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UPDATE: Wichita Teen 'Makes A Wish' To Swim With The Sharks

Tacoma Tribune

    SCROLL DOWN to see how close Craig got to this shark!

An update from Craig Lehman, after he completed his swim on Friday, July 25:

"Diving with the sharks was amazing! It was breeding time for the tank, so there was some strange behavior happening. The nurse sharks were very single-minded. One shark was so "focused" that it plowed into me and knocked me off balance. It wasn't brutal in its action, it was almost gentle. Keep in mind and that the shark was close to 8 feet long, 3.5 feet wide, and estimated to be around 300 lbs. The experience was both terrifying and awe inspiring."

Credit Alley Lehman
Credit Courtesy photo

Original Story:

Wichita teenager Craig Lehman was diagnosed with brain cancer two years ago. But today he is fulfilling a life long dream--to swim with the sharks. Lehman’s desire to get close to the big fish was granted by Make-A-Wish Kansas.  

18-year-old Craig Lehman doesn't meet a stranger. He's friendly from the start, in his neon lime geometric socks, colorful tennis shoes, and plaid shorts. He fiddles with a cane that he’s decorated with camo and rainbow colored duct tape. But all of that doesn’t matter. This 4.0 high school grad LOVES sharks.

Credit Carla Eckels

"When I was little I saw an episode of a Crocodile Hunter and he was swimming with tiger sharks and it looked like a lot of fun. So me--being the crazy person I am--decided it was going to be fun I was going to do it someday and, well, here we are," he says with a laugh.

A scuba diving shop called Amber Waves in east Wichita agreed to help with Craig's wish to swim with the fish.

"You have to get your certification. There's a lot of gear," he says. "You have to learn, but when you're done with it, it really pays off. It really does."

Craig says the classes include learning about nitrogen tables and adding up dive time minutes.

"You start out with a packet a lot of book work and you go through about 5 chapters and after you pass all of your tests then there's a math thing that's a lot of fun," he says, ending with a whisper, "No it's not." He continues, "After you pass all your book work you go into what they call a confined dive."

The confined dive took place at the lap pool inside the Andover YMCA. Craig was equipped with a 30 pound tank a mask snorkel and fins. He also learned how to use a BCD--buoyancy compensator device--which is a vest that you inflate and deflate to allow a diver to ascend or descend.

"I had to sit down on the side of the pool, I had to kind of like side flop in. But your BCD, if you fill it up before you go in, you sit on the top a little but then you inflate it some more. You press that button and you get buoyant and you're kind of boppin' there and you wait for everyone else to get in. Then you get your fins on in the water, they’re a lot easier that way. If your mask isn’t already on you put that on and then you press the release button on your BCD and you just go on down."

Tyler Brewer is the owner of Amber Waves Diving Company.

Craig Lehman with Chris Hulett of Amber Waves Diving Company.

"We wanted him to see his dream come true and had some instructors. They all volunteered so he had a good time," says Brewer. "We didn't have to accommodate a whole lot for him. He went to the pool with the rest of the class. We did do a private lesson at the lake. He did a great job. He seemed to enjoy himself. As you can tell he’s got a great personality so it was a lot of fun for us."

Craig says he especially enjoyed the lake’s underwater landscape.

"I think the best part of the lessons had to be the fish," he says. "They start out giving you this look and they were just like 'Why are you here? You're suppose to be up there. I'm down here. This is my place. Get out!'"

Aaron, Craig's father, also took lessons so he could dive with his son.

Credit Carla Eckels
Craig Lehman with his sister, Alley, and parents, Aaron and Melanie Lehman.

"I think it's great. It's real exciting to be able to spend time with Craig and do something he wants to do," he says. "I just think it's awesome to watch him do this stuff. I mean considering last year he was in a wheel chair and he's just made so many strides, it's just amazing."
Craig was diagnosed with Medulloblastoma, a rare brain tumor on Valentines Day, 2012. He says he remembers feeling fatigue in school and eventually having trouble tracking with his eyes. His body sort of shut down. Craig had surgery to remove the mass in the back of his brain. He says he lived in a doctor's office for about a year a half--having 18 cycles of chemo on a bi-weekly basis.

"It made me really sick," he says. "I puked out my guts and I basically felt like a bag of trash. It was bad."

Along with chemotherapy, Craig endured 30 days of radiation treatment.

"The radiation, it has a distinct smell. It’s like burning tires, kind of like that singed rubber smell and I had a full month, half an hour a pop, every single day except for major holidays," he says. "So I was in there on my birthday and there were some really good people there and well, they made cookies—so that was nice."

The effects of the radiation caused Craig to be in a wheelchair for a time. The effects of brain tumor partially disabled Craig's left side and leaving him with permanent weakness. Craig says at times, he's illness has scared him.

"Honestly, I'm pretty scared cause I could wake up one morning and--boom--something's going to go wrong. So whenever it doesn't go wrong that's a really good day," he says. "I mean friends left and so I have to rekindle all those lines but other than that, it's pretty good day."

Carla: And it looks like you've had a loving family too that's been right by your side. 

Craig: Oh yeah, that I do. And from my perspective, they're pretty lucky… but I'd also have to say I'm pretty lucky too because, they're a ball.

Melanie Lehman is Craig's mother. She says Craig's most recent scan for cancer in June was clean. She says the brain tumor was very aggressive.

"I look at him now as opposed to a year ago when he could barely walk, when everything was a labor, school was a struggle and I think I can't believe where we are 12 months later," she says. "It’s just it's incredible to me that he's going on this adventure, that he's doing the things that he's going to do and we get to go with him because a year ago it looked like he wouldn't live so we have lots to be thankful for."

Credit Angie Bacon
Family and friends gather at Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport to send off Craig Lehman on his Make a Wish adventure.

Craig’s wish is taking him and his family to Washington where he’ll shadow a zoologist. They’ll dine at the top of Seattle's space needle, and then it’s off to swim with sharks. Trusted Choice Independent Insurance agents in Kansas provided funds for granting Craig's wish. The cost varies due to size of the family and the desired wish. In Kansas, the average cost of providing a wish is roughly 65 hundred dollars. Suzanna Mathews is with Make-A-Wish Kansas.

"The children are between the ages of 2 1/2 to 18 years old," she says. "They are battling a life-threatening medical conditions. Here is Kansas this year alone, a network of more 120 volunteers have granted 76 life affirming wishes in 99 Kansas counties."

Mathews says Craig’s swimming with the sharks is not the typical kind of wish that is granted.

"Many children opt for a trip to Disney World," she says. "That’s a fairly common wish and so the fact that his wish has kind of this adventuresome component to it is really cool."

The highlight of Craig Lehman’s trip by far will be at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. After zipping up in dry suits and strapping on scuba gear, Craig and his dad will be lowered down under water in a cage and escorted out of the cage by a trained dive-guide. They’ll see more than a dozen massive sharks up close, including a 9-foot, 450 pound lemon shark. Craig is not sure how he’ll react.

"I’ll probably look at the shark and I’ll be thinking, 'Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh! It’s gonna eat me! It’s gonna eat me!' And then after that goes away I’ll think, 'Can I do this? Should I go back to the cage? Should I go towards it? It looks like it’s smiling maybe I should hug it.' Maybe something like that."

When Craig returns from his west coast shark adventure, he plans to start a new chapter in his life-- as a freshman this fall, studying biological sciences at Wichita State University.