It has officially been a full two years since the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games – on September 17, 2016 I raced in my final race of the Rio Games and as I left the pool deck that evening I could have never imagined the journey that would follow. A lot has happened since Rio, most notably the fact that I am now a wife, although unfortunately our first year and a half of marriage has definitely tested the “through sickness and in health” part of our vows.
(We got married on December 30, 2016 and it was possibly the most magical day of our lives – being surrounded by all of our loved ones was more than we could have ever dreamed of. It also included a very special “walk” down the aisle both with my father and than with Jeremy as we walked arm in arm as husband and wife.)
As many know, in 2014 I had a fairly catastrophic injury to my left arm, a horrific fall that resulted in permanent nerve damage. The year following my injury the “r” word (retirement) was thrown around, but ultimately due to the constant love and support from my parents, now husband and my coach – the very people that kept my dream of Rio alive even when I couldn’t, I made a comeback and made it to my second Paralympic Games in all 7 individual events. Although I didn’t return home two years ago with any medals in tow, I came home with so much more – an unwavering love for a sport that has given me so much throughout my life and the sense of peace you only get when you know that there isn’t anything you could have done to change the outcome. The Rio 2016 Paralympic Games became my symbol of what success truly looks like, redefining traditional thinking and challenging the idea that as an athlete medals and records are what define our success. For me, I quickly learned that a medal doesn’t measure the heart, grit or determination and a medal certainly isn’t an accurate way to measure the journey. The journey to Rio taught me so many vital lessons and it solidified that I don’t swim because I love to win, I swim because I truly just simply love to swim.
As I sat at Closing Ceremonies in Rio I allowed myself to do exactly what I did in London during Closing Ceremonies, reflect not only on the journey it took to get there, but also allow myself to dream about what comes next. I left Rio with many dreams and Tokyo 2020 was definitely at the top of the list, along with getting married and at some point beginning a family along this journey. Although, I never anticipated what the past two years has brought. I was completely pulled from the water for over a year and during that time I went through a battery of tests, procedures and appointments – in many ways it felt like I watched as my body changed on what felt like a daily basis before my own eyes. In June of 2017 we finally made the decision to go through with surgery in hopes of halting the progression and getting me one step closer to not only returning to the pool, but also regaining my quality of life. It wasn’t an easy journey, I spent two weeks in the hospital, however each night I fell asleep with my husband by my side in a cot – my parents where there beside us every step of the way and collectively we fought for months to regain my strength before I ultimately went in for my second surgery in December of 2017.
(Just days following my first surgery – this journey has become incredibly humbling as I literally had to start over following my surgery.)
I celebrated the New Year of 2018 embracing two new “beauty marks” – marks that represent not only this journey, but the fight it has taken – they represent the abdominal spirit to never give up, even in the darkest of moments. I have said it before, but the reality is this injury has challenged me in ways that not even my paralysis did, however, during it all I never lost sight of my dream to return to competition and make a run at what could become my third Paralympic Games. For weeks when I was bed ridden following my surgeries I would literally day dream of the water, visualize my swimming and come up with the simplest of goals that could serve as baby steps to get me one step closer to returning to the water – starting with the simple act of being able to bear weight on my arm again.
I started 2018 knowing this comeback would take everything I had, not just physically but mentally – forcing me to have patience like never before and trust the process, regardless of how slow it has felt at times. I started back in the water in January with about 15 minutes at a time, once a week and slowly built from there – focusing on fundamentals, regaining my feel for the water and just mentally allowing myself to heal.
(PT and Recovery has become a vital part of the process as I rehab back to my daily living and my swimming – it has been all about baby steps)
It has been a journey of one day at a time, week by week and here I am today and I can officially say I am back to competition – I have a long journey a head of me although I have learned one vital lesson – we must be willing to start at the bottom in order to give ourselves a chance to rise to the top. Allowing ourselves to start in the first place can be the most challenging part of any journey, our fear of failure kicks in and suddenly we become more preoccupied by the idea of failing and letting others down than we do with simply letting go and allowing ourselves to start in the first place.
Last weekend as I raced in my first race back since the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, racing nearly two years to the date since my last race, I did so with my husband and my parents by my side – the very people that literally held my hand as I went in for my surgeries and were there when I woke and this past weekend, there they were – yet again, by my side. I cannot say it enough, we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with and I am beyond lucky to have one heck of a tribe – a husband who has been by myside for every twist and turn holding my hand and cheering me on, my parents who have been my greatest supporters since day one and wrap their arms around not only myself, but also my husband as we have faced the uncertainty of my injuries, my coach who came into my life at arguably the bottom of my career in 2015 but has believed in me every step of the way, not to mention my coaches wife and three daughters who have been such an integral part of this journey and the rest of my family who has become the greatest cheering section (I mean seriously, you should see their pictures from Rio – they proudly wore the red, white and blue), my friends, sponsors and greater community and of course my fur baby, Sam – I couldn’t ask for a better tribe as I make my second comeback and go for my third Paralympic Games!
Oh, and as for the starting a family conversation that is on the long list of dreams – our fur baby Sam will fill that space until following Tokyo – I mean, look at this face – he definitely deserves some time as an “only child” for a bit!