Oct. 15, 2005
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Griet Buelens has been fighting – and winning – all her life. Conquering a potentially fatal illness twice in her life, the Ohio State women’s swimmer knows how to barrel through when the going gets tough. Therefore, winning a Big Ten individual championship in rookie season might not be quite a surprise after all.
Buelens contracted a severe form of hepatitis, a disease that causes inflammation of the liver, at the tender age of 3. Acquiring the disease from an antibiotic, she is expected to be missing an enzyme from her body that keeps her susceptible to hepatitis via the misuse of medicine. Although she has no recollection of the illness, the 3-year-old defeated the illness, easing her worried parents minds.
Buelens, one of five children, grew up in Belgium. She began swimming at 5 but was not competitive until she was 8 or 9. Her parents encouraged her to swim and would always attend her swim meets. By the time Buelens had reached 10 she had decided to pursue swimming more competitively.
In 2002, just as she was beginning to focus on picking a university to attend, her natural weakness to antibiotics struck again. Contracting hepatitis for the second time, Buelens once again was fighting.
This time, she was old enough to take in the affects of the illness. The most notable was the new tint to her skin tone. Excess amounts of bilirubin – a yellow-brown pigment caused by the breakdown of red blood cells – are normally disposed of through the liver, but with hepatitis interrupting normal liver procedures, the pigment builds up and tints the skin yellow. “It’s something in the blood, it’s called bilirubin, but it makes you yellow,” Buelens said. “Normally, your bilirubin count has to be between zero and one and mine went up to like 35, so, it was very high. I was very yellow.”
As Buelens’ condition worsened, talk began of giving her transfusions and a possible liver transplant. Luckily, she proved to be stronger than the infection and improved before any drastic measures were needed. For the second time, she had fought a fatal illness and come out on top.
Following her recovery, Buelens’ dedication to swimming increased tenfold. In 2004, she participated in the semifinals at the European championships in both the 200-meter butterfly and the 800-meter freestyle relay. She became a Belgian national champion in both the 100- and 200-meter butterfly events. With her success in the pool, she set her sights on heading to the United States to pursue school and sport.
Buelens chose Ohio State and she began her life as a Buckeye in the fall of 2004. Women’s swimming head coach Jeanne Fleck knew there were certain ways to help ease the culture shock for Buelens. She has had multiple athletes from abroad compete on her teams.
“We try to immerse them into the team as quickly as possible,” Fleck, who is now in her seventh season at Ohio State, said. “We try to have the upperclassmen keep an eye on them and make sure they know where they’re going and help them out. You want to communicate with them as much as you can.”
Fleck explained, though, that Buelens had no trouble adapting to the Ohio State campus and surroundings.
“We didn’t have any problems with her,” Fleck said. “Her personality is such that all she did is laugh, so it was no problem”
Although she seemed to fit in nicely, that did not stop a few fears to trickle in on the part of both Buelens’ and her parents.
“I was kind of afraid to come here, because it was another country, another language,” Buelens said, “But when I came here the girls were so nice. They helped me out with everything. It was fun; I really liked it. I was really excited to come back (this season). The first season, my parents were a little scared for me to come here because they were worried if I got sick. Now, coming back for the second season, they were better because they knew I was good here.”
Buelens may have had small fears coming here, but she was fearless in the pool. In her first dual meet as a Buckeye, she claimed two individual events and aided the 200-yard freestyle relay to a win. In her second meet of the season, she was the first on the team to hit an NCAA qualifying mark.
Her stats only soared from there. During the team’s dual-meet season, she won 21 individual events and earned a Big Ten swimmer of the week award following a double-event win against Denver.
Buelens made her first post-season trip to the 2005 Big Ten Championships in Bloomington, Ind. On the final day of the meet, Buelens became the first Big Ten individual swimming champion for the Buckeyes since Jocelyn Jay won in 1995. Clocking in at 1:59.09 in the 200-yard butterfly also rewrote the Ohio State history books. The time was the fastest time in Ohio State’s women’s swimming history and was the second NCAA qualifying mark for Buelens in the event. Buelens continued on to the 2005 NCAA Championships to represent the Scarlet and Gray in two events.
Fleck never noticed Buelens’ health susceptibility affecting her, but the Ohio State coaches were careful to make sure she had regular blood tests when she was worn down to ensure that no harmful effects could be taking advantage of the situation.
Buelens returned home this past summer and continued to fight her way to the top. She smashed the Belgian record in the 200-meter butterfly by two seconds and competed in 10 events at the Belgian national championships. Her record-breaking time qualified her for the 2005 European Championships, which will take place in December.
This season, she comes back to the Buckeyes with her sights set even higher. With the new home of Ohio State’s aquatic programs, her fearless demeanor in the pool and the framework from last season to build upon, Buelens and the Ohio State coaches are expecting an even more impressive season this year.
“We’d like to see her make it to the finals at the NCAA meet and for her to improve in her other events,” Fleck said. “She’s not only good in the 200-yard butterfly, she’s also good at the 200- and 500-yard freestyle. We’d like to see her take that on and step up a bit there.”
Ohio State and its new McCorkle Aquatic Pavillion will be home to the 2005 Big Ten Championships Feb. 15-18. The whole team is looking forward to the event, but for Buelens it could be a little sweeter. Her parents, who originally had some concerns about their daughter coming to the United States, may be making the trip to Columbus from Belgium.
“I’m very excited for Big Tens,” Buelens said. “It’ll be nice to be here with everybody here. All the parents are coming. My parents might come over. It’s very exciting.”
Fighting the odds has been in Buelens’ nature since she was 3. And with that kind of attitude, there’s no telling what success Buelens has in store.