In life, we face challenges that make us grow as individuals. I have faced challenges since the day I was born, prematurely, to a mother who had toxemia. To save my mother, they delivered me early– four pounds, seven ounces. My parents waited a week before they named me, Gunther Josef.
At three years old, I was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. When the doctors told my mother, she began to cry. Then she got her composure and looked up at the doctors. “No matter what, she told the doctors, “this disease is not going to define my son.” And it never did. In fact, I was in elementary school before she even told me that I had CF.
Growing up with a chronic illness, taught me self-discipline; that hard work, perseverance, and eternal optimism were needed every day. When I first wake up, I must take my treatments, then in the evening I again need to take those treatments. I have always known that if I want to survive, I have to do things I don’t want to do. Waking up an hour earlier than my friends before school, and having to schedule time in the evening to take breathing treatments, just became a part of my life. I need to take medication before I eat and watch for warning signs that could throw me into distress. A simple head cold can turn into a hospital stay if I ignore those warning signs.
Because it was extremely easy for me to get sick, I didn’t always get participate in every school event, party, or sports practice, but I never let that stop me from trying anything. I had to work harder at school and at sports practice, but that hard work fed my strong work ethic. I will never let a sick day hold me back from trying to achieving greatness.
There are times in life when you’re told “no,” but I’ve discovered that the word “no” can offer new opportunity. For example, when scuba diving was offered as an elective class, during my freshman year of high school. I signed up for it, but my doctors wouldn’t clear me to take the class. They explained to me that it’s one of the few things a person with cystic fibrosis cannot do. I went through months of medical testing trying to prove my body could go through the pressure, but my body failed every test; medically, there was no way I could survive the stress of diving. Finally, I accepted this as one of the few things I would not participate in, and immediately discovered crew, an amazing alternative. The day I took my first stroke, I felt the wood handle send a sense of peace through my body. After a few more rowing classes, it became my grand passion. I couldn’t get enough. Since graduating high school, I stopped rowing, but coached to keep myself involved in the sport and to give back.
My senior year of high school I finally got to talk with someone like me. Someone who had cystic fibrosis. We got close. He educated me about living with cystic fibrosis. We shared our life stories. Then, one day, I didn’t get a text back. Our streak on snapchat died. I wasn’t getting an answer on Facebook, getting sent to voicemail. Soon after, I was sent a Facebook message of my friend’s obituary and a sorry for your loss. That same month I lost two others. Within one month I had lost three close people I felt truly connected with because of the disease we had in common.
Piper’s Angels Foundation found me on Juno Beach. They took me in and gave me wings. I never thought about crossing an ocean. I had never paddle boarded in my life. I had heard about the foundation and what they did for people with CF. Without thinking twice I told them, “I’m doing this!” I didn’t know how or what that entailed, but I knew I owed it to my family, doctors, friends, and the other CF warriors out there. I owed it to the warrior I had lost. My CF hero.
I was able to finally train with a purpose. It wasn’t training to win states for a high school or trying to become the fastest in a sport. It was deeper than that. I trained every morning, every meal, every snack, every night just to breathe and be able to live. Now I had the chance to prove what I have always known: that cystic fibrosis doesn’t own me. I own it.
During the months of training, I grew close to the Piper’s Angels family, often called an Army of Angels by founder Travis Suit. I grew extremely close to the Megan Tims, another CF warrior to whom the 2019 crossing for a cure was dedicated to. I met tons of other CF warriors, something I had only dreamed of when I was younger.
In the Bahamas, I met some of the most inspirational people in my life. I’d occasionally ask, “So, why the crossing? Do you have family or a friend with cystic fibrosis?” Many admitted that they didn’t know anyone with cystic fibrosis, but they were moved to action by the event and the spirit and people surrounding it. These are the paddlers that inspired me; they didn’t know anyone with cystic fibrosis, and they chose to cross an ocean for us, CF warriors. Many times, then share that I have cystic fibrosis.
At the landing, running up that beach being welcomed by cheers and champagne showers was the best feeling in the world. I got to hug my family and friends, then take a moment to look around and witness a community that had rallied together to help bring awareness and raise funds for families with cystic fibrosis. I never thought I’d get to see an army of angels until I got to heaven, but that day God blessed me with that sight—an army of angels with shields of love.
Since birth, all that I’ve ever known is to fight for life. In German, my name, Gunther, means warrior, while Josef means gift from God. I fought my way into this world. Every breath has been both a struggle and a blessing, but I never let anything stop me. In fact, the greatest challenge of my life, cystic fibrosis, has pushed me to be more be successful. It’s motivated me to constantly better myself. It’s taught me self-discipline, perseverance, and to be optimistic.
—Gunther Schwatrz, CF Warrior, Crossing Crusader