IRVINE, CA (WKOW) -- After more than four years as a student-athlete at UC-Irvine, Christopher Swieca had looked forward to the day he would attend graduation with his fellow water polo teammates.
But about a month before graduation, he discovered that the retinas in both of his eyes had been detached, caused most likely by acute nearsightedness that had nothing to do with playing sports. He immediately had back-to-back surgeries, which kept him lying face-down 24/7 for 20 days.
Just two days before the June 10 ceremony, Swieca’s doctor told him he needed another surgery. Instead of attending the graduation, he ended up watching it on video chat.
UC-Irvine presented the 23-year-old Swieca a gift to make up for what he had missed. The university hosted a surprise commencement ceremony for Swieca in Chancellor Howard Gillman’s office.
It was prompted by a handwritten letter to Gillman from Swieca’s grandmother, Sandra Schrader.
“When I sent the letter, I felt like I got an immediate response back so I knew that it had really touched someone’s heart,” Schrader said.
Having no idea what awaited him, Swieca walked into the office followed by three fellow senior teammates and their coach. The teammates had told him they would just pick up his diploma and take photos wearing a gown and cap.
But inside he was greeted by his parents, siblings and grandparents, as well as newspaper and television reporters. Swieca looked back at his teammates with a bashful smile on his face.
The ceremony featured the national anthem and a speech by Gillman, just like regular commencement ceremonies.
“The emotion quickly set in that they were all here for me,” said Swieca, who majored in business economics with a minor in political science. “I was realizing that everybody had taken significant amount of their time and put significant amount of resources into this afternoon just for me.”
Swieca said he wasn’t surprised about his grandmother’s part in the ceremony. After the ceremony, Swieca hugged and kissed his grandma.