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Swimming Through the Pain and Out the Other Side

From a broken back to the Senior Games

Laura Jones | December 31, 2008

In 2004, Kate Fisken sustained an injury during a twist move in yoga class that left her unable to get up off the mat. She says that a 1999 car accident probably created the weakness that exploded that day. In a piece she wrote about her experience for a competition to be part of a documentary on the 2009 National Senior Games, Fisken explains: “I went from neurosurgeon to neurosurgeon, seeking relief from what turned out to be a broken back. I [was diagnosed with] a Level II Spondylolisthesis; my L-4 vertebrae had broken away from the spine. This condition caused excruciating back and leg pain and affected my ability to move and walk. [Initially] all medical advice was to operate and fuse my spine with rods and screws. After much counsel, research and soul searching, I made a commitment to first try an alternative to surgery.  So with the help of my family, friends and various health professionals I decided to try a radical physical therapy approach: to lose weight and begin aggressive rehabilitation, which included a return to swimming.”

Fisken, 68, grew up in Seattle and learned to swim as a child. She competed in high school in Ohio, but college, a stint in the Peace Corps in India, and the obligations of adult life kept Fisken out of swimming for years. Now an avid member of the Montgomery Ancient Mariners, Fisken is grateful for the injury that returned her to swimming.

About choosing therapy and swimming, Fisken explains that “I knew in order to get better I would probably have to have more pain, but I wanted to go forward.”

And it’s not just her back. Like a lot of other Masters swimmers, Fisken says “my knees are shot. But I’m not going to worry about that.” She says she has to be careful on flip turns to plant her feet wide and solidly on the wall.

The doctors she finally found really encouraged her swimming. What made her stick with it when she could only swim a lap and everything hurt? “I love swimming. When I am in the water, it’s the happiest moment of my day, and I’ve always felt that. And once I started back, there was no way I was going to give it up.”

Once she got her pain under control, the competitive bug bit her. “I joined the Ancient Mariners in hopes of training to swim the 2006 One Mile Chesapeake Bay Open Water Swim. I stuck with the team training all year, swam the rough race and placed second in my age group!” Fisken calls the One Mile Bay Swim her “Florence Chadwick moment.” (Chadwick was the first woman to swim the English Channel in both directions. Fisken remembers watching coverage of one of Chadwick’s swims on a seven inch black and white television set with her mother, who Fisken says was a great swimmer in her own right.)

Her teammates then convinced her to try the Albatross Open in 2008 which she loved. Next was the Maryland Senior Olympic trials where she qualified for the National Senior Games and met Nancy Brown, 74, of Maryland Masters, who encouraged her aspirations. Fisken swam the 50 free, 50 back and 100 back in the National Senior Games in 2009 and has qualified for six events for the 2011 Games. “My big goal now is to get a gold medal when I’m 90. I’ll just outlive everyone!”

So in a way, Fisken sees her broken back and the pain she still lives with as a gift because it brought her back to swimming.  “I’m in great shape now. I’m swimming, and that has changed my life. The real silver lining in all this is that I have been reborn.”

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About the Author—Laura Jones

Laura S. Jones, a lawyer by training, has written about sports, health, and science for a variety of publications since 2001. She's also the author of a short story collection, "Breaking and Entering," published in 2011. Jones is an avid, although not speedy, open water swimmer and particularly enjoys 5K and 10K ocean swims with her much faster husband, Rob. She'll occasionally humble herself with a 400IM or 500 free in a pool meet, and a triathlon or two.

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