Jack Wagner. If you haven’t heard the name in swimming, I am sure you have seen him on the deck. He’s good looking, an extreme talent in the water and has the personality to back that all up. I personally got to spend a lot of time with Jack, being his lane neighbor while I swam at University of Southern California.
Some of my greatest memories of Jack are from swim practice. We would chat about our weekends, our love lives, our hate for long sprint*, and the latest Bravo shows. He was someone I have missed greatly since I moved back home to Ohio after graduation. I was so proud of him when he was a 2013 NCAA Champion in the 400 freestyle relay and even more so when he was voted Captain for the 2013-2014 season.
Jack will graduate from University of Southern California with a degree in Business this May. While he wants to spend time with family, Jack’s dream is to pursue modeling, and he has had some job offers. But he also wants to put his story in writing. To put it briefly, he’s a very handsome, gay national champion who has lost two immediate family members in three months.
This fall I found out that Jack’s sister was battling ovarian cancer. I was using the SwimSwam platform to help him raise money, and it seemed out of nowhere his sister passed. My heart broke for him. When you think it can’t get worse than losing a sibling, Jack lost his father to a battle with cancer this winter, as well.
Even though I am his friend, it’s tough. I can’t even begin to put myself into his shoes. I’ve watched his swim progress over the season, and he continues to beat the odds. With his mother and sister Alexandra in attendance at his senior meet vs. Utah, Jack won the 50 freestyle with an in-season best time. Now Jack is working on his final few weeks of his career, with PAC-12s this weekend and NCAAs at the end of March, where he looks to lead the Trojans to another relay title and top four finish.
Let’s rewind. Jack got into swimming as many younger siblings do; he watched his big sisters swim and he wanted to be apart of it. Jack had a lot of success in his swimming; he was a top-flight recruit coming out of high school. In college he is already a multi-time All America for the Trojans heading into his final championship season. His family had been a big part of his swimming success all along the way.
At the beginning of his junior campaign, Jack’s sister, Kristen, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in October 2012, after they removed a cyst from a malignant ovary. Ovarian cancer was in the family as Jack’s maternal grandmother passed away from cancer when his mom was just a teenager. Over the next six months, Kristen went through extreme chemotherapy and radiation.
Kristen was essentially “cancer free” after treatments, through Jack’s junior season. That season Jack was having a new realm of success in the pool; he had redefined himself as a sprinter. He finished 2nd behind Vlad Morozov in the 50 freestyle & finished 3rd in the 100 freestyle at 2013 PAC-12s and qualified for NCAAs yet again. He went to Indianapolis and was apart of the winning 400 freestyle relay. After, he would go on to win most inspirational at the team banquet and be elected team captain for his senior year.
The college season had ended and school was over. Jack returned home to New York for an internship and to train. I remember talking to our coaches Dave Salo and Jeremy Kipp at the Junior National Championships and they mentioned they hadn’t heard much from Jack all summer. Little did they all know that summer Kristen’s health was declining. Tests revealed that the cancer had returned and spread to her liver, bladder and uterus, forcing her to have a full hysterectomy and more chemotherapy. Unfortunately it wasn’t so smooth this time. But Jack returned back to school to lead the Trojans this past fall, but his heart weighed heavily for his family.
When we spoke about his sister together, he shared, “Kristen was always so proud of me,” Jack said. “When I met all her work friends this past summer, they told me how she would post all my news on our bulletin board and whenever she got a hold of meets with live streaming, she would make the entire office sit and watch.”
And it only got worse after returning to school. Jack’s other sister, Alexandra, called him on November 1st to inform him that Kristen’s liver was failing; no amount of treatment would be able to beat the cancer now. As any loving brother would do, Jack informed the team and he was on the next plane out to be with his family. Kristen passed comfortably and peacefully at home, surrounded by her family, on November 5th, 2013 – also his father’s birthday.
Kristen ultimately passed from heart failure due to complications; she was just 29. Jack spent the necessary time with his family. While he was away the Trojans went up against and were victorious against the Wildcats and Sundevils without their fearless leader in the first major duel meet of the year.
“When Kristen passed, I didn’t want to return to school. But Kristen was extremely smart, and I know she would have been so mad at me. She used to get on my case if I wasn’t on track to graduate on time even being a student-athlete.”
You ask yourself, how could you ever return to normalcy after such a hardship? I know I couldn’t. But Jack is stronger than me. Unknown to anyone’s knowledge, Jack’s father’s health was also a problem. Just a month before Kristen’s passing, Jack’s father, Steven, had found out that a stage 4 cancer had metastasized to his lungs—Jack’s father was never a smoker.
“My dad was always my biggest fan. I mean, I swear sometimes he was just amazed that he produced a child that was as athletic as me sometimes. But nonetheless, he was the typical swim dad. He loved watching me swim and all stories about my swimming while he was back at home in New York while I was in LA at school.”
So his father’s health was the next to be addressed for the Wagner family. Jack was back in L.A. training hard, trying to stay focused regardless of the pain he was feeling. His father underwent spinal support surgery, and when inside they found the cancer had spread into his spine and had been eating away at his bone. He was given radiation during the surgery, and it seemed like a success on the surface. As if the Wagner’s couldn’t catch a break, Mr. Wagner fell very weak and ill at the same time the Trojans were traveling to the Texas Invitational to hopes to do most of their qualifying for NCAAs.
“You know, I really did not want to go to Texas. And yes, I had to go for the team, but there was something else that told me I had to go. I knew Kristen and my dad back home would want me to go and compete. So I went.” But the results weren’t there. Jack failed to hit the individual times he needed to punch his ticket to Austin in March.
“It was probably the breaking moment for me. I went and sat with my mother in the stands at Texas and just cried,” Jack said. I personally know how tough Jack is. He never wants to show that he’s struggling. While he really wanted to end on a good note, and really emerge as a sprinter, life seemed to get in the way this season.
After Texas, Jack finally had the chance to go back home for the holidays. His father’s health continued to decline, and he fell too weak to even complete chemotherapy treatments. Jack had returned back to school for training camp, to which he was having the training of his career. The pool had become Jack’s escape; he’d hit the weight room and water and do things he had never imagined possible. But at the same time, once he finished the workout, he’d feel sick to his stomach. As he grabbed his towel, he would reach for his phone in fear. Fear of receiving a text or call that his father had died.
On January 11th, Jack turned 22. January 12th, Kristen would have turned 30th. And on the 14th, Jack received another call. Jack’s dad had fallen terminal and Jack needed to be home—Jack had not even been back in school for a week. Jack’s father passed at home, surrounded by love, on January 28th, 2014. He passed due to heart failure, from a cancer that had an unknown origin.
When I spoke with Jack, we talked about the time between the two deaths. While he wasn’t recovered from Kristen’s passing, what he was doing in the water and weight room made him confident that he had turned things around. But when he got that phone call about his dad, he felt shattered. He felt like there was no recovering from that.
“The last time my father saw me swim was the NCAAs last season. And the last race he ever saw in was when I became a National Champion in the 4×100 freestyle relay.” Jack told me. And when it was time to go to the airport and return after his father’s death, his mother kissed him goodbye and told him, ‘if you are not ready, you don’t have to go; are you ready?’ Jack was honest; he said he wasn’t ready.
But he had one of those outer body moments. His head said he wasn’t ready, but somewhere deep inside he felt his sister and father tell him he needed to go; he needed to finish school and finish swimming for them.
Jack has been back at school for a little over four weeks now. When you are recovering from a tragedy, there is never one moment where you are magically better. While Jack and I were talking, we joked about how Jack has been to hell and back. But he’s been there twice in just three months. He summed it up so well saying, “Yeah, I got a great tan and all, but the journey back is not fun.” And we both agreed that the journey never is really over, but as you continue to work on coming back, you learn so much about yourself and life.
Now this weekend Jack will compete at his final PAC-12 Championship and then again one month later at the NCAA Championships in Austin, Texas. When he steps on the blocks as team captain, the inspiration his team sees him as, Jack is racing for his family. Jack has a bigger purpose in finishing his final season at Southern California.
“I realized that swimming is just swimming. I keep telling myself that tomorrow is going to happen whether I want it to or not, so I need to make the best out of my situation and go just one day at a time.”
“One of the biggest things I have learned was that as everything was so tragic and awful, and the reality seemed so unreal, it almost forces you to see clearer. Really, I don’t fear anything anymore. What could possibly be worse than losing your family – I mean, I had a family of five, and now it’s just three of us in a course of three months,” Jack explained. “The bullsh*t in life goes to the side. You know exactly what you need to do; no fears whatsoever.”
This experience has made him a better leader. He expects his teammates to all do their job, because he is doing his each day, regardless of what he has gone through. And as for his family, they think of themselves as a team. While we cannot put ourselves into their shoes, only the three of them will understand what they are going through. They are closer than ever.
How he has been able to come back from this year is beyond me, and probably beyond you as a reader. He thinks of them every single day, their love for him and each other, and that is what is pushing him through this final stretch. But we will all root for him this weekend to make NCAAs individually. But Jack has already won—Jack has truly come back stronger.*Editors Note: Long Sprint – Name of the distance training group at USC – Dave Salo’s terminology (Short Sprint, Mid Sprint & Long Sprint)