The SEC Blog: The inspiring story of Ethan Gogulski
Go to the Texas A&M athletics website, 12thman.com. Work your way to the men's swimming and diving roster. Click the name "Ethan Gogulski."
Two pictures on the page jump off the screen. The larger photo shows Gogulski after he received the athletic department's Lohman Inspirational Award in the spring. The second photo is an inset mugshot from the start of this school year.
In the main photo, Gogulski has a full, flowing head of hair. In the mugshot, his head, including his eyebrows, is completely shaved.
The contrast is striking and suggests he has a story worth telling, but there's a constant at the heart of that story. It's about a student-athlete who just keeps swimming, overcoming more adversity this year than many people face in a lifetime. In both photos, the sophomore from Cedar Park, Texas, is smiling.
Discovering last winter that he had testicular cancer requiring surgery didn't erase that smile, not for long. Neither did learning a few months later that the cancer had returned, and he would spend the summer undergoing chemotherapy.
Sometimes a photo is just a snapshot. Other times it's a window full of sunshine.
"I was like, well, this is what I look like," Gogulski said. "I'm just going to take the picture. I probably could've asked them to use the one from last year, but I wasn't ashamed or anything."
Just the opposite. Gogulski isn't shy about sharing his experience while going to school and competing for the Aggies. As he said, "It's a really good feeling knowing that my story can help other people."
Last February, about two weeks before the 2019 SEC Swimming and Diving Championships, Gogulski was preparing for the meet, feeling good, having earned a spot he wasn't guaranteed when his freshman season began. During a shower, he noticed a lump on one of his testicles. At first, he joked about it with teammates, but one of them encouraged him to get checked by a doctor.
About three days after first noticing something amiss, Gogulski informed his father, who happens to be a doctor. Gogulski's parents headed to College Station, and two days later on Feb. 10th, he underwent an ultrasound. The news arrived in the car on the way home from the test.
"My dad never texts and drives, but he checked his phone," Gogulski said. "He almost crashed the car. My mom was like, 'David, pull over.' Dad pulled over. He started reading the text out loud, and I had no idea what any of it meant. It was all big doctor words. My mom looked at me and said, 'It's going to be OK. It's going to be OK.'
"I said, 'What is going on?'
"She said, 'You have testicular cancer.' "
"I wasn't freaked out or sad about it at first. I believed we had caught it really early, but I still was kind of in shock."
That was a Sunday. The next day, a urologist told Gogulski he needed surgery to remove the cancer as soon as possible - which would mean missing the SEC Championships.
"I had worked so hard," Gogulski said. "Going into my freshman year, I didn't even know if I would make the SEC team, so it was a really big deal for me to go. I was really excited about it. We asked if it was possible to swim in this meet and then as soon as it's over fly home and get the surgery done. (The doctor) said it's not my official recommendation but it'll be fine."
Gogulski missed just one practice that Monday morning to see the doctor. He was back at practice that afternoon, with the full support of his teammates and coaches adding to the embrace of his family, friends and girlfriend. He also received personal encouragement from Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian, who'd recently gone through two surgeries after being diagnosed with testicular cancer.
At the SEC Championships, Gogulski set lifetime bests in both the 100 and 200 backstroke. "By a good margin, too," he said. "I was really happy with that performance," which included winning the Consolation in the 200 back with the nation's fourth-fastest time by a freshman. "It was a really weird experience at the time. I had worked so hard all season, and I didn't want it ruined by one little thing."
One little thing. Consider the enormous strength in those words and that attitude.
After the meet, Gogulski went through the painful surgery, with the protocol calling for surveillance with regular blood tests. After returning to A&M to finish the semester, he went home for the summer to train with his old club team. Another shock jolted him in June.
"I came home from practice one day and my parents were being super quiet, which is really unlike them because they're really talkative," Gogulski said. "I thought, 'They must have gotten in a fight or something,' which is also really unlike them. They were not talking or anything. I was eating dinner and chilling and then said I'm going to go shower and get ready for bed.
"They said before you do, we have something to tell you. They told me the cancer had come back and I was going to have to do chemo for the majority of the summer. That was a really hard blow. The one thing I didn't want to do the first time around was chemo."
Chemotherapy meant four three-week sessions with one week straight of treatments and then two weeks without. It also meant virtually no swimming.
"The chemo was really difficult," he said. "At first, it wasn't that bad, then it just gets harder and harder. By the end of it, I was just so ready for it to be done and so ready to get back to normal life. By the end, I was ecstatic. Thank God."
As soon as his long hair started to fall out from the treatments, he shaved it all off. The unwavering support from family and friends continued. Some of his club teammates shaved their heads in solidarity, and he actually helped buzz their scalps. He celebrated his final chemo treatment Aug. 5th with a steak dinner.
"My parents were amazing," he said. "My girlfriend was amazing. She was with me every day. I felt bad like I was burdening everybody, but I couldn't have done it without any of them."
Now he's back in school and in the pool, competing for Texas A&M while working his way back into shape. He could've redshirted this season but didn't want to break the bond he feels with his classmates on the team. He wants to do his part to help the Aggies win the SEC Championships in February and place high at the NCAA Championships in March. He also wants to share his story, which is especially timely now given that November is Men's Health Awareness Month. "People my age we think we're bulletproof," Gogulski said. "When it happened to me, I was like, 'There's no way. I'm so young. This happens to old people. I don't believe it.' "
But testicular cancer, while not particularly common in the general population, "is largely a disease of young and middle-aged men," according to the American Cancer Society.
"The message is be aware," Gogulski said. "Check on yourself. If something is a little weird, get it checked out. It's not embarrassing, and it never should be. If something bad does happen and it affects your life and your goals, work through it. Do what you need to do, then get right back on the horse because you can always achieve your goals if you put your mind to it. No matter how bad something is, there's always light at the end of the tunnel."
In this case, that light is the smile on the face of a courageous, tenacious competitor named Ethan Gogulski.