Volleyball player Agata Mroz was diagnosed with bone marrow disease at 17, but mustered the strength for the sport she loved, helping win two European gold medals for Poland's national women's team.
"With a gold medal around my neck," she once said, "I thought I had conquered this illness. I expected God to smile on me for good."
But it wasn't enough. Several weeks ago, she checked into the hospital to give birth to the healthy daughter doctors warned her not to have.
She then underwent a bone marrow transplant. Again, it wasn't enough: Two weeks after the procedure, she died at age 26, and was buried Monday in her hometown, Tarnow.
In the same Roman Catholic church where Mroz married Jacek Olszewski exactly one year before, her newly widowed husband and other family members dressed in black were joined by young athletes in sports jerseys and weeping townspeople to bid farewell to the young athlete considered one of Poland's best volleyball players.
"She passed into a different world, to a different team, to the main trainer," Bishop Marian Florczyk said. "Her book of life has closed."
Mroz, who died two months after delivering daughter Liliana, was remembered as a heroic figure for her athletic skills on the court and the grace with which she bore her disease.
Ahead of the funeral Mass, her husband pushed their sleeping baby in a stroller to the front of the church, placed an orange rose next to a metallic urn holding Mroz's ashes, then took his seat in a front pew. Only at the moment when a priest blessed her mother's ashes did the child cry. Olszewski then took her in his arms and kissed her softly on the forehead.
But the widower's emotions on his first anniversary also veered to anger. On the day she died, last Wednesday, President Lech Kaczynski announced that he was bestowing the Cross of the Order of Poland's Rebirth, one of the country's highest honors, on Mroz for her athletic achievements.
A presidential envoy tried to present it to him during the Mass, but Olszewski refused it. He expressed anger that state authorities would try to glorify her now, further sensationalizing a death that already had drawn media attention.
"She shouldn't be used in this way," he told the packed congregation.
He then, to applause, kissed the golden wedding ring on his right hand and took his seat again.
Mroz was a teenager when she was diagnosed with the bone marrow disease myelodysplastic syndrome, and was able to compete only off-and-on over the years. She helped push the national team to victory in the European volleyball championships in 2003 and 2005. The team's coach, Andrzej Niemczyk, compared her in 2003 to the Great Wall of China: "in the middle of the net and not to be defeated."
She quit competing last year and married Olszewski on June 9. By that time, however, she was too ill to take a honeymoon. Blood transfusions marked her recent life; fans hoping to save the popular athlete donated 3,170 pints (1,500 liters) of blood for her.
During the Mass, Olszewski knelt in prayer, his hands clasped around the baby stroller and his glance moving between Liliana and a larger-than-life portrait of his wife at the height of health, her long hair framing high cheekbones and full lips.
Mroz was buried in a simple wooden box ringed by white flowers.
At her graveside, Olszewski vowed to raise a daughter that would make her proud.
"I have to tell you, Agata: I will raise her to be a wonderful girl."
In interviews before her death, Mroz said she never regretted the decision to have the child she called her "treasure." Due to fears she would catch an infection, doctors would not let her hold her child _ she could only touch Liliana's palms briefly before she was moved to another hospital for the transplant.
"The news about the child made me feel lucky once again," she said in a February interview with the newspaper Dziennik. "I felt happy that I would feel what it is to be a mother. And that I would give my husband something good of myself."
Associated Press writer Zuzia Danielski contributed to this report.