One moment is all it takes for your life to change forever. One second I was swimming in the pool, training with the Santa Clara Aquamaids, and the next second it was all over. My dream was to be an Olympian, to represent the United States in synchronized swimming, but on October 27th, 2009, my world was turned upside down. At that moment, I had no idea how significant a single kick to my head would be, and I had no clue that I was embarking on a two and a half year roller coaster recovery.
Throughout middle school and the beginning of high school I trained intensely on my own, and with a local synchronized swimming club. As my passion for this sport grew, I excelled at the state and regional levels, and earned captain roles and awards. I pushed myself physically and mentally, and my hard training paid off when I was named to the 13-15 National Synchronized Swimming Team. After months of dedicated training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, we traveled to Calgary, Canada to represent the US at the Pan American Games. Here I experienced the joy of shared passion with athletes from many different countries and backgrounds. This competition re-affirmed my goals of being an Olympian. At the age of sixteen, I uprooted my comfortable suburban Minnesota lifestyle to move across the country to train with the Aquamaids in California.
Initially, leaving behind my loving family, friends, and comfortable school was emotionally and physically draining. Yet, with determination and self-motivation, I quickly adjusted, thriving on the regimen of an elite-athlete training program. I loved the different, advanced style of synchro, the inspiration from the former-Olympian coaches, and the close bonds I formed with my teammates.
I had no “Plan B” – until October 27, 2009. That day, I was accidentally, but powerfully, kicked on the side of the head during practice, leaving me stunned and off-balance. I sat out on the pool deck for a few minutes and took a few ibuprofen because my head hurt, but in five minutes I felt okay and wanted to finish practice. The rest of practice I felt a little out of it, but I thought it was just stress. I had no idea that anything was wrong or that I could be doing further damage to my brain; I had no idea what a concussion actually was. I went home, ate dinner, did homework, and went to bed, thinking that tomorrow would be a better day. However, when I woke up, I knew something was terribly wrong. I felt like I was floating outside my body and that my head was turned inside out. It was the first day of morning headaches, that lasted more than two years. My resulting trip to the emergency room began an extensive recovery.
I began by seeing a local Neurologist in California. Unfortunately, he was not educated on the seriousness of concussions and failed to stress the importance of staying out of activity until I was symptom free. In fact, he told me to resume physical activity as tolerated. Junior National team trials loomed in March and I attempted to push through my symptoms, “as tolerated”. Day after day I attempted to participate in practices, but when this failed because of ceaseless dizziness and headaches, I was forced to search for a different doctor. I found a sports medicine doctor who specialized in concussion recovery who finally administered ImPACT testing as well as other concussion precautions that I should have taken weeks ago. He put me on complete cognitive and physical rest for two weeks, banning me from school work, synchro practices, and even television. The only thing that I had to occupy my time was making friendship bracelets and listening to audio books. I traveled home to Minnesota over winter break, thinking that after a few weeks of rest at home I would be completely healed and that I would be able to make a quick comeback. By mid-January, I was optimistic because my ImPACT scores had improved. However, when I returned to school, just sitting in class became impossible. I thought that after a few weeks of complete rest at home I would have to be better, only to be enormously mistaken.
By mid-February, I was forced to drop out of school completely and return home to Minnesota. Moving back home was heartbreaking. The trauma of the initial concussion paled in comparison to the struggles I endured over the spring and summer. Months of hospitals, testing, specialists across the country, and medicines afforded little relief. Relentless headaches and dizziness sapped my energy and spirit. I felt desperate and hopeless. Time seemed trapped in a vacuum; at times I did not remember the day or month. I reminisced about the old me. Slowly, I attempted to regain my academic footing, restarting school fall of my senior year with one class. That seemingly small step was one of my hardest endeavors. Returning to my old high school seemed like a defeat, abundant with overwhelming physical, emotional, and academic challenges. Everyone knew I left because I was chasing my Olympic dreams, coming back I felt like everyone knew I failed. Somehow I felt like the failing was my fault.
Hope finally surfaced in December of 2010, over a year after my injury, when it was determined that I had a whiplash injury and that my vertebrae misalignment was consistent with being kicked on the side of the head. It was a shocking, revised diagnosis that led to fundamental and meaningful change in my therapy and rehabilitation. Before this re-alignment treatment I was consistently having headaches and dizziness symptoms every day and could not even stay in school more than two hours. I was desperate for a solution and thankful the vertebrae correction helped me - I was able to fully recover cognitively, discontinue the headache medication, and return to being a full-time student.
However, I was still missing the thing I loved the most, synchro. I could not even exercise without provoking horrible symptoms of dizziness, lightheadedness, and headaches. This final part of the recovery was harder than any other, even more abundant with little successes only to be knocked back down with major failures. I tried a graduated increased exercising program and I had good and bad days, but the hardest part was that the good days were so random. I could not figure out why some days I could not exercise at all because of immobilizing headaches and dizziness, while other days my dreams were revived and I was motivated to someday swim again. Compared to my previous high-level athletic lifestyle, barely being able to walk thirty minutes, on a good day, was excruciating. I remember telling myself to just put one foot in front of the other and take one step at a time. I felt like I had to take each day this way, one day at a time. Fortunately, my synchro training equipped me with life-long skills of discipline, sacrifice, stress management, and self-motivation. These lessons powered my physical and psychological recovery.
At this point I was recovered enough to live a “normal” life. I tried to get more involved in other activities in addition to being a full-time high school student. I discovered that my synchro training and concussion injury invoked a passion for the healthcare field and I started to volunteer in medical settings. I also volunteer-coached for a local synchro team. However, this seemingly small activity was overloaded with emotional burdens. I was happy to be able to contribute to the sport I love, but it was also incredibly painful to watch other girls swim, while I was confined to the pool deck. I also felt like I had to hide from the synchro world. I didn’t want anyone to see me because on the outside I looked perfectly fine, no one could tell that I was still suffering from painful symptoms. Sometimes it felt like no one really believed me; I even found it hard to believe that more than two years after my concussion I still suffered from debilitating symptoms.
My family and I searched across the country for a doctor that could help me with the rest of my recovery. With time I got stronger, emotionally and physically. At times I could walk for an hour without symptoms and even kick in the pool for 10 minutes. However, my symptoms still forbade me from more advanced exercise and training. Throughout my recovery, I never gave up, persevering through the challenges that my symptoms presented and planning for my future. As my family and I continued to search for answers, a former physical therapist that had a significant impact on my training, referred me to a sports medicine physician at the University of Minnesota. My new doctor performed many new tests to try to find answers, including an exercise stress test. After she saw me running on the treadmill, the first vigorous exercise I had done in over two years, I think she finally realized the passion I have to get back to synchro and my active lifestyle. She told me that she wanted to help me and did not give up. She had me try a new medication and finally I felt the “dark cloud” inside my head lift.
The most exciting moment during my recovery happened on a Monday morning. I woke up and felt amazing, I did my running exercise test on the treadmill completely symptom free and decided that today was the day that I felt well enough to swim again. Walking into the pool area filled with the warm scent of chlorine brought back so many memories. I snapped on my cap and goggles and gazed into the pool. Taking a deep breath, I dove in, and began to swim. After more than two years, I finally felt like I was home, and I could not stop smiling.
Today I have graduated from the University of Southern California with a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology. In September I will begin my Doctorate of Physical Therapy at Columbia University, and plan to complete a neurorehabilitation residency afterwards. As a survivor, I have become mentally stronger, and prepared for the new challenges ahead.