Wish granted: Cancer-fighting teen swims with Point Defiance sharks

Craig Lehman just wants to be an average teenager, yet he’s anything but.

Yes, he likes his girlfriend, his car, zombies and trendy neon-colored shoes.

But he’s also battled a malignant brain tumor for the last three years, maintaining a 4.0 GPA and positive attitude while undergoing a month of radiation and 18 cycles of chemotherapy within 15 months.

So when the Make-A-Wish Foundation came calling, the dark-haired 18-year-old from Wichita, Kansas, was ready for a little fun.

He asked to be a zombie in the popular television show “The Walking Dead.” Because that wasn’t possible, he asked to swim with sharks.

That’s what brought Lehman to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium on Friday.

In anticipation of his visit to Tacoma, Lehman and his father, Aaron, became certified scuba divers so they could be eye to eye with the sharks in the aquarium without being inside a shark cage.

“I didn’t want to be stuck behind bars,” the teen said. “I’ve always wanted to get up close and personal, and you can’t do that in a cage.”

The certification meant a lot of book work and some test runs in pools and lakes in Kansas.

Lehman stuck with it, studying hard and overcoming extreme fatigue from his illness. He still walks with a cane — covered in stickers, of course — but hopes to one day learn to run again.

On Friday, as his mother watched him inside the shark tank, she grinned and shook her head in amazement.

Melanie Lehman said some people told her she was crazy to let her son be in such close proximity to sharks and to learn how to scuba dive while continuing to battle a brain tumor.

“I’d rather he do something he wants to do than waste away in a hospital bed,” she said. “To be here, that’s God’s plan. He’s right where he needs to be. It’s a miracle that he’s here.”

Lehman was diagnosed with medulloblastoma on Feb. 14, 2012. He spent his 16th and 17th birthdays in chemotherapy and used a wheelchair because of side effects of the brain tumor.

He didn’t let that stop him, though.

The determined teen graduated high school on time. He missed being on the track team, so he participated the last three years in an annual 5K to raise money for research into brain tumors.

His family pushed him in a wheelchair the first two years. Last year, he walked.

Event coordinators presented him with a faith award because of the courage he’s shown facing his illness.

His scans have been clear for the last 18 months. Doctors told him he needs clear scans for five years before they can stop worrying.

For now, the family is grateful for each other and the five-day trip to the Pacific Northwest.

In addition to the shark dive at Point Defiance, they also got a private tour of the LeMay-America’s Car Museum, will take a harbor cruise and attend a glass-blowing class. They also plan to dine atop the Space Needle.

“It’s awesome to watch him do this stuff,” Aaron Lehman told NPR. “I mean, considering last year he was in a wheelchair and he’s just made so many strides, it’s just amazing.”