…One such athlete for whom such cheers may last forever is Agata Mroz, a famed Polish volleyball champion, who died one month ago today at the age of 26.
The daughter of basketball and volleyball coaches, Agata became a superstar in her home country when she led the Polish national volleyball team to European championships in 2003 and 2005. When she wasn’t competing in international competition, she was leading her Polish-league team to championships in 2003, 2004 and 2006 and guiding a Spanish-based team to victory in 2007. Once nicknamed the “great wall of China” for her excellence as a blocker, she had a knack for turning what seemed to be opponents’ advantages into points for her side.
Her fame was magnified by her beauty, which helped to make the stunning six-foot-three-inch slender blonde a regular fixture in newspapers, magazines and on television. She was one of the principal reasons why the Polish women’s volleyball team ended up being dubbed the “Golden Girls,” a testimony not only to their fair hair and multiple gold medals in international competition, but to their marketing draw.
She was a very popular player among her teammates. One of them, Dorota Świeniewicz, said about her constant cheerfulness. “It was incredible seeing the joy she had with each point she won, her hands up in the air; this gesture was typical of Agata after a successful serve, block or attack and it will stick in my mind forever.”
She also had a positive, mature influence on her coaches. Coach Andrzej Niemczyk recalled, “She was a wonderful, smiling and honest girl. During one of the camps in Szczyrk, I sat up late in a bar with a glass of whisky. It was way past midnight when I heard someone entering the bar. Agata sat next to me, took my arm and said ‘Coach, you need some sleep because there are two training sessions tomorrow,’ and she took me away from the bar. She took care of me.”
When Agata was 17, she was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a collection of disorders that prevent the bone marrow from producing sufficient blood cells. Some forms of MDS progress to leukemia, and Agata’s did. In the prime of her sports career, Agata needed to take a sabbatical in 2007 to fight the disease. The first part of her treatment involved many blood transfusions. When her fans discovered that she needed blood, they formed a queue to be donors, giving 3,170 pints.
Her condition worsened as she was preparing to marry Jacek Olszewski on June 9, 2007, leaving her too ill to go on a honeymoon. Because of her illness, doctors cautioned her against getting pregnant, but she tried anyway. She was realistic about her slim prospects to beat the disease and, if she were going to die, she at least hoped to be able to give life.
She became pregnant soon after marrying. “The news about the child made me feel lucky again,” she said in a February news interview. “I felt happy that I would know what it is to be a mother and that I would give my husband something good of myself.”
A few weeks later, doctors discovered her cancer had progressed. They told her that she urgently needed a bone marrow transplant, but she opted to wait until after delivery to receive the transplant lest she imperil her child’s life. She clearly knew the risk she was taking, but considered the reward worth the danger, putting her child’s life above her own. She gave premature birth to a daughter, Lilliana, on April 4.
By the time of childbirth, her immune system was so compromised that her doctors did not allow her to hold Lilliana, except to touch her palms briefly before she was moved to another hospital in preparation for the transplant, which was done on May 21. The doctors said that it would take ten days to a month for the new bone marrow to begin to function properly. On Wednesday June 4, however, she caught an infection and despite her doctors’ best efforts and her fighting spirit, they were not able to save her life.
Five days later, on what would have been the first anniversary of her marriage, she was buried from the Church where she had joyfully exchanged vows. Her funeral was preceded by two days of mourning in her native Tarnow. At the beginning of the Mass, which was attended by thousands, her husband Jacek rolled a stroller with a sleeping Lilliana to the front of the Church and placed an orange rose next to her remains.
In his homily, the celebrant of the Mass, Bishop Marian Florczyk, said that Agata’s life is a witness of “love of life, motherhood, the desire to give life and the heroic love of an unborn child.” He added that she had “passed into a different world, to a different team, to our primary Coach.”
Agata Mroz learned the lessons of sports and applied them in life. Accustomed to giving all she had on the court, Agata indeed gave the best of herself to her husband and every last ounce of herself to her daughter. She learned that there were things more important than herself, and she valued Lilliana’s life more than her own — even before she was conceived.
We pray that this heroic “great wall of China” has passed beyond the gates of heaven and will be found worthy of induction into the eternal hall of fame.
Fr. Roger J. Landry