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Rebecca Ehmling at the finish of the GJCC triathlon

Swimming to Live: Rebecca's Story

by Phillippe Diederich

There is no doubt that swimming enhances lives. For many Masters swimmers, the physical, mental and spiritual lift of swimming allows them to live full, rich lives. But for Middle Tennessee Swim Club member Rebecca Ehmling swimming has done more than that—she says swimming saved her life.

Three years ago, Ehmling, 50, was diagnosed with a form of rheumatoid arthritis with fibromyalgia, a degenerative autoimmune disease that can deform joints and cause severe pain. “At first I thought I had the flu, but three days later I couldn’t get out of bed without help or walk without assistance. My feet and hands swelled up to three times their normal size,” Ehmling says. After weeks of tests she was diagnosed and the specialist told her flat out that she should resign herself to spending most of her days in a wheelchair.

Ehmling had a son in high school and a daughter in middle school. She had just returned to the workforce after being a fulltime mom and homemaker. She went to the Internet to see what she could dig up, to see if there was a way to beat or live with this disease. “The same thing kept coming up; swimming, swimming, swimming,” Ehmling says.

Unfortunately, Ehmling did not grow up in an athletic family. Her swimming experience was purely recreational. But when her children were young she had taken them for swimming lessons at the Sea Star Swim School in Hendersonville and she remembered seeing adults in the pool in the evenings. She went to the school and told USMS coach and Sea Stars owner Ron Chlasta, “‘I need to swim to save my life’, and he said, ‘you came to the right place,’” Ehmling recalls.

“My first swim lesson was hysterical,” Ehmling explains. “I never swam with a cap and goggles before. The instructor showed me the strokes. I swam with my eyes closed and crashed right into the side wall.”

Eight months after she started swimming, the same doctor who diagnosed her was amazed. She was not going down the bad road. He told her the progression of the disease had actually stopped and was starting to reverse itself. When Ehmling told the doctor she’d been swimming, the doctor was so impressed, he enrolled his own children in a swimming program.

“The disease brought me to swimming, and swimming changed my life for the better,” Ehmling says. Not only is her health better, she has also received two major promotions at her job. “Swimming has touched every aspect of my life,” she says.

Ehmling also inspired her son Miles, 21, into following his own dreams. What his mother achieved though swimming gave him the confidence to go though the Navy’s boot camp training so he could attend the Navy Nuclear Power School in Charleston, SC.

Ehmling’s doctor uses her as an example and talks to his other patients about her. She has allowed him to share her information with others. “Some of them have contacted me and I try and help them,” Ehmling says.

Eight months after she started swimming, Ehmling competed in the Barbara Stevens Memorial meet at Bowling Green, Ky. and came in 3rd place in her age group (45-50) in the 100-meter, and in May ‘08 she competed in a triathlon in Nashville. She says she does not get a chance to compete much because of her job. “I’d like to swim five days a week,” she says, but she generally makes it into the pool about three times a week. Her work as an account manager for Fossil involves a lot of travel, but she says the company is good about booking hotels with large pools or near a YMCA where she can get a few laps in.

Ehmling says the swimming experience is unlike anything else. “I used to think adult swim teams were for former college swimmers who wanted to compete,” she says. Ehmling swims with people like herself, including a teammate with RA and a cancer survivor, as well as with collegiate swimmers. “They’re all just as excited and cheer me on. They lift me up. It’s totally amazing,” she says.

Three and a half years after the diagnosis and being told she should get used to the idea of spending half her time in a wheelchair, Rebecca Ehmling has beat the odds. She no longer walks with a cane and has competed in three sprint triathlons. “As adults, we forget how to challenge ourselves and find the excitement of achieving a goal,” Ehmling says, “I live a fuller life after swimming than before.”

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