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Human Interest

Swimming is Life’s Biggest ‘Get-to-Do’

After a gruesome accident and loss, one swimmer finds her way back to the pool

Kris Assel | July 26, 2016

The day Dara Torres hit the water in her fifth Olympics, my reentry to swimming began. She swam a sub-25-second 50 freestyle while I clung to the wall like a terrified 4-year-old on the first day of lessons.

While cycling five weeks earlier, a pickup truck doing 50 miles per hour nailed me. Impact from hitting the road broke my pelvis in half, splitting it in the center front with 4 centimeters displacement and on the left side in the back. My bladder was torn and I had internal bleeding, a grade-three shoulder separation, and bruised ribs and sternum that made breathing hurt.

After arriving at the hospital, my lung collapsed, requiring a chest tube for five days. I had chipped a couple of teeth and had a few cuts that required stitches, yet surprisingly little road rash. I was in the hospital for a month, followed by another three months at home in bed, then wheelchair, walker, and finally walking. I was in sad shape and regret to this day how badly I scared my family.

I chose cycling as my fitness sport when I had left competitive swimming 28 years earlier. Other than occasional splashing around in the ocean, a lake, or fitness club pool, I’d barely swum a lap. Yet, thanks to 12 years of workouts as an age grouper, I was always confident in water.

Until that day, clinging to the wall in our condo pool.

My partner, Greg, wheeled me poolside and lowered me in. I perched on a lower step in the shallow end and grabbed the wall.

After weeks in bed, floating was a relief. Just two days earlier I’d achieved my “get out of the hospital” milestone of lifting each leg—independently and unassisted—1 inch off the bed. Hanging on the pool gutter, I couldn’t kick my legs, but the weightlessness felt like heaven.

At that point I wasn’t able to roll over in bed on my own, or even get to a sitting position without assistance. My body simply didn’t have the strength and had lost the know-how. When I got in the pool, my brain knew how to swim and sent out signals that my body couldn’t respond to. This was new and so was my fear of the water. So I clung to the wall.

But the swimmer in me had kicked in the day after the accident. I trusted the doctors and physical therapists as completely as I had trusted my coach. They told me what to expect and I believed them without question. I was going to walk again. They laid out a plan of action, milestones, and a timeline. They told me I had a lot of hard work ahead. I knew that getting back on my feet would tax me physically and mentally. Sometimes I’d get discouraged; sometimes I would hurt. Years of swimming taught me that if I focused on my goal and invested “X” effort, I’d get “Y” in return. Right then I told the doctors that I’d do 110% of whatever they threw at me.

In the first days after surgery, 110% meant sitting upright in a wheelchair for an hour. A few weeks later it meant coercing a nurse into helping me into a wheelchair and chasing down my physical therapist, who’d blown off our morning session. When we found her eating lunch, I told her that I was there for two-a-days and was doing my part. She laughed and said no one had ever “demanded PT.” I got my two-a-day that day and every day thereafter.

During the first month at home, I was prescribed exercises in bed, very limited use of a walker while bearing weight only on my right side, and, at my urging, minor movements in the pool under a watchful eye.

I couldn’t even lean far enough forward to spit toothpaste into the sink instead of down my chin, so swimming was a long way off. Doing butterfly or a flip turn—unfathomable. I accepted I’d never do either again and was fine with that. After all, I really hadn’t done either, regularly, in the past 30 years. Being able to hike with my family and walk my dog were my goals.

At 8 weeks post-accident, I was psyched to start outpatient physical therapy three times per week. Greg drove me to the first session. Despite his concern, I insisted on navigating the seven blocks home using my walker. Even with a long break for frozen yogurt mid-route, walking seven continuous blocks was aggressive. It took everything I had and I arrived home as sweaty and depleted as if I’d run a marathon. And I couldn’t have been prouder.

The next week I was getting to and from the clinic under my own power with my trusty walker, clocking 40 minutes each way. It took another month to break 20 minutes, almost a normal walking pace, which was a monumental milestone.

I continued to “swim” in the condo pool. Eventually, I let go of the wall and hobbled across the shallow end. I beamed with pride when I was able to do a pathetic doggy paddle the whole length of the tiny pool. A month or so after that, I was finally able to do a slow, awkward freestyle.

Right as I was hitting full recovery a year after the accident, something a billion times worse happened. Greg died unexpectedly.

The shock, my grief, and all the issues I had to deal with—managing Greg’s affairs, a move, a new job, an hour-long commute, taking over our family business, and most importantly, raising a traumatized 14-year-old daughter completely on my own—consumed me. I simply didn’t have the time, energy, or emotional bandwidth to handle one more thing, including working out.

Inactivity combined with stress from the drastic life changes caused real physical issues. My normally low blood pressure bordered on hypertension. My chest and ribs, which had finally nearly healed, were inflamed by my sobbing and hurt again. From the pelvic injuries, I was stiff, had cramping deep in my backside, and nerve zingers down my left leg. I knew I needed exercise, but giving up precious evening time with my daughter wasn’t an option, so I sacrificed a few hours a week of my already limited sleep.

I headed back to the pool to ease my physical pain and discovered it helped even more with the emotional pain. Swimming was soothing and familiar. I found solace in the mindless repetitive motion of following the black line. The pool was a quiet, peaceful escape from a world that no longer made sense. It was my comfort.

Physically, I got stronger and hurt less. My stroke took on a rhythm familiar from years past. I tried flip turns, which, initially, were slow-motion somersaults like 6-year-olds do. What I had done thousands of times without a thought now required major concentration. With practice, I was soon snapping my legs over and getting a solid push-off, smiling underwater at my big accomplishment.

I started doing sets instead of just laps. I even managed a few strokes of fly. I set small goals and achieved them, giving me a sense of control over one little corner of my chaotic life. Pool time was the only time when I felt like I had any control.

The confidence I gained carried beyond swimming, helping me deal, one by one, with the hurdles thrown at me. When overwhelmed, I’d channel Dori from the Disney film, “Finding Nemo,” and chant under my breath “just keep swimming, swimming.”

I grew proficient enough that working out on my own became boring and I wanted more. I found a fledgling Masters club near my job in Redlands, Calif. It was mostly younger triathlete guys who, at first, I could keep up with only if I wore fins. Soon, I kept pace in most sets without them.

Now, nearly seven years after losing Greg and eight years post-accident, my life has changed again. This time it’s by choice: I sold Greg’s business, took a new job, and moved to Carlsbad, Calif. And our daughter is striking out on her own. Swimming is a constant, though. I work out with a Masters group at a beautiful new outdoor facility minutes from my home. I’m in the pool a few nights a week and on Sunday mornings.

For an attitudinal check Greg often asked me, “Is this a ‘get-to-do’ or a ‘have-to-do?’” For a while swimming was a “have-to-do” to keep me pain-free. Three years into Masters Swimming, it’s now a big “get-to-do.”

Today, I feel good and I don’t have much pain at all. My blood pressure is back in my low-normal range. I’m physically stronger, have dropped some weight, and I’m in better shape than I’ve been in 20 years.

I don’t swim as fast as I’d like. In fact, I struggle to swim times I did when I was 11, which is frustrating. Then it occurs to me that the simple act of walking to the pool is a victory for me. Swimming butterfly, a bonus.

And I continue to get a little thrill from doing flip turns.

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About the Author—Kris Assel

Kris Assel grew up in Canton, Ohio, and in 1977, swam in Ohio's first-ever girls' state high school swim championships. After a 32-year swim hiatus, she now swims with a Masters group in Carlsbad, Calif., and works as the marketing director for Solatube International.

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