By Ray Balogh
MIDDLEBURY — Sam Grewe, a humble 23-year-old Middlebury native, stood halfway across the world, pelted by sheets of rain, eyeing his final obstacle, one measuring an inch taller than his 6’1” athletic frame.
Harkening back to his years of incessant, disciplined training and summoning the confidence to act and will to succeed, he ran toward the obstacle … executed a mighty must-have leap with flawless technique … and landed on the other side of a long dreamt of top-of-the-world achievement.
On Aug. 31 Grewe captured the gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics high jump competition with a winning jump only 2 centimeters lower than the world record he has held since 2015. “But given the circumstances, particularly the torrential downpour, I can’t complain too much with the result,” he said.
The coronavirus pandemic delayed the 2020 games until this year, presenting Grewe, who graduated from Notre Dame in May, with an additional challenge.
“I started medical school (at the University of Michigan) just three weeks before having to leave for Tokyo, which made things a lot more difficult in regard to keeping up with schoolwork and labs and assignments and such.”
But Grewe was never one to back away from hardships, having been diagnosed with an aggressive bone cancer at age 13 and opting to have his right leg amputated above the knee in 2012. “It was an extremely difficult decision, but I felt it gave me the best chance of returning to the lifestyle I wanted to live.”
He discovered he wasn’t wrong. “I’ve never once regretted that decision and I’m extremely confident I’m much better off because of it,” he said.
So he took the tandem demands of medical school and competition training in stride. (No gratuitous pun intended. Grewe himself is known to utter quips of dark humor about his disability, once describing his discharge after a two-year hospital stay, “I felt I was kind of dumped out into the world, one leg down.”)
In Tokyo he studied six hours a day, actually finding it “kind of therapeutic, keeping my mind off other things.”
He plans to compete again at the next quadrennial paralympic games in Paris in 2024, but in the meantime, Grewe will concentrate on pursuing his medical career, a passion sparked by the care he received as a teenage patient.
“I got to experience a lot of what goes on in medicine, including behind the scenes. I learned a lot about what it means to be a good doctor, and I felt drawn to a career where I could use those lessons to give back to those experiencing challenges similar to what I faced.”
Always others-directed, Grewe spoke of another impetus. “I saw the underrepresentation of people with disabilities within the medical profession,” he said, “and that was a big driving factor for me, to fulfill that role for somebody else.”
In the medical school equivalent of the sports adage, “He’s leaving it all out there on the field,” Grewe approaches his studies with everything he’s got, keeping the big picture front and center.
“The days in med school are extremely long and arduous and offer little time for personal activities, but it’s easier for me to subscribe to this plan because I know how important the work I’m doing is. I know putting in the extra time now might be the difference between life or death for my future patients.”
Through all the challenges, Grewe wastes no time on self-pity. “There are a lot of exciting things in my life that get me going every day. I think one of the personal philosophies I carry with me is the idea that the grass is greener where you water it, meaning I don’t seek to compare my circumstances to others, but rather I’d prefer to make the best of my situation and set myself
up to succeed.
“One of the quotes I use the most is that you can’t connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect them looking back,” Grewe said. “It’s not always easy to understand why a certain obstacle or challenge is put in front of you. It’s not easy to see how you can ever come out of that challenge ahead, but trust that someday it will make sense.”
Grewe acknowledges he is a living example to others and embraces the opportunity to inspire whoever he can. “Competing as an athlete with a disability has given me the extremely valuable opportunity to demonstrate how capable each and every one of us are and to inspire the younger generation of disabled athletes who might be questioning their possibilities.
“Being a paralympic athlete is such an important identity for me, not for the medals and records, but because of the impact it has on people. It’s important for me to continue to inspire others to pursue their dreams and understand that disability is not a death sentence.”
He chronicles how he has been more than compensated for the loss of his leg. “Living life with a new disability has taught me so many valuable lessons,” such as “embracing every challenge and obstacle and utilizing them as opportunities to learn, how powerful a positive growth mindset can be and that no dream is too
ambitious if you’ve got the heart and dedication to achieve it.
“I can look back and connect the dots and know I wouldn’t be the man I am today if I hadn’t faced those challenges.”
He credits his family, who “has been by my side through it all. They’ve helped me through the hard times and celebrated the victories with me.”
According to Grewe’s mom, Michelle, “Every day since he and his sister were young, their dad (Randy) would tell them, ‘I love you, make me proud and be a friend to those in need.’ Sam has taken the ‘need’ to heart, and that quote encompasses everything we see in the kids. ‘Love, proud, need’ encompasses who Sam is.”