward wouldn't make sense. Never has. The road to a bone-marrow transplant had certain steps that needed to be taken and he wasn't about to complain. He would swim the race and fight through whatever pain it took to finish.

Two days shy of Thursday's one-year anniversary, the finish line approaches the horizon. Turns out Nate fortunately is a perfect marrow match with his older brother, Zach. The 25-year-old who spent the last six years in the marines and served in Iraq will continue his role of hero.

Finally, Nate's been cleared as fungus free and able to move forward.

On July 9, he's scheduled to be admitted for a bone-marrow transplant and his blood will eventually become Zach's exact DNA.

There are no certainties the procedure will work. For almost a year after, Nate's immune system will be compromised as it regenerates with new marrow.

"As the doctor put it, there can only be one of two possible outcomes," Vince said. "It's either we strikeout or hit a home run. We are also well aware this is Nate's only hope for a cure."

The lane to recovery sits wide open, will be far from easy and most definitely painful. Don't expect Nate to worry about such issues. Wouldn't be his way. Instead, he'll do all he knows - all he has ever known. He'll do what's defined him as a swimmer, patient and person. What brings all those around him hope and optimism.

He'll ignore the pain and he'll fight.

"I want to win," he said. "You do anything to get that."

HOW TO HELP

If anybody would like to donate to help out Nate and the Kramer's, The Nate Kramer Medical Fund has been set up through US Bank. Any and all donations are welcome.

Also, anyone can visit Nate's carepage set up at this link. Dropping him a message and offering support goes a long way and has played a major role in keeping everyone's spirits lifted through the process.

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