Among the many faces buried in the water, chasing the black lines that stripe the bottom of the pool at the Cottonwood Aquatics Center is a swimmer with a story that many are not aware of.
Emma Warner is a Cottonwood Clippers and Mingus Union High School swimmer who started swimming at 5 years old. But on Jan. 15, 2015, she was given news that is always unexpected, especially for someone so young.
She was diagnosed with non life-threatening papillary thyroid cancer.
“I cried, I wanted to run away because I wanted to,” Warner said. “I wanted to be alone. It’s a really hard thing when you hear the words ... I was devastated, I thought ‘This is really going to affect my life, I don’t want this.’”
You would not know it by looking at her. She is like any other 15-year-old getting ready to start her sophomore year of high school. She is outgoing, but does not talk much about her case, fearing that she draws too much attention for it.
What she does know is that she can use her situation to empower those around her.
“I try to inspire other people, that, if I have this and I can be stronger than it,” Warner said. “So if you have something going on then I know you can be stronger than it.”
After her diagnosis she had the first of three surgeries, when a male fist-sized tumor was removed from around her neck. She was forced out of the water for about two months because it was feared that if she continued, the cancer would spread.
Nonetheless it did, and the second procedure was on Sept. 9, 2015.
The last, and most consequential, surgery took place on Dec. 16, 2016, because Warner was suffering from neck pain. Her parents and doctors left the decision up to her knowing that having the surgery would help in the long run, but could also cause nerve damage.
And it did.
But Warner first waited until the conclusion of her freshman season with the Marauders. She took home a fourth-place medal with the 200-yard medley relay team and qualified for the “A” final in the 100-yard breaststroke at the state meet.
After going under the knife the third time she lost strength in her left arm, hardly able to lift it to shoulder height.
Problematic for a swimmer, but that did not stop her.
The cancer continues to return, spreads to more lymph nodes and gets bigger. She has had radiation after every procedure, the dosage increasing each time.
She is still not cancer free.
But the indications after her latest treatment are positive ones.
“My last one that I just had hit a lot of the areas that it needed to, which is really good,” Warner said.
Despite shoulder pain Warner is still training for even greater success in her sophomore season and beyond. A straight-A student, she has a goal of swimming at Arizona State University or Northern Arizona University. Inspired by her own situation, she wants to be a nurse anesthetist.
With time off came setbacks in her swimming, creating almost a perpetual uphill battle. But it has not deterred her. She qualified for the state age group championships for club swimming last year, and although knowing she would not perform well, still swam the event.
The pool helped relieve Warner’s own pain, according to her mother Robin.
“In the beginning it helped her heal, it was basically her therapy. It was really hard for her when she couldn’t be here.”
If she does not feel like talking with anyone, she can go underwater. If she is feeling emotional, no one can tell with goggles on and face in the water.
“All the people here they’re very supportive of me. I know when I’m here I feel safe,” Warner said. “I guess the pool is just a good place for me to be.”
Sometimes she is forced to sit on the pooldeck rather than train in the water, at least four months total. When she is in the water she has to get out to stretch at times, but always gets back in.
That is because pool is her happy place, the place where she can escape, she said. Her cancer is chronic, it may never go away, but she will always have a pool to dive into.