GCU Club Swimming star celebrates “cancer-free anniversary” with historic feat
By: Julie Laugel/GCU Staff
“Swimming is like riding a bike. Once you know how to do it, you know how to do it. But swimming fast isn’t. You have to work for that.”
The words of Grand Canyon University Club Swimming junior Antonio Di Ianni are more symbolic than you think.
During his sophomore year at GCU, Di Ianni was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma – a type of cancer that forms in the bones and soft tissue. In March of 2018, he took a break from classes to travel to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he had abdominal surgery to remove the cancer, followed by fourteen rounds of chemotherapy and thirty radiation treatments.
After overcoming those treatments, as well as relearning how to balance and walk, somehow, swimming still came naturally to Di Ianni. He returned to school in the fall of 2019, and during a typical day of work at the YMCA, he was enlightened when the GCU Club Swimming team came in to practice. Since the sixth grade up until his diagnosis, swimming was a daily part of Di Ianni’s life, but now, after his ordeal, he was uncertain of his capabilities.
That’s when he decided to speak to Lopes’ Head Coach Jeremy Phung about joining the team.
“He told me everything he’d gone through and his lifetime best times, but that he probably wasn’t going to get close to that,” said Phung. “After time trials, he was about ten seconds slower than his fastest times, so I wasn’t entirely positive how he would do, but we trusted our training.”
That trust was rewarded on a 78° afternoon in early March at the Diamondback Pool on the GCU campus. At the Canyon Classic, Di Ianni’s hard work and perseverance led him to a 23.10 second finish in the 50 Freestyle, and a 51.02 second finish in the 100 Freestyle, making national qualifying times in both events. The symbolism was staggering, since it happened exactly one year and one day after being declared cancer-free.
“After the time trials, I was worried he wasn’t going to want me on the team, but Jeremy kept sticking with me,” said Di Ianni. “My biggest worry was just taking up space in the pool for someone else who could be there and help the team, but then I ended up being right there with all of the guys.”
It was Di Ianni’s buying into the training – and three arduous months of work – that got him back up to his personal best times.
“You can’t do this training if you’re not going to put in effort,” said Phung. “Luckily for Antonio, he’s been through a lot of adversity, so practices and training are nothing to him. He showed up and worked hard, and his effort showed.”
Phung’s training helped get Di Ianni up to speed in his swimming. The team atmosphere helped him excel – both in and out of the pool.
“The hardest part of recovering was getting back to being normal,” said Di Ianni. “The club swimming program has really helped me get back to normal and to my regular self during this whole year.”
“One of my favorite moments of the entire season was when Antonio came up and told me how everyone on the team was so supportive, and that they were encouraging and positive even when he knew he was swimming super slow,” said Phung. “To me, that’s everything, because in four years, we’ve developed such a positive and supportive culture, which is incredibly difficult to do.”
“The whole experience is really motivating for me,” said Di Ianni. “Whenever I think I can’t do something, I remember how I went through the hardest thing that someone can go through. Before, I thought, ‘I can’t hit these times.’ Now, I think, ‘No, I can do that and more.’”
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