Najla Brannin knew her dream was to become an Olympic swimmer when she was six years old.
“I needed something to do after school. I was at the pool and my mom saw they were having diving tryouts and there were synchronized swimmers where diving was,” Brannin said. “They had makeup on and sparkly suits and they were listening to music and laughing together. I was like, I want to do that instead.”
“It seemed like such a family and I joined and it’s been 13 years now on that same team, coaching and everything.”
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And ever since, the West Boca Raton native has done everything in her power to remain in the water – even after an abrupt diagnosis that completely altered her life.
Brannin, 18, secured a spot on the University of Florida’s synchronized swim team and was set to attend the school’s First-Year Honors Program (FHP) before receiving devastating news in October of 2021: she had cancer.
Six-time Junior Olympian
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Brannin began her swimming career quite young and from there, the iron-willed athlete qualified for the Junior Olympics six times. Her first Junior Olympic competition was in 2014 at the age of 10 and her personal best occurred in 2019.
“My personal highest ranking was in 2019 when our team got second place at Junior Olympics,” said Brannin. “We medaled out!”
Brannin traveled nationally for the wide array of competitions she competed in, including Seattle, North Carolina, Texas, New York, Colorado, and Missouri for the USA Artistic Swimming Convention.
Brannin was also the captain of her local team the Palm Beach Coralytes, a synchronized swim team for ages 5-18, located in Delray Beach, and now coaches the team weekly.
The day everything changed
In 2018, four years prior to her diagnosis, Brannin was diagnosed with endometriosis, which is a condition where the cells that normally line the uterus start to grow on the outside of the organ.
The endometriosis formed 16 tumors in her lower abdomen and required removal. Upon removal surgery in October 2021, Brannin was officially diagnosed with stage three Rhabdomyosarcoma, or RMS. She was also told that she had a rare genetic mutation, DICER1 Syndrome, which increases her susceptibility to cancer.
RMS is an aggressive form of cancer where malignant cells form inside the muscle tissue. It usually begins in muscles attached to bones, ultimately affecting organs like the bladder or uterus.
Brannin’s senior year of high school, the year that’s usually the most memorable for teens as they prepare to depart for their college ventures, was ripped right out from under her. She spent most nights in the hospital befriending other cancer patients while most people her age were packing up and preparing for college.
In merely eight months, the swimmer underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and an additional surgery by the time July of 2022 hit.
Always about the water
Brannin didn’t necessarily plan to fall in love with artistic swimming, but that’s exactly what happened when she first caught a glance of synchronized swimmers at her local pool. Ever since then, she knew this was her path.
“I needed something to do after school because school ended early and it was far from home,” Brannin explained.
“I had no purpose to get up (after the diagnosis), but I knew the pool would always be there Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, so it gave me purpose,” said Brannin.
“I love seeing my coaches and my best friends. Knowing I would see them made me want to go,” she added.
Brannin kept her eye on the prize: getting back into the water.
Despite her circumstances, Brannin showed up for her team.
Brannin would FaceTime her team throughout practices whilst undergoing treatment and even helped coach when she could.
“I choreograph the routines and run through the routines as if it were a dance team until it’s perfectly synchronized,” she explained.
As reported by Team USA Swimming, “Being with her teammates in any capacity gave her the purpose she needed to remind herself what the end goal was; to beat cancer, get back in the water and compete again.”
Brannin was declared in remission and officially deemed cancer-free in April.
The road back to the pool
Brannin was in remission for about a month when her doctors finally granted her permission to re-enter the pool. They had to ensure her immune system could properly handle the chlorine chemicals in the water before she could resume training.
Training after months of being sedentary was far from easy. Brannin had to grapple with the fact that she might never reach the same level of skill she once had. Yet, this didn’t stop her.
This was the comeback.
Brannin was competing at the 2022 Junior Olympics in Gainesville, Fla. just two months later in June – her first competition in almost two years.
The experience gave Brannin a perspective that she never could have imagined. What once felt like a chore – going to practice every day, training extremely hard, competing all the time – became a privilege.
When asked what motto she lives by, Brannin said, “I honestly believe everything happens for a reason.”
“Don’t dwell over the things in life you can’t control. If you can’t change it then and there, don’t stress. There are so many bigger things to stress about.”
Don’t set your intentions without checking TikTok’s algorithm
Brannin doesn’t just use social media to tell her powerful story, she uses TikTok’s algorithm to inspire others – whether those viewers are fellow athletes, fellow cancer patients, or just people who relate to a young person in this great big world.
“It was so random, I just randomly posted a video,” said Brannin. “Then it blew up and I just took it from there. I never had intentions of it blowing up, especially a video having 50 million views, you could never imagine that.”
“The only reason I kept with it (social media) is because people said they were going through the same thing or they knew someone, and that video helped them. That’s why I did it, if there was a chance I could be helping someone,” she added.
“It reminds me of what I'm doing,” Brannin said. “Some days before college I wanted to get rid of TikTok, but I made a photo album of “Why I do what I do” with the sweetest messages from people like ‘you make me feel so heard and understood’ and ‘sharing your story has made me feel less alone’.” And that’s all she needed to know to continue.
Hints of humor
On a weekly basis, Brannin posts “Day in the Life” compilations featuring chemo hype sessions, updates on her health, relatable cancer moments, and she even offers humor to her viewers.
Brannin offers the perfect amount of modernity in her videos – mixing the inevitable sensitivity of cancer with the opportunity for hints of humor. She believes that although being faced with such a harrowing diagnosis can dull all motivation and positivity, if you can, introducing humor can actually be quite comforting.
“I want people to not take everything so seriously,” said Brannin, who is aware of the seriousness of her illness. “Don’t dwell over the things in life you can’t control.”
Brannin spends every moment she can inspiring others, laughing with her friends and loved ones, and trying to increase sarcoma awareness to the world.
It’s the connections Brannin has made in and out of the pool that has gotten her through the most difficult days of her life.
“I have a great support system. My parents have been my best supporters, my sister and my swim coaches as well,” she said. “I hope they know that.”