As William “Billy” Gravley, a member of the first UNLV School of Medicine class, walks into the school’s editorial offices, the former All-American swimmer still appears to be enjoying the endorphin rush that came with his recent morning swimming routine of a 400-meter freestyle, a 400-meter medley (butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke, and freestyle), a two-by-200 meter medley drill and twelve 150- meter freestyles.
If his smile was any broader, he’d dislocate his jaw. Public Television’s Mr. Rogers never had Gravley’s unbridled enthusiasm for a beautiful day in the neighborhood. “It’s just beautiful here nine months of the year, perfect for triathlon training,” said the third-year medical student, a former Centennial High School valedictorian who helped lead his school to state cross country championships in 2008 and 2010.
When you meet Gravley, whose undergraduate major at Johns Hopkins University was neuroscience, it doesn’t take you long to understand just how much he appreciates the natural positives of exercise. On this day, he could have been auditioning for a spot on the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, the federal advisory committee promoting health and active lifestyles for all Americans.
“Everybody should have a physical fitness routine,” said Gravley, quickly adding that you needn’t be a competitive athlete to benefit from exercise. “We only get one body. It’s a waste not to take care of it,” he said. “Medical school and residency are taxing. The more fit you are, the more prepared you are for challenging work.”
While Gravley relishes “nature’s high,” the feel-good chemicals called endorphins that are spawned by intense exercise, he also appreciates how exercise — it preserves brain function over the long haul — helps reduce the levels of cortisone and adrenaline in the body, which in high doses cause stress. Reducing negative chemicals and increasing positive chemicals obviously results in a major shift toward feeling happier.
“Exercise creates a sense of emotional well-being,” says Gravley, the son of physical education teacher/swim coach Dwight Gravley, who played tennis at UNLV, and Michelle Gravley, a clinical psychologist who helps children and adolescents.
At first blush, it would appear that Gravley, who’s competed in triathlons and hopes to one day compete in the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, never sees the glass as half empty. But, he says, sometimes in the past he put too much pressure on himself to achieve more academically and athletically, concentrating too long on why he was making mistakes. “That behavior wouldn’t allow me to move forward. It hindered me more than helped me. I was dwelling on what I did wrong.”
Coming to the realization that his family would love him no matter what — coupled with coaches at Johns Hopkins convincing him that he should trust that the hard work he puts in will carry him to his best effort — has largely stopped him from spending too much time focusing on what he did wrong.
“I have come to see the wisdom of what the Chinese writer Bing Xin wrote: “Forget whatever should be forgotten, so that you can remember what should be remembered.”
Gravley started swimming competitively in elementary school. By the time he was in high school he was swimming 25-30 hours a week, with the rest of his time largely spent studying or sleeping. His drive came from his parents.
“They did a good job of always encouraging me. They wanted to know how I felt about what I was doing,” he said. “They wanted me to explore, see what I was capable of. They didn’t want me to feel satisfied. They helped me understand there was always something to build on, something to improve.”
As a teen, he said he began to see how skills learned through sports — goal setting, focus, team building, motivation and resiliency — helped him in all areas of life. “The skills are generalizable — you learn how to push yourself.”
The observations of Dr. Denton Cooley, the founder of the Texas Heart Institute and long recognized as one of the world’s greatest heart surgeons before his death three years ago, buttress Gravley’s argument about “athletic transferable skills.” Cooley, who led the University of Texas to the Final Four in basketball, noted: “I’ve always thought my exposure to competitive sports helped me a great deal in the operating room. It teaches you endurance and it teaches you how to cope with defeat and with complications of all sorts....Playing basketball you have to make decisions promptly, and that’s true in the OR as well.”
Much of Gravley’s competitive swimming was done through the Sandpipers of Nevada, the only swim club in Southern Nevada to produce an Olympian, Cody Miller. Gravley earned USA Swimming Scholar All-America honors in high school and was recruited by Johns Hopkins.
Well aware that the Baltimore university is a world leader in scientific research, it didn’t take long for Gravley to decide to go to school on the East Coast. “I was very interested in how the body functioned and I knew Johns Hopkins could give me a fantastic learning opportunity...the depth of thinking and thought by my peers and professors blew me away. It opened me up to a whole other depth of thinking.”
He succeeded academically and in the pool, winning NCAA Division III All-America honors in the 1,650-yard freestyle and the 400 individual medley. While at Johns Hopkins, he decided to become a physician, wanting to help people have as much quality life as possible. “People deserve the right to experience what they want in life.”
A Poetic Experience
In addition to his love for the sciences at Johns Hopkins, he enjoyed creative writing, writing a poem, “Tommy,” in homage to his grandfather. One stanza reads:
You and Grandma took me up to Zion that one time.
I sat on the back of the
motorcycle, watching the white lines
twist along I-15.
You said bikers had to watch out for
snakes in the pavement, the hot tar could
make you lose control.
That would have been way more
badass, if a snake had bitten you instead of
just a little bit of cholesterol.
At least it took you quick, no pain.
At least they said that.
Interested in Immunotherapy
The opportunity to do research last summer at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City has Gravley thinking about becoming a hematologist-oncologist, a physician specializing in the diagnosis, treatment and/or prevention of blood diseases and cancers such as iron-deficiency anemia, hemophilia, sickle-cell disease, leukemia and lymphoma. “Immunotherapy is particularly exciting,” he said.
Now in the clinical portion of his medical education — he spends many days in hospitals — Gravley said he has no doubt that his time at the UNLV School of Medicine is providing him with the foundation he needs before choosing his specialty.
“The faculty is fantastic. They’re excited to help me build my skill set. I feel my education has been great. They’ve helped me realize that my decision to become a physician is the correct one.”