Mariya Koroleva 2012 London Olympic Duet Member 2012 U.S. Synchronized Swimming National Team member
courtesy of usasynchro.org
"As human beings and especially as athletes, it is important that we take care of our bodies and really do what's right for our health."
"In December 2011, as a member of the U.S. National Team I traveled to Beijing, China for the World Trophy Cup competition. We had two days of practice at the Water Cube before the competition began so we took advantage of the pool time and practiced all day. On the second day of practice, a day before the competition, we were practicing our routines and one of my teammates accidentally hit me with the heel of her foot in the back of my head. It wasn't a hard hit and didn't hurt terribly so I didn't think anything of it. As the practice went on, however, I noticed that I started to get a headache and began to feel disoriented. During our lunch break I told our trainer about what happened and that I wasn't feeling well. She told me to practice in the afternoon and then see if I feel worse. I swam through the afternoon practice as I normally would but I felt significantly worse. My head was pounding, I felt nauseous and dizzy. Every time I turned my head quickly my vision would slur. I went to my trainer immediately after practice and she said that I have a minor concussion and that I need to rest. The competition began the next day so my coach was very concerned about whether or not I can compete in the two programs. We decided that I would swim the highlight routine but that the duet program was too taxing for my body to handle. That night I went to bed at 6 pm and didn't get up the next day until 10 am. I had never slept for so long in my life and I was still exhausted. I went to the pool in the afternoon, barely warmed up the highlight routine, and then competed it a few hours later. I was still having a lot of the symptoms and it was difficult to be in a brightly lit facility with loud music playing. Nevertheless, I swam to the best of my ability. We later decided that I would not compete in the free routine and would only have a minimum role in the combo event. I was to rest and sleep for the rest of our time in China.
When I came back to the U.S. I went to our team doctor and took the Impact Test which tested my cognitive functions. My results were less than stellar and my doctor wanted me to stay out of the water for a week. A week later I took the test again and my results improved only slightly, so I was told to keep resting and not exercising. During this time I came to the pool to watch practice but I still had the constant headaches and nausea and felt extremely slow when it came to processing information. I couldn't watch TV, read, look at the computer screen for too long, and even talk on the phone for more than 15 minutes. Two weeks later I took the Impact Test a third time and my results were better than before but I was still experiencing symptoms. My doctor told me I can start getting back in the pool, but I was not allowed to go back in pattern and put myself at risk for getting hit again. The first time I got in the pool I swam for only 10 minutes before I got a headache and felt nauseous. I had to take my recovery slow, so it took me about a week to build up to a full day's practice. At this time our team was re-choreographing our free program and one day my coach asked me to go in pattern for just a few minutes because she wanted to see a section with all eight swimmers. Within the first five minutes of being in pattern, I (was) hit pretty hard (on) the side of my head. It felt like the world kind of "moved" when I got hit and I got a headache immediately. I got out of the pool right away and saw my doctor and trainer within a few hours. They said that they didn't think that I got another concussion but that I should stay out of the pool for a few days to make sure. I got back into practice a week later.
Since then I have recovered and continue to train full-time on the Olympic Training Squad. I still get occasional headaches on the side of my head where I got hit the second time, but I feel like myself again. It took me about a month and a half to fully recover from the concussion and I learned a lot from it. I think the main thing I would recommend to people is to listen to their bodies. If you are getting the symptoms of a concussion, don't wait to consult a medical professional. You could be doing more harm to your body than you think, so talking to a doctor would be the best plan of action. Also it is extremely important to put your health first. I was at a competition when I got my concussion and I chose to compete on it the next day. In hindsight, if I didn't swim on it maybe I would have recovered faster. But at the time, being in that competition was the most important thing to me so I pushed through and put my health aside. As human beings and especially as athletes, it is important that we take care of our bodies and really do what's right for our health. Luckily I was able to recover from my concussion and return to training, but I took a big risk competing on it. My message to those who are experiencing concussion symptoms is to seek medical help immediately, take the necessary time to rest and let your body and brain recover so that you can go back to your daily life as soon as possible."
Former U.S. Synchronized Swimming National Team member and The Ohio State University National Championship Team member, Katherine Green
"My story has been much more of a psychological and emotional battle than a physical one. I definitely have had my share of the physical side of things too. But for me, the majority of my "suffering" was just trying to cope with the huge changes in my life that were brought on by my head injury.
Let me start at the beginning. I started synchronized swimming when I was 6 years old. I was a water baby that loved to perform, so synchro was a perfect fit for me. I joined the local club team, Indy Synchro, and stayed on the same club all the way through the completion of high school in 2008.
As a 17 year old, I was the first synchronized swimmer from Indiana to make the US Junior National Team. This team was made up of the top ten 14-17 year olds in the country. It was a huge honor and a life-long goal to be able to represent the United States that year. And I was looking forward to continuing my synchro career after national team.
I was recruited to Ohio State, which was another dream come true, because I had always wanted to swim there. I came in as a freshman and swam on B team, which was a great experience for me. That year, we won the national championship for the first time in 5 years!
As a sophomore, things had never looked better for me. I had improved a lot since the year before, earning a spot on A team, a great duet, and the top trio. I was awarded a good deal of athletic scholarship money, which was a huge blessing considering I was from out of state. I also felt like I had stronger relationships with my teammates than I did as a freshman, and I even started a Bible study on the team. I remember being the happiest I had ever been in my life, because I knew I was right where I was supposed to be!
A few months later, competitive season was underway. It was February 3, a Wednesday, and we were having one of our final practices before the competition set for that weekend. We were working on the team routine, and one of my teammates and I were practicing a part together to make sure we had the correct amount of spacing between us. I didn’t realize that we were way too close to each other. I boosted out of the water very rapidly, tipping my head back and arching my back. In the blink of an eye, the top of my head forcefully landed on the sharpest part of her hipbone. Everything happened so fast.
I didn’t pass out, but I knew that it was no small head bump. I was seeing stars and feeling weird, not to mention I was in 10 feet of water. My teammates helped me to the side of the pool, where I laid down on deck for a minute. “Just give me a second, I’ll be fine,” I told my coach. After I collected myself, I got back in the water to continue practicing. That was one of the biggest mistakes I have ever made. Not 30 minutes later, during a full run of our team routine, I hit my head again. But since the meet was in three days, I just couldn’t afford to do anything about it – and I also didn’t feel the need to.
I didn’t go see the athletic trainer or the doctor. I had too much stuff to do, and I felt fine anyway. I went to class and practice the rest of the week. Then on Saturday, the day of our meet, I knew something was seriously wrong. As I was warming up, I felt this awful pressure in my head, similar to a sinus infection, except it was my whole head - not just my sinuses - that felt that way. I took some medicine and tried to keep practicing, but I finally had to stop. The combination of being upside down, deep in the water, and having to hold my breath was too much for my head. I went to see the trainer and she casually told me that I probably had a concussion.
She told me that I probably shouldn’t swim in the meet that night, but she would leave the choice up to me. Of course I swam in the meet. I had so many friends coming to watch. My trainer told me that after the meet was over, I needed to take a few days off and try to recover. I had no idea at the time that that would be the last time I ever competed.
After taking 3 or 4 days off of practice, I went in to see the doctor. I told him how I was feeling, and he seemed confident that all the symptoms I was experiencing would be gone in another 3-5 days. He said I should be fine in 3 weeks at the most. I was really hoping it wouldn’t take that long to recover, because I needed to get back to synchro.
I had to track my symptoms every day and give myself a score based on what symptoms I was experiencing and how severely. For anyone who has ever had to do this, you can understand how hard it is to be your own judge. The chart I had to fill out each day asked me to rank things like my headaches, fatigue, sensitivity to light and sound, irritability, sadness, mental fogginess, difficulty remembering, etc., on a scale of 1 to 5. With pressure from my team and coaches to be back in the water, pressure from the doctors to be honest in reporting to them, the pressure from my studies and teachers to stay on top of things, and mostly the pressure I was putting on myself, it was so confusing to even know how to fill out my symptom chart. I almost always second-guessed myself, saying things like: “am I really feeling this bad?” or “maybe I am just making this all up.” It was an impossible task. I had no way to know what was “normal,” and no one was able to help me.
As time went on, my health was not improving, and finally there was a collective decision that it would be best for me to drop out of school altogether.
In other words, I was hit with the reality that the season of my dreams was over. I was crushed.
I took 6 weeks off of school and 8 months off of swimming, which was tough, but I knew in the long run it would be better for my health and recovery. I got a couple of MRIs done, had to try several different medications, and had to stay home all day during my recuperation. It was a very lonely time for me, and it felt unfair that the rest of the world seemed to keep going without me.
I finally returned to Ohio State and the synchro team for my junior year, and I remember feeling so thankful and optimistic about a fresh new start. I had been symptom-free for a while by that point (at least as far as I could tell).
I had no idea how hard it would be to return, and I don’t just mean physically. Once training became more rigorous, I was having some major issues with migraines and holding my breath, among other things. But on a deeper level, every time I came to the pool, I felt like a dark cloud was hanging over me. I was plagued with memories of the season that I lost. A couple of my teammates were swimming a new routine set to the music of my old trio (the trio which ended up winning at nationals the year I dropped out), and I remember going into the locker room one day and breaking down because the music poignantly reminded me of my head injury.
Each and every practice was like a battle for me. I had a million things to think about after taking so much time off, and it felt like everything that didn’t work in the water was my fault. Plus, I was absolutely scared to death of getting hit again. I can’t fully express how overwhelming it was to have to sort through everything going on psychologically and emotionally, while also trying to balance the rest of my life. I was meeting regularly with a counselor, but it was still too much. The sport would never be the same for me. Synchro was something I loved and had been passionate about for 15 years, and I came to Ohio State specifically for the purpose of swimming. To have it be such a fight every single day was incredibly confusing, discouraging, and exhausting.
To make a long and very complicated story short, I ended up making the decision to stop synchro mid-way through my junior year of school. Maybe it should’ve been an easy decision, considering all that I was going through. But it wasn’t. Part of me felt like I was giving up, and that I was letting everyone down. I was never able to redeem that amazing season that I felt like I had been robbed of. But I was just going to have to let go, because I was hurting too much.
The decision to stop synchro definitely wasn’t the end of the difficulty. It has been an ongoing struggle which at times has still been super painful. But I am at peace knowing it was the right thing to do for my overall health. And on the other hand, the end of synchro isn’t the end of the road for me. I have been able to pursue other passions of mine, and have grown in so many ways.
I believe that God loves me and has a good plan for my life, so even though things have not gone the way I would have had them, I have learned so much about what it means to trust God through this experience with my head injury.
Can you relate to my story? There is so much more to a concussion – or any injury, really – than just the physical aspect. In the midst of difficulty, sometimes the most helpful thing is just to know that someone truly understands.
My advice to anyone going through a tough time like this is to not be afraid to talk to people about what you’re going through. If you’re worried that the way you’re feeling might not be normal, I will just go ahead and tell you now that it is. There is always pressure coming in from all angles, especially as an athlete. Don’t put added pressure on yourself, because that will only make things worse, and might even make your recovery take longer. It’s just not worth it. Your health is the most important thing."