Record-setting swimmer finds calling at UT Southwestern Medical School

Kids across the U.S. grow up with a love of swimming. Only a select few can boast they broke a high school record held by Michael Phelps, the American competitive swimmer who became the most decorated Olympian of all time.

Gray Umbach
Gray Umbach UT Southwestern Medical Center

“I’m sure it was one of his slower records,” said Gray Umbach, a fourth-year medical student at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “But after I broke it, my first impulse wasn’t to celebrate. Instead, I kept thinking, ‘How I could improve?’”

That same drive motivated him to enroll in medical school. Later this month, he will graduate with a 4.0 grade point average to pursue his residency in neurosurgery at UC San Francisco.

Aquatic beginnings

Born in Michigan, Mr. Umbach grew up outside Houston in The Woodlands, Texas. His last name foreshadowed his aquatic talents. Umbach is the German word meaning ‘near a brook.’

From age five through his undergrad years at Stanford University, Mr. Umbach plied a pool’s waters, often diving in at dawn. He swam competitively on the varsity team and was named the Pac-12 Conference's Scholar Athlete of the Year for men's swimming and diving before hanging up his goggles at age 21.

Gray Umbach with his parents Steven Umbach and Elizabeth Umbach
Gray Umbach, center, poses with his parents Steven Umbach, left, and Elizabeth Umach at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way, Washington, after Stanford won the Men's Pac-12 Swimming Championship on March 5, 2016. Provided by Gray Umbach

Swimming taught Mr. Umbach how to pursue his goals with a single-minded focus, a trait that served him well as a medical student. But when he fell short of his dreams of swimming competitively after college, he also learned how to deal with the disappointment of not reaching those goals.

“It’s about bouncing back from failure,” he said. “While there is disappointment in swimming if you don’t reach the medals podium, it is so imperative in medicine to learn from falling short, all to improve patient care.”

From swim trunks to white coat

Mr. Umbach graduated from Stanford with a chemical engineering degree, and his growing interest in medicine eventually steered him towards UT Southwestern.

“I recall listening to a M.D./Ph.D. student make a presentation, and I was so intrigued – especially by medicine’s human connection,” said Mr. Umbach. “What struck me is the privilege to enter a patient’s life and have them confide and trust in you on a very deep level.”

UT Southwestern’s sterling reputation and proximity to home made his decision easy.

Gray Umbach with peers and mentors of Estabrook College at UT Southwestern Medical School
Gray Umbach, second from left, poses with classmates and mentors from Estabrook College, one of the six small learning communities that make up UT Southwestern Medical School in May 2017. Provided by Gray Umbach

“I can’t stress enough how impressed I was with UT Southwestern’s emphasis on clinical experience and its diverse patient populations, whether from Children’s Medical Center or Clements University Hospital. I knew UT Southwestern could teach me how to take care of everyone from every kind of background.”

Mr. Umbach arrived at UT Southwestern in 2016. Within a year, he knew neurosurgery would be his chosen specialty.

Fueling his enthusiasm for the field was Dr. Bradley Lega, an Associate Professor of neurological surgery, neurology, and psychiatry at UT Southwestern. Mr. Umbach spent over four years in Dr. Lega’s laboratory and considers him a key mentor.

Gray Umbach speaks about his motivations for becoming a doctor for Match Day on March 3, 2021. UT Southwestern Medical Center

“Dr. Lega taught me what it means to be a neurosurgeon-scientist,” said Mr. Umbach. “He is one of the most genuine and approachable figures from my time in medicine.”

As a fourth-year student, Mr. Umbach worked intensively with Dr. Lega and other faculty in the Department of Neurological Surgery.

“I was particularly drawn to my field because neurosurgery deals with a lot of very ill patients,” Mr. Umbach said. “While it is somber and serious, it also feels so gratifying to improve the condition of these patients. When these patients open up to you, telling you about their struggles, I admire their bravery. I find it immensely moving.”

As for his next chapter, Mr. Umbach spoke with conviction about the field’s potential for breaking down research and clinical barriers.

“Neurosurgery will be at the heart of some of medicine’s more revolutionary discoveries. For a kid who was always fascinated by the wonders of the universe, it is a dream come true to be involved with the human brain, a 3-pound organ that contains our species’ greatest mysteries and is truly medicine’s last remaining enigma.”