STOW: When Josie Cremer was born with life-threatening cardiac and circulatory problems, her parents weren’t given much hope for her future.
Now the 15-year-old sophomore has the heart of a swimmer and is competing in her second season on the Stow swim team.
Josie is on the junior varsity but her dedication and perseverance have earned the respect and cheers of her teammates.
She spent the first nine months of her life in the neonatal intensive care unit at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. When she was sent home on a ventilator and feeding tube, parents Chris and Catherine Cremer were warned not to expect much improvement.
“Honestly, it is amazing. Sometimes I just watch her and I think I can’t even believe she is swimming,” Catherine Cremer said. “If you ask doctors, she is a miracle to be alive. It is fun to watch where she has come from. When she was swimming as a freshman I was worried she might drown. Now we look to see if she can lower her time.”
Josie has endured three open-heart surgeries and 12 other surgeries. She has a long, deep scar down the middle of her chest. For six years, she relied on a tracheostomy to breathe.
“I leave all that in the past,” said Josie, who competes in the 50 freestyle and 100 freestyle. “It is very fun to be on this team. I love competing in the meets the most.”
Despite her medical problems, Josie has not only survived but thrived. She still has medical issues, along with learning disabilities, but she found a way to stay active and fit through swimming on the team with her older brother, junior Alex Cremer, 17.
“It is a lot of fun to be here with my sister and watch her drop time and get better as the season goes on,” Alex said. “Josie is really an inspiration. To see her go through so much and all these surgeries, and still come out here and compete and put up a good race and a good fight is really fun to see. This last season at a meet [in North Canton] she surprised our parents and she learned how to do a flip turn. Just seeing that was a wow moment.”
When Chris and Catherine Cremer approached Stow coach Dan Reese last season about letting Josie join the team, he was very receptive to the idea. He agreed to let Josie dictate how much she could practice and swim.
“Josie brings a lot of energy and a lot of excitement,” Reese said. “She brings happiness every day and support. She is the No. 1 fan for every single one of our swimmers. She is up there cheering at all times, and she also makes our whole group of swimmers excited because they all get up and cheer for her. She is a girl who brings everyone together.”
15 surgeries later
Josie was born on April 24, 1998, in Canton, Mich., and weighed 7 pounds and 9 ounces. She had open-heart surgery when she was 3 days old and then another one when she was 2 months old.
“We actually knew before she was born when we had the initial ultrasound on her heart,” Catherine Cremer said.
Josie had two heart defects: transposition of the great arteries in which blood does not properly circulate through the body and a hole in the wall that separates the two sides of the heart (ventricular septal defect).
After she was born, it was discovered that she had an interrupted aortic arch, affecting the blood supply to the left side of her body.
“It is amazing when you seriously think about it,” Catherine said. “After her first open-heart surgery, her heart never really started.”
Josie was then connected for a week to a type of life support known as ECMO, or extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, to take the place of her heart and lungs.
“They thought at that point there was nothing they could do,” Catherine said. “When they took her off that, they said she would not make it through the night. And then she did.”
Josie had her third open-heart surgery when she was 11 years old.
“Thinking back it looks like a blur,” Chris said. “At the moment, ignorance is bliss. We didn’t really know what to expect. We basically lived in the moment and tried to get through it. Now looking back at it, I don’t know how we managed to get through it.”
Josie’s parents remember the pulmonary valve repair when she was 2 weeks old and the ventilator used for breathing 24 hours a day for almost a year. They recall a tracheostomy used for breathing that was removed when Josie was 7 and a gastrostomy tube with which she was fed until she was 6.
“You can’t stop her now,” Catherine said with a laugh. “Which still amazes us. Everything she does amazes us when you consider what she has been through.”
There were times when doctors thought she might not make it, yet here she is competing as a high school athlete.
“Her doctors said she can do anything she wants now,” Catherine said. “We don’t worry about it. We let her live and we don’t pamper her.”
Drawn to the water
Josie, who is 5-foot-4, was attracted to swimming at a young age but had to wait to learn.
“We have always had a pool in our backyard,” Catherine said. “One thing she hated was she could not go underwater. With that trach she could not go underwater. When it was removed she was able to go underwater.”
The Cremers moved to Stow three years ago when Chris received a job promotion at Matco Tools. Josie was in the eighth grade and Alex was a freshman.
Josie said she “wanted to try swimming out and have fun.”
She has done just that, and received several admirers including senior captains Cody Vantrease, Justin Faluotico, Maddie Dyer and Tori McCauley.
“Josie brings a lot of excitement and laughter to the team,” Faluotico said.
Reese praises Josie and Alex for their consistent effort and hard work.
“She is here every day, at every practice and every meet,” Reese said. “You can always count on Josie being around. Alex is the same way. Alex is probably one of the hardest workers I have ever met. You can just see that this is a family thing, and they have a big family.”
Josie and Alex’s younger siblings Cory (13), Anna (9) and Toby (8) also swim.
Reese said there have not been any issues with Josie’s health in the pool. She swims 2,000 to 3,000 yards in practice. Others swim about 4,500 to 7,000 yards in practice.
“She knows her limits and when enough is enough,” Reese said. “Sometimes we will just incorporate a little extra breathing time and rest time for her to gather her breath, and then let her get back in. She will take a day off sometimes where she will be here and watch.”
Thankful for support
Chris and Catherine Cremer appreciate all the love and support from the swim team.
“She loves that she’s fully integrated on the team and not considered an outsider,” Chris said. “What is also really exiting is to see all the support from the parents and other swimmers on the team. They never treat her as somebody who is not on their level. She loves being around her friends.
“She is challenged in regards to her learning abilities, but socially she interacts very nicely. She is normal on a social level.”
Josie, who does take some mainstream classes at Stow, will swim at the girls junior varsity sectional meet on Saturday at C.T. Branin Natatorium in Canton.
“Josie is really a happy person and really high-spirited,” Dyer said. “She is a lot of fun to swim with. She is always energetic and always wants to do her best. She is always asking ways to improve her turns and her stroke.”
Beacon Journal staff writer Cheryl Powell contributed to this story. Michael Beaven can be reached at 330-996-3829 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the high school blog at http://www.ohio.com/preps. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MBeavenABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.