A diagnosis of bone marrow disease at 17 did not stop volleyball player Agata Mroz from helping Poland's national women's team win two European gold medals since 2003.
"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 the benevolence proved fleeting. The disease returned and she died just two months after giving birth to a daughter, a pregnancy she said made her feel lucky all over again.
At a funeral Monday in the Roman Catholic church where she married Jacek Olszewski exactly one year before, the 26-year-old athlete was remembered for her heroism in sports and the grace with which she bore the disease.
Her husband and other family members were joined by young athletes in sports jerseys and weeping townspeople who gathered to honor Mroz, who was 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."
Before the funeral Mass, Olszewski pushed a stroller with the couple's sleeping daughter 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 veered to anger. Last Wednesday _ the day Mroz died of an infection following a marrow transplant _ President Lech Kaczynski announced she would be given the Cross of the Order of Poland's Rebirth, one of the country's highest honors, for her athletic achievements.
A presidential envoy tried to present it to Olszewski during the Mass, but he refused it. He scolded state authorities for trying to glorify Mroz now _ further sensationalizing a death that had already received much 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 diagnosed at 17 with myelodysplastic syndrome, and was able to compete 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 coach, Andrzej Niemczyk, described her in 2003 as "the 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 for a honeymoon. Her recent life was marked by blood transfusions; her fans donated 3,170 pints of blood hoping to save her life.
Although doctors had cautioned Mroz against having children because of her health, she said she never regretted the decision.
"The news about the child made me feel lucky once again," she said in an interview with the newspaper Dziennik in February. "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."
Due to fears of infection, doctors would not let Mroz hold her baby _ she was only allowed to touch her palms briefly before being moved to another hospital for a bone marrow transplant.
During the Mass, Olszewski knelt in prayer, his hands clasped around the baby stroller and his glance moving between his daughter, Liliana, and a larger-than-life portrait of his wife at the height of health, her long hair framing the high cheekbones and full lips.
At the graveside in Tarnow, 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."
Associated Press writer Zuzia Danielski contributed to this report.