GREAT FALLS — Gabrielle Stull has been a swimming fanatic since she was 8 years old. Now, the junior at Great Falls CMR is a key part of a Rustler team that figures to be among the top-finishing teams at state.
But when she was just 10 years old, Stull had a health scare that almost took swimming away.
"It started out as stomach pains and I would just complain all the time, and so my mom took me in to the doctor," Stull said. "We got an X-ray to see what was going on, and they found some abnormal stuff."
Stull had a ganglioneuroblastoma, a type of tumor typically found in nerve tissue. This one was growing on her aorta, right next to her heart.
Stull spent weeks in Seattle so doctors could operate successfully. She recalls her father, Kurt, telling her a conversation he had with the surgeon.
"They were just like discussing, 'Hey, if the tumor was any farther over,' it could have been completely in my bloodstream, and I most likely wouldn't have survived, which is eye-opening," Stull said.
The timeline to get back to swimming? Up to two years. But amazingly, Stull was back in the pool about six months later.
"I was stunned, because going through all of that, and then just being able to get right back into it, obviously not at the level that I was before but building my way back up," Stull said. "I think a little part of me knew that I could do it, but it was just executing it. That was the hard part just because I didn't want to tear anything. I didn't want to mess anything up. I didn't want to make anything worse."
Stull is pretty low-key. For a long time, only the people closest to her knew, and even coach Ed McNamee just found out a few weeks ago.
"There's always going to be roadblocks in athletes' lives, especially young kids here," McNamee said. "And there's so many other things outside of any sport that they have to deal with and the fact that she had the resiliency just to not just deal with that, but then completely exceed all expectations I'm sure a lot of people had for her. And she just thinks that's a normal day."
These days, Stull just focuses improving her times. She races in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles.
"I don't really think about it that much," Stull said. "But then if I do drop that time ... look where I started, look where I had to build up from, so I'm really proud of myself for that."