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Standout wrestler who lost leg to cancer gets dream trip to Olympics

SPRING HILL — Nineteen-year-old Blake Chandler mused last August to a representative from the Children's Dream Fund that he would really like to go to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, specifically to watch the U.S. Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling team compete.

"I didn't think it would come true," said Chandler, a former high school wrestling standout who has bone cancer, which has led to five surgeries and the amputation of his left leg just below the knee. "They told me they don't usually go out of the country."

But Blake's mom, Audra Chandler, said administrators at the dream fund, which works with All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg where Blake underwent his surgeries, thought her son might be a special case.

"Before this," she said, gesturing to his amputated leg, "he was a four-year wrestler. He could have gotten a wrestling scholarship (to college)."

When Blake received word that his dream would come true, "I cried. I definitely cried," he said with a smile from a plush recliner in his family's living room, crutches close at hand.

"It was kind of nice getting through with chemo at the same time," he said.

Twenty-eight weeks of debilitating chemotherapy had followed the surgeries that preceded the amputation in March. Blake was given the opportunity to forgo the last two chemo treatments, but chose to complete the regimen to help ensure he wouldn't have a relapse that could jeopardize his Olympic dream.

Blake, Audra and father Bill Chandler, who owns a construction business, made the trip to London. Blake's sister, Brittany, 21, is serving with the Coast Guard in Michigan.

During his junior year at Nature Coast Technical High School, Blake winced over what he thought was a strain above his left ankle, suffered in a wrestling bout. The pain diminished for a while, then returned, and a small lump appeared as well. When his lower leg was stepped on during a match, the pain increased, and the lump grew.

He was almost immediately diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer. The order: 10 weeks of chemotherapy at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa.

Then his tibia, the lower leg bone, was removed and replaced with a cadaver tibia. Tissue and skin grafts followed.

"They both had problems with healing," Blake said. "Then they got infected, with 96 percent necrosis in the tumor."

More chemotherapy followed, with 75 percent of his time spent at All Children's.

"I wasn't good with chemo," the once vigorous athlete said. "I had sores in my mouth, all through the (gastrointestinal) tract."

"Sometimes he couldn't even talk," his mother said.

Blake added: "Then the surgery; you're so beat."

Blake's parents shuttled him to hospitals in Philadelphia and Boston for consultation.

"I didn't like what they said," Blake said — replacement with another cadaver bone and more chemo.

While amputation was never mentioned, Blake said, "In January and February, that was the only thing in my head."

In early March he called his doctor, asking him to schedule an amputation.

"By then I was begging for it," he said. "It was my decision."

The following week, Blake's decision was granted — the amputation was performed March 28.

Dream Fund executive director Cynthia Lake noted that Blake "courageously" participated in a local Relay for Life event the day after he left the hospital.

Today, Blake shrugs: "I never felt sorry for myself, never negative, never said I couldn't get through it. I just did what I had to do.

"Even when I was crying, I was joking with the nurses. I had fun while I was going through it."

He paused, then added, "In a way."

Audra Chandler remembers some nights at home when a friend from school would sleep over to buoy Blake. And Blake himself says of schoolmates Robert Ryan, Stephen Iavarone and Travis Nielson: "Definitely, my friends were awesome.

Blake missed his entire senior year at school, except for prom. Tyler Bergantino was elected prom king, but turned his crown over to Blake that night.

With Blake now diagnosed as cancer-free — already taking part in USA Club wrestling, and his dream trip having come true — he is beginning General Educational Development classes to obtain his high school diploma and plans to become a certified nursing assistant. Just this week, he was fitted with a permanent prosthesis to replace a temporary model.

He dwells on the exciting memories of his recent trip to London: watching the U.S. Greco-Roman team compete; spending time in the wrestling team's training room; meeting 1992 and 1996 gold and silver medalist Dennis Hull; meeting Bobby Douglas, "the coach way back in the day," and talking with Spencer Mango, a team wrestler from Boulder, Colo.

Spending time with Jared Frayer, a freestyle wrestler from Clearwater, highlighted Blake's visit with the Olympic wrestlers, he said.

"I got to talk to him for 15, 20 minutes."

And when the Chandlers picked up their tickets for the wrestling meets, Jared's parents stood at the gate, not only to greet the Spring Hill family, but to give Blake a complete USA team warm-up suit, T-shirt and jacket.

The T-shirt, which Blake wears with pride, bears the name of Frayer.

"I think they all inspired me," Blake said of his time with the wrestlers. "Jared inspires me with all he's been through; he's got a kid with Down (syndrome)."

Jared gave Blake his Facebook contact, and Blake said the two intend to correspond.

As Blake mentioned those to whom he owes thanks, he said, "First my parents, the dream fund and their sponsors. I definitely want to thank Jared's parents, and my best friends."

The dream fund's Lake offered thanks of her own, saying that Blake "makes me want to be a better person."

Blake says he's focused now on the future, hoping to pursue a career in the medical field after college.

"As far as I'm concerned," he said, "I don't have any limitations."

Beth N. Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.

Standout wrestler who lost leg to cancer gets dream trip to Olympics 09/01/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 11:42am]

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