Wildcat’s focus clear in second chance

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Jasper’s Rachel Louviere received encouragement from teammate Levi Hulsman while waiting for her heat in the 100-yard backstroke at the Wildcat Invitational in December. Louviere is back in the pool after complications with a small tumor behind her right eye. She missed her junior year because of it, but with careful treatment and cautious training, Louviere has gained clearance to finish her senior season.

By JOE JASINSKI
Herald Sports Writer

When Rachel Louviere describes the operations — “the most miraculous thing ever” — her eyes look upward and she takes a deep breath as an awestruck grin surfaces on her face.

She has the air of a teenager recounting how she and that dreamy guy — like, OMG — shared stares the other day. Only in reality, Louviere is describing a sophisticated medical device that’s able to penetrate the skin beside her right eye and continue navigating until it’s found a spot where there isn’t muscle. From there, the instrument with an ultrasound reader on its tip attempts to locate the peanut-shaped object embedded in a sac that’s wrapped around Louviere’s optic nerve. That’s her tumor. And once the tumor is found, the fluid is drained. And once the fluid is drained, a medicine is injected that solidifies any remaining fluid in the tumor.

That’s why Louviere is starry-eyed and smiling. Nonstop. And that’s why she can’t stop smiling as she sits wrapped in a towel and donning a bathing suit and her yellow Jasper swim team cap.

The Wildcat senior was born with the tumor behind her right eye. It’s called vascularrr, errr, something. Vascular lympha — “ah, I can’t remember,” Louviere says. “Oh! Vascular lymphangioma.”

That’s it, vascular lymphangioma. That’s what first started making her eyes bloodshot for no reason in sixth grade. It’s what a doctor spotted in the back of Louviere’s eye when she was in seventh grade, prompting the MRI that determined its identity. That’s the thing that sent her to doctors in Indianapolis, Wisconsin and finally Columbus, Ohio, where she underwent the two operations that eased swelling in her eye when it began bulging out during her sophomore year.

But Louviere just keeps smiling. Because however long the road has been, however unlikely swimming this year once appeared and however tough it was once she did get back in the water, that last detail — the only detail as far as she’s concerned — is all that matters.

As a seventh-grader, Louviere underwent a five-hour operation with a doctor in Indianapolis who misdiagnosed the problem. That left Louviere with a metal plate and three screws that still remain beside her right eye, where the doctor removed bone. But after the doctor sewed her up and assured her parents, Lynn and Tom, that he knew what the problem was, they decided to take their daughter elsewhere. That led them to Wisconsin, where another doctor said that had she gone through with the operation in Indy, she could very easily have gone blind — or worse yet, bled to death.

That’s when things were first laid out for Louviere. The problems arise when her blood pressure goes up. She was told she could either swim and sacrifice things like tubing, scuba diving and roller coasters. Or vice versa, and forfeit swimming.

The pool was the obvious choice.

After eighth and ninth grade passed without any issue, Louviere hit the water hard as a sophomore.

“I wanted to go to state,” Louviere says. “I was wanting to go to state so bad. So I was doing double practices, mornings at 6 o’clock, after school, Saturday practices. I was doing everything I could to get to state. And generally, my eye started to get worse.”

With overexertion, Louviere’s eye began to bulge out more and more. Eventually, it grew to the point of embarrassment, she admits. But swimming was too important. When she punched her ticket to Indy as part of the Wildcats’ 400-yard freestyle relay team, it all seemed worth it.

Soon after the season, Louviere met with a doctor in Columbus, Ohio. They decided to go with the two-surgery procedure that would drain the tumor and harden any remaining fluid, and that was that. Louviere had the second operation the first week of school her junior year and was psyched to pick up where she’d left off as a sophomore.

But then the worst day came. A week before the team’s first meet, Louviere stepped out of the pool at practice to keep her blood pressure in check — a routine she still does. She cupped her left eye to check her vision, at which point she noticed blurriness and black dots in her sight.

She told Wildcat coach Jenae Gill she was done for the day. She cried in the locker room. Her mother insisted she come home immediately and call her doctor, and once Louviere described the symptoms to him, the verdict came sharply and swiftly.

You’re done swimming. For good.

She retreated to her room and sobbed for three hours. She called teammate Addison Nolan, who told her, “You are not done swimming. You can’t be done.”

“I was really upset,” Nolan remembers. “I had been swimming with her since I was 9 years old, so it was really upsetting to find out that she wouldn’t be swimming with me anymore. I felt like I lost my best friend.”

Then came the anger, the internal inquiries. I had the operations, so why can’t I swim? Louviere thought. She began questioning God.

She remained on with the swim squad as a manager, and while being among teammates was nice, being next to the pool without paddling down a lane left a simultaneous sting. She longed to get back in.

Louviere’s doctor told her she could call a year after he shut her down from swimming. Maybe something would have changed. She could only hope.

As soon as the one-year anniversary rolled around, Louviere made the call, and no further swelling and no regression in her 20-20 vision was detected.

Louviere awoke one morning in November and asked her mom to make her pancakes while she stayed in bed. Her mom came up to her room and sat down next to Rachel.

“She started to get teary-eyed and was like, ”˜Rachel,’ and I’m like, ”˜What?!’” Louviere recounts.

“”˜You can swim again.’”

Mayhem.

Louviere remembers jumping out of bed, screaming, crying. She called Nolan. She texted Gill and a few other friends.

Gill hadn’t put much stock in Louviere returning. Especially with something as serious as a tumor, Gill in no way wanted the senior to risk her health in return for one more year of swimming. Nonetheless, the news brought joy, especially for someone with Louviere’s passion.

“The main thing is that she’s in the water. She’s a part of this team. I mean, her love for swimming, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen someone that really loves the sport as much as she does,” Gill says.

Conditioning was difficult at first, and Gill and Louviere continue to monitor her blood pressure during practices. She doesn’t swim the butterfly because of how much immediate energy is exerted with the stroke, and long-distance sets have to be broken up with pauses to rest.

But she’s back. And the progress has been more than she anticipated. And now her eyes lay focused on sectional, just 21⁄2 weeks away. When she talks about it, the excitement in her voice ramps back up and the smile returns.

“It’s been a roller coaster, but I’m back and I’m ready for sectionals,” Louviere says. “I’m so ready for sectionals. I can’t wait.”

The tumor behind Louviere’s eye is still there, and it will remain. There’s always the risk it could someday lead to blindness, but removal could be even more dangerous given its location and connection with the nervous system. For now, she’ll receive the dual operations once every 15 years or so, if nothing else arises.

But given the struggle, and the opportunity that had been stripped away and then given back, Louviere possesses a clarity few others can have. She reverts to her favorite Bible passage, Jeremiah 29:11, which tells of God’s plan not to harm, but for hope and a future. And with eyes on the present, never forget what you have.

“Never take anything that’s important to you for granted, because you never know when it’s going to be taken away,” Louviere says. “(Swimming) was taken away from me in a minute. You don’t have control over any of it. ... I didn’t believe that I’d be back where I am, and here I am.”

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