As I lifted one foot at a time into the water, I sat on the edge of the pool with my wheelchair behind me and my father, coach and two former teammates standing within an arm’s length. I looked onto the water in front of me, I sat with my hands gripping to the side of the pool and my feet dangling in the water. Although, as I sat there I found myself consumed with fear. It had been exactly 78 days since that fateful day on Martin Luther King Jr. day, a day that changed my life in ways I could have never expected. I was just 18 years old, I graduated high school eight months prior and due to complications of an epidural injection that I was receiving for back pain, I became paralyzed. Every question possible for my future came rushing in, it felt like my life was sent into a spiral and I couldn’t catch any traction.
Having been a lifelong competitive swimmer I found myself back at the pool on April 8, 2008 and as I sat on the edge of the pool deck my fears took hold. Moments later I took my leap of faith, I pushed off the side of the pool deck and left my wheelchair behind. Within four or five strokes that very black line I grew up following felt like home again, my wheelchair was left behind and I was moving forward, I was in control. In that moment I felt safe, I felt comfort and for the first time in 78 days I felt at peace. While my life outside of the water was still filled with uncertainty in that moment, that black line was my constant, it was my solace.
My life over the black line has taught me how to find peace and healing, how to hope and dream, how to love and be loved, how to take control and ultimately it has taught me how to fight back. Following my paralysis on January 21, 2008 I had two choices, I could fall victim to my circumstance or I could pull myself up and move forward, thankfully I chose the later. From day one I have refused to allow my paralysis to make me a victim, I believe we only fall victim if we choose to and I knew that I had too much life to live to allow my injury to victimize me, so I began to fight and the black line became my battle field.
Swimming has never been about winning, in fact as a kid my parents would joke with my sisters and I and tell us “just don’t get last” and then if we did, if we were smiling, they didn’t care. Swimming in our house has always been built off a love for the water, a love for the sport and for me a love for the greater swimming community. It has served as my safe haven my entire life, no matter what life has brought throughout my 20-year career, I have always known that the black line will always be there. It is over that very line, no matter what pool that I have found hope, courage, peace, forgiveness and strength. I haven’t solved the world’s problems following that line, but I certainly have solved my own. I have mended heartbreak, celebrated the greatest triumphs and mourned the deepest of loss following that line, and it has always been there for me all the same.
There is a sense of peace knowing that whether I find myself over the black line in a moment of uncertainty looking for clarity, or whether I find myself over the black line with my coach at the end of the lane pushing me with each passing set to become the best athlete I can become, that it is always there all the same with each stroke. Following my paralysis in 2008 I literally watched myself come back to life while following that line, I built a career over that line and as a result I have had the honor of represent Team USA at countless international competitions. I have competed at two Paralympic Games, I have had the honor of sitting atop the podium and hearing our national anthem play and seeing our flag raise, but the greatest honor I have had in my career is to have witnessed countless times the power of sport first hand. There is something so incredibly humbling knowing that in our greatest moments of success, it is about so much more than ourselves.
So here is to the black line that taught me how to live, that has brought me back to life in my darkest of moments, a place that has served as my constant through all the twists and turns of life and above all a place that has taught me how to love with a deep-rooted level of respect. I am who I am because of that black line and it is because of that very line that I have not only lived but I am alive.