Mom Swims Across America to Honor 14-Year-Old Daughter Who Died of Cancer: 'She Inspired All of Us'

"We feel like heaven is cheering us on," Grace Bunke's mom explains. "You can't have a better cheering section than heaven"

A Georgia mother is on a cross-country swimming mission to honor her teenage daughter, who died after a three-year battle with cancer.

Vicki Bunke tells PEOPLE (the TV Show!) that she finds comfort in the memories of her daughter Grace Bunke, who had no fear even as cancer overtook her body.

"She was super adventurous," Vicki, 52, explains of her daughter on Tuesday's episode. "We always said she was always going too fast, too far and too high."

"We never had to encourage her to stay engaged in life," she adds. "Even during her cancer treatments and through her illness, we were still the ones who had to set limits with her... we didn't want to hold her back, but you know, just being in terms of what was safe for her to do."

An avid athlete and runner from the time she was little, Grace's world was flipped upside-down when she was 11 years old.

Grace Bunke and her mom Vicki Bunke
Grace Bunke. SWIM ACROSS AMERICA

"She started having knee pain in the spring," Vicki recalls. "And she kept pushing through the pain until finally, she ended up running at her last — what turned out to be her last — track event on her two natural legs, kind of crossing the finish line in tears."

Doctors later diagnosed Grace with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that caused a large tumor in her left femur, and had metastasized to her lungs. She underwent 18 rounds of chemotherapy and several surgeries, including a rotationplasty, which used her backward foot to replace the movement of her knee.

"It was the best choice for her because it allowed her unlimited ability to be physical in the world," Vicki explains.

While waiting to run again, Grace decided to get in shape by swimming — and from there, she found a new passion, almost making the paralympic team.

"There's something different about being in the water versus running around a track. So I think that it really kind of gave her spiritual kind of emotional strength," Vicki says. "She just had this attitude [of] we're going to get through this and I can't wait to get back."

Grace Bunke and her mom Vicki Bunke
Grace Bunke. Kate. T. Parker Photography

"And she lived her life throughout the treatment," she adds. "She went to school anytime she wasn't in the hospital... so she made it easy on us going through that."

Grace eventually got involved with the Swim Across America (SAA) program and was determined to help raise money to beat cancers like hers. Her story was later showcased in WaveMakers, a six-part docu-series about SAA.

"Those videos are hard to watch, but also very meaningful to watch, as well," says Vicki. "It's difficult at the same time. It just brings back so many great memories."

As Grace neared the end of her life — she passed away in 2018, one day before her 15th birthday — she asked her mother to swim on her behalf at an upcoming SAA event that she could not participate in.

Grace Bunke and her mom Vicki Bunke
Grace Bunke with her mom Vicki in the hospital. SWIM ACROSS AMERICA

Vicki agreed — and she hasn't stopped since.

"I committed to swimming in 14 open water charity events with Swim Across America to honor the 14 years at Grace lived on this earth," she says. "Grace also swam in 14 swim meets in her entire life. So we've labeled it appropriately: the Amazing Grace Swim Across America tour. And I have completed four of them. I have ten to go."

"I was not a swimmer before this all happened," Vicki continues. "I knew how to swim and grew up with a pool, but I'm a little bit claustrophobic and I don't like putting my face in the water... I credit Grace for inspiring me and giving me the courage to do something that's really difficult."

The open water charity events that Vicki is set to participate in are scheduled to be held in various cities across the country, including Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, Seattle, Dallas, Baltimore and Atlanta.

Grace Bunke and her mom Vicki Bunke
Vicki Bunke. SWIM ACROSS AMERICA

With over $80,000 already raised, and ten more events to go, Vicki can't help but think about how Grace is likely cheering on her from above — and showing her presence in subtle ways, like providing perfect weather for each event.

"We feel like heaven is cheering us on," she explains. "You can't have a better cheering section than heaven. Grace had the best laugh, the best smile, so I think she's smiling... and not only cheering me on, but she's showing up at each of the events in small ways."

"It's a very special experience that I get to have, and I feel like it's a healing process for me as well," she adds. "Grace always remained hopeful in what most people would be considered kind of a hopeless situation. And that's really what she left for all of us and how she inspired all of us... how to live your life and make the most of it."

Those interested in supporting Vicki's journey can donate to Team Amazing Grace here.

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