Those who saw Mahopac junior Garrett Semenetz get his hand raised as the Section 1 champion at 99 pounds in February know what kind of wrestler he is. But what they may not know is what he went through to get to that point.
At the age of 3, Semenetz was diagnosed with neuroblastoma, a form of cancer often found in young children. He endured chemotherapy, surgery to remove the tumor on his liver and a year of experimental treatment to keep the cancer from coming back.
After that frightening bout with cancer, a championship wrestling match must have felt like a walk in the park.
“It’s not something that I tell a lot of people,” Semenetz said. “I just remember how tough it was for my family — how sick I was and in how much pain. I was very sick and brittle.”
Semenetz’s older brother Zach was 11 at the time of Garrett’s diagnosis, so he remembers the ordeal much more vividly. And what Zach remembers most is how much it weighed on his parents, Eric and Marianne.
“It was very hard for both of them during treatment,” he recalled. “My mom probably spent more time at the hospital with Garrett, and my dad was often at home with me and my sister (Rebecca). It was hard for him to be away and it was hard for both of them to focus on other things. A lot of our friends and neighbors really supported us during that time, even some nights cooking us dinner.”
Less than two years after Garrett’s startling diagnosis, he was pronounced cancer-free and the Semenetz family was able to get back to some semblance of normalcy. But the effects of the treatment would remain obvious in Garrett’s life.
“I still have many disabilities now,” he said. “The reason that I won my title at 99 pounds is that I would say my growth was stunted very much because of my chemotherapy. I still have my scar, and I have back problems.”
Even though Semenetz said he “always loved sports” and his father was a youth wrestling coach, the sport didn’t stick when he first tried it as a child. His physical limitations created doubt about whether he could ever excel in any sport, but unlike many, wrestling is conducive for people of all shapes and sizes.
As a freshman at Mahopac High School, he decided to give it another try.
“He’s a fighter, and wrestling is really a perfect fit for him because he’s small,” Mahopac coach Dennis DiSanto said. “He decided to come out, and I knew right away, ‘Holy cow, this kid has talent.’ He started having success right away, and I think it really helped him with self-esteem.”
Seeing some positive results from the get-go fueled Semenetz to strive for more, and by his sophomore season he earned All-Section honors by placing third at 99 pounds. In the offseason, Semenetz “devoted most of my free time to wrestling,” which led to a section championship last month.
“I didn’t think anyone in my weight class trained nearly as hard as me,” he said. “It showed me how far I’ve come in my entire life — from being a sick little boy to winning a section title in my teenage years.”
Well before Semenetz was making waves in the local wrestling scene, his family stressed the importance of giving back and raising awareness about his disease.
Saturday will mark the 10th anniversary of an annual fundraiser that they run for St. Baldrick’s, a charity devoted to childhood cancer. The event will begin at 5 p.m. at the Parting Glass Irish Pub and Grill in Mahopac, and anyone who stops by will have the opportunity to meet a section champ.
Zach has played a pivotal role in keeping the event going for the past decade. He’s been in his brother’s corner from Day One, and no one is a bigger fan.
“We really want to use him as an example for kids that are going through this at a young age. There is life after treatment, and people do go on to lead long and happy lives,” said Zach, who is now 24. “Since he was sick, I’ve always wanted to support him in everything that he does. Knowing what he went through and remembering the treatment even better than he does, it’s very special to see him doing so well.”
To donate to St. Baldrick’s, visit the Semenetz family page at www.stbaldricks.org/events/mypage/66/2016.