Quite a Balancing Act

Oct. 20, 2011

By Matt Winkeljohn
Sting Daily

Death often has pronounced effects on the living, and to a degree this is why Travis Wagner is still at Georgia Tech and furiously chasing one of the Grim Reaper’s most insidious minions.

These that follow are two brutally unforgiving words — one that’s over-used to the point of frequent abuse and another we all wish didn’t exist: the record-setting former Yellow Jacket swimmer HATES c … a … n … c … e … r.

Wagner will be there later today as the Jackets open their home swimming and diving schedule against North Carolina, and probably again Saturday for the South Carolina meet, even though his eligibility expired last spring.

His is quite a story. Swimming’s just a chapter in a big, meaningful book.

Having grown up in the shadow of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, as a remarkable student and fantastic swimmer, this young man had options.

He chose to study molecular and cellular biology on The Flats rather than elsewhere in large part because Tech would not make him wait until graduate school to dive into legitimate research. He spent three earnest years as an undergrad working in the McDonald Laboratory, working with other yeoman humans trying to solve cancer, particularly the ovarian and pancreatic versions.

Wagner’s still at it, working with the benefit of an ACC post-graduate scholarship before plowing into medical school down the road . . . after making a run at the U.S. Olympic team next year.

He’s chasing more in the short window into his life depicted here than many of us pursue or fall into – combined – in all our lives.

Tech has, of course, over decades churned out so many sublime athletic stories.

Yet if someone were keeping charts of remarkable non-athletic achievements and/or aspirations held by Jacket student-athletes who’ve otherwise filled books of athletic glory, the unsung list would paint walls of a large room even if the print were agate small.

Wagner’s name would be there, and in the future it may – let us all pray be writ large.

“Part of the reason I chose Georgia Tech was the opportunity to do undergraduate research. I knew in high school that I wanted to do something with cancer,” he said. “As I went through high school and college I knew that I wanted to focus either on oncology or end-of-life care or both … just because there is such a need for it, and it’s an area where there is so much research that needs to be done.”

Raise your hand and e-mail if you knew in high school what you wanted to do with the rest of your life. If you did, and your goals were not driven by pursuit of fame or fortune, pat yourself on the back.

You won’t see Wagner reaching over his shoulder, unless we start talking about swimming strokes.

He’s a quiet young man, neither draped in the ego that often accompanies high-level athletes nor presumptive enough to count on one day finding all the answers. Wagner respects the Big C in the way we all ought to respect enemies we loathe and want to obliterate. His loathing is not blind; it is focused.

You have a sense already why Wagner chose Tech, but may still be guessing why cancer.

Part of his reasoning is not much different than yours might be if you launched yourself into something that ate up thousands of hours of your life at ages that might considered prime time. Wagner won’t be 23 until next May, yet has probably invested more in Tech’s McDonald Laboratory already than you’ve probably spent doing anything earnest in the last five to eight years combined.

He is where he is and he wants to go where he wants to go because of where he’s been.

Mom is a nurse. A sister is a nurse.

And Martha Thorne is dead, laid low by ovarian cancer.

Wagner had this great great aunt. One of those “greats” was determined by ancestry, the other through a prism of love. He and his family often made a 45-minute trek toward Pennsylvania from Canton to Salem, Ohio, where a great woman weaved her personality into familial magic.

He said: “My aunt was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I was in middle school, and then she passed away the summer before I came to college. Part of the reason I was so interested in the McDonald Lab was it was not just cancer, but ovarian cancer and that is so close to me.”

As soon as his sophomore year in high school, or about when his classmates were perfecting the art of picking their noses without (usually) being seen, Wagner knew he wanted to go into cancer solution.

His plans go bigger still. He has minored in Spanish, and wants to spent time in third-world countries helping those cursed not only with cancer but also, “other illnesses.” It’s right there on his application for the ACC post-graduate scholarship, and those around Wagner mention it as well.

Although lack of eligibility won’t ever again allow him to challenge his own Tech record in the 100 butterfly (and as part of school-record efforts in the 400- and 800 freestyle relays), not to mention the second-best time in Tech history in the 200 free, Wagner’s swimming.

“I’m still training,” he said. “Hopefully, I’ll be at [the Olympic] trials in the summer, and after trials we’ll see what happens.”

Yes, we will. Or . . . we might not because while athletic endeavors frequently fall into the public realm, back stories like those Wagner creates often end up only in agate.

The small print takes more work, eats up more time, and is often driven by greater – and higher – passion. You can hardly imagine the time Travis Wagner puts in, yet he said of his life, “It’s quite a balancing act, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Neither upon trekking to the Edge Center Thursday for an interview nor upon later sitting down to transcribe did I have any idea that I’d find reason to invoke my dead college freshman dorm-mate Gary Pala. He went to North Canton Hoover High, not far from Wagner’s Glen Oaks High. Gary died of lung cancer six or seven years ago. He never smoked. He moved to Atlanta from Ohio several years after I did, and we met a few times in the last years of his life, once after I learned of his diagnosis. We had lunch in Buckhead, and he looked like crap. My family has been fortunate to date with regards to cancer relative to many others. My wife’s family has not. It sucks; sorry for the word choice. I hope there are many more Travis Wagners out there. I worry there are not enough. Comments to stingdaily@gmail.com.

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