By JENNIFER CHANCELLOR
Special to the Independent
Being a competitive swimmer often means early mornings and cold water. Long practices and studying late into the night.
But you will never hear Zoe DeSmet complain.
She just feels fortunate to be in the pool.
After all, DeSmet understands what it’s like to not be able to follow your passion.
Shortly after her junior year at South Kitsap High School began, DeSmet’s older brother was diagnosed with cancer.
Kai DeSmet, a 2012 South Kitsap graduate, is currently undergoing treatment at Seattle Children’s Hospital for a desmoplastic small round cell tumor. The aggressive and extremely rare tumor primarily occurs as masses in the abdomen, and most frequently strikes young males. The overall survival rate is less than 25 percent.
The prognosis meant he had to postpone attending Olympic College on a golf scholarship.
“The fact that my brother doesn’t get to play golf this year makes me want to swim harder,” DeSmet said. “Because I can.
“He doesn’t get to go to practice, so I am so lucky I get to swim.”
At the West Central District meet, DeSmet claimed the sixth and final state allocation in the 200-yard freestyle with a time of 2 minutes, 5.35 seconds. She will make her first appearance in the Class 4A competition at the King County Aquatic Center this morning.
So how does she go out and compete with her game face on?
“I’ve just got to,” she said simply. “I try not to take for granted how my brother doesn’t get to play golf but I get to swim.”
South Kitsap swim coach Cliff Rousell said that DeSmet’s attitude is no surprise.
“She’s committed to doing her best in everything she tries,” he said. “She’s an incredible young lady.”
Everything changed for the DeSmet family on Sept. 9, when they learned the reason for Kai’s ongoing nausea and inability to eat: a football-sized abdominal tumor. He was promptly sent to Seattle.
“It’s just the two of us,” DeSmet said. “Now, even just car rides or going the grocery store, I really value that time with him.”
DeSmet spends the school week in Port Orchard and weekends at the Ronald McDonald House at Seattle Children’s, where the family is living while Kai undergoes treatment.
Despite the upheaval of her life, swimming provides a constant for DeSmet, who said she is never alone. If her parents are in Seattle, an aunt or uncle attends her meets.
Or, if she’s really lucky, Kai.
DeSmet’s brother got to come home to see her swim at districts, cheering with the family as she took the podium with the other state-bound swimmers.
“It meant a lot to me that he got to come home to see me,” she said.
The South Kitsap community is rallying around the DeSmets. Zoe’s initial order of 200 yellow and purple “Just Kick It Kai” rubber bracelets sold out immediately. Now, she’s chipping away at 500 more.
And if she has any say in the matter, all of Port Orchard will be kicking it for Kai.
“That’s my goal,” she said with a laugh.
Additional fundraisers are in the works at South Kitsap and Hidden Creek Elementary School. Proceeds will go to the Ronald McDonald House in Kai’s name.
Rousell said that Kai’s reputation as an “outstanding young man” precedes him.
“I can’t say enough good things about the kid,” he said.
Rousell said that upon the news of Kai’s cancer, he told Zoe that she was to use practice time to focus on herself.
“I told her that all of the problems in the world and challenges you’re facing, you’ve got to leave them at the door, because they’ll be waiting for you when you’re done,” he said.
And DeSmet is definitely grateful.
“It’s just a great distraction right now,” she said. “If I have a bad day at school or am frustrated about something, going to practice and being around the girls gets me excited.”
In turn, DeSmet provides inspiration for her teammates.
“She is so strong, and it just reflects on her personality,” said sophomore Aspen Monkhouse. “She’s just amazing.”
DeSmet comes from a long line of swimmers. Her grandfather was the president of the Olympic Aquatic Club, where her uncle coaches and she is a club swimmer. Her mom and aunt were state swimmers — and Kai swam two seasons for the Wolves.
“It’s in my blood,” she said. “There’s a big expectation.”
This season, even more so.
“I feel like I need to do well so that way my brother has something to get excited about, and for us to have fun,” she said. “I just wanted it to be something really positive for us to focus on.”
On top of everything else, DeSmet is a Running Start student and takes Advanced Placement classes.
Still, she maintains she isn’t doing anything more than her peers.
“I’m just like anyone else,” she said. “There are a lot of other girls who have a lot on their plate, so I just try to keep up.”
But Rousell said that what DeSmet is up against would be taxing for an adult, let alone a 16-year-old girl.
“On a normal day, with everything being perfect, she has a full plate and a lot of stress,” he said. “Then add in the family challenges they’re all facing, and it’s amazing how well she has done.”