U volleyball player and younger sister are with each other every step of the way

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 14, 2011 - 6:35 AM

Jessica Granquist is the defensive specialist for the Gophers volleyball team. Equally impressive is her sister, Christina, who has battled blindness with seven cornea transplants and countless other surgeries.

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Within her own U schedule, Christina Granquist (left) is back to being able to watch Jessica play volleyball after experimental eye surgery this summer.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Jessica Granquist is the defensive specialist for the Gophers volleyball team. She is known both for skills and for a high level of competitive fire at the libero position.

You can also detect that fire when Jessica talks about the treatment that her younger sister Christina received from the University of Minnesota masses as she moved about campus a year ago.

Christina was born blind with the rare disease Peter's anomaly. Through a series of cornea transplants as an infant, the vision was restored in her right eye.

"Cornea transplants only last so long and they will wear out," Christina said.

Christina was a month short of her 17th birthday when it became apparent that was about to happen with her right eye. Two cornea transplants had failed to restore her vision.

"She went through two surgeries where the cornea was rejected," Jessica said. "She goes through absolute misery with these surgeries -- the bleeding, the throwing up, the stitching, all of it.

"After the second surgery failed, Christina said: 'I'm going to go blind. I'm going to learn the skills to live this life. I'm going to learn to read Braille. I'm going to learn to be mobile without sight.'"

Christina followed her sister and her brother Rick to the U. Jessica would accompany her sister to class as often as possible. Christina used a walking stick to feel in front of her and to the sides.

And it was what she saw during those times last fall that still had Jessica fired up during a conversation last week.

"People don't understand," Jessica said. "It's not their life, so it's meaningless to them. They are in a rush and they don't care who is in their way. It made me so mad, to see my sister bumped, cut off on the sidewalk, offered no assistance. And if they weren't doing that, they were staring.

"What's wrong with so many people that they don't care about anyone else?"

Christina made it through her freshman year with a near-4.0 grade point. At the same time, Dr. Ed Holland, the eye surgeon who had treated Christina at the U, was informing the Granquist family of an experimental approach that his team was taking toward cornea transplants.

Holland is now at the University of Cincinnati. Christina went there during the first week of July to undergo the experimental surgery.

"Two weeks later, I started to see a little bit and knew that it had worked," Christina said. "My vision isn't perfect -- not 20-20 -- but I can see again with my right eye."

Last fall, Christina attended a number of Jessica's matches at the Sports Pavilion.

"She would come up to me and say, 'The comments I heard in the crowd were that you played real well; congratulations,'" Jessica said.

This fall, Christina doesn't have to take the word of others. She will be able to view Jessica's excellence -- and that will come as no surprise to Christina.

"Jess always has been a great athlete, at any sport she tried," Christina said. "I played, too, but I had more desire than talent. I was a junior and on junior varsity at Blaine [High School] when my eye started failing."

Volleyball and this family go back to when Mom, Marie Granquist, excelled in the sport as Marie Sandor at Hibbing High School for Gail Nucech, a coaching legend. Nucech is in her 43rd season and is the state's all-time winner in volleyball.

"She's the one who got me and my friends involved," Marie said. "She used to call us gym rats."

Marie became a coach at Fridley High School and Totino-Grace. And Jessica became even more a gym rat.

"Jess started going to volleyball practice when she was in my belly," Marie said. "My players were throwing a ball to her as soon as she could walk. And she walked at 8 1/2 months."

Rick did double duty in the fall at Blaine -- playing soccer and place-kicking in football. He's a senior in communications at Minnesota. Jessica is a senior at the Carlson Business School.

And Christina? "She's so smart, she can do anything," Jessica said. "She's talking about becoming a doctor."

Christina has had seven cornea transplants and countless other surgeries. She had her left eye removed at age 4.

"It was a blessing," Marie said. "It was done to stimulate the brain to make her right eye stronger, and that's what happened."

Through all the surgeries, including the disappointments of rejected transplants, there is an emotion that Jessica doesn't carry when it comes to her sister.

"I would never feel sorry for Christina -- for her life," Jessica said. "I love her to death, and one thing she has never wanted is sympathy. She has a determination and a spirituality that are amazing."

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500ESPN. preusse@startribune.com

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