Challenges arise in everyone’s life. Knowing how to face them and how to learn from them separates those who overcome a challenge from those who do not.
I proudly swim for the University of Georgia, which happens to be one of the foremost dominant programs in the nation, winning two NCAA championships in the past three years. Being a student-athlete at UGA, I know that challenges are present every day, whether in the form of a practice that appears insurmountable or studying for a dreaded exam.
Facing certain challenges can cause stress and frustration, which I have recent experience in. This past December I underwent surgery on my right shoulder and nothing has been more frustrating than coping with the injury before surgery and with the recovery process that ensued. Despite the irritating frustration and incredible challenge, this experience has been the most rewarding in my life thus far.
Throughout the many sports that I’ve participated in, including track and tennis, I had only ever been injured once with stress fractures. That changed during the summer of 2014 over Fourth of July weekend. I rarely go to lakes or do things that could potentially harm my being an athlete, but that weekend I decided to have some fun and go to my friend’s lake house.
Though I only went inner-tubing twice over the three days of being there, that second time was enough to cause an injury. Though I didn’t want to admit it, I remember feeling a jerking within my shoulder when I tried to hang onto the inner-tube while the speedboat flung me into the air off a wave.
The rest of the weekend I just “relaxed” on the boat while trying to shake off the dull throbbing pain in my shoulder. If you don’t know anything about the sport of swimming, just know that having any shoulder injury is very bad.
Swimmers complete miles in the pool every day with a constant repetitive rotation of our shoulders, which puts a lot of stress on the joint and surrounding muscles. Any injury, however minor, is a threat to a swimmer’s career.
After that weekend, I spent about a month modifying my training in order to tolerate practices. Unbeknownst to me, my bicep tried compensating for the lack of strength in my shoulder; so when I went to see a doctor, I was diagnosed with having bicep tendonitis, which was true, but not the main problem.
During those weeks I took time out of the pool solely to rehab my bicep tendon. By the time I arrived to UGA, the tendonitis was much better, but not gone. Furthermore, right when I started practicing with the team my shoulder immediately flared back up, and my tendon was still a bit inflamed. No amount of rehabilitation was able to improve my shoulder, so in early September I went in for an MRI.
Turns out I had distal clavicular osteolysis from separating my AC joint. The only logical response to this was to say that I did it on that inner-tube on July 4th. I knew that because the pain started from that day forward.
From the separation and osteolysis, I had bone spurs that took up the majority of my joint space, causing a bone-on-bone grinding action every time I moved my arm in the pool. This explained why my shoulder hurt every time I took a stroke at practice.
With this injury, surgery was the only way it could be fixed. This fact frustrated me more than anything. Coming into UGA, I had the mindset of training harder than ever in order to improve in my sport and in my overall health. However, my shoulder inhibited me from doing that. I couldn’t give 100% because my shoulder wouldn’t allow it.
Since my shoulder restrained me, I was held back from competition throughout the fall. To me, nothing is more frustrating than being restricted. Seeing my team train and compete without me was defeating. As a temporary solution, I received a cortisone injection into my AC joint. After that didn’t help, I faced the inevitable and decided to schedule shoulder surgery, knowing my first season would be a flop.
Luckily, my coaches graciously allowed me to take a medical redshirt, which would save my first year of eligibility, giving me the opportunity to start anew as a freshman in the fall of 2015. Knowing this gave me some of my inner peace back while trying to cope with the recovery process. After having surgery in December 2014, I came to discover many things about myself and about my sport, which I would have only known through this injury.
One’s sport should be a stepping-stone into learning and preparing for later things in life. Being an athlete requires one to overcome difficult practices, recover from a failure, manage success with humility, and understand time management. I’ve always had good time management, but with my injury I had more free time than ever, and I realized how easily I could take my free time for granted.
Instead of using time to study, it could casually be thrown away by watching TV, partying, or just simply procrastinating. I wasted some of this time by doing those things, discovering later that the new extra time that I had was an opportunity to improve.
Having this extra time, I dedicated much of it to my studies and improved my grades as the semester went on. My injury, therefore, taught me how to manage my time more efficiently and delegate more of it to studying.
I realized what my actual goals were in life (at least for now). Being injured is awful, but it made me realize how badly I wanted to improve as an athlete. From December to March, I couldn’t swim. Before my injury, the longest time I had been out of the water from training was two weeks, so this lapse in my training was extremely tough to adjust to.
Each day I did cardio in the gym that overlooks the pool that my team practices in. Seeing my team practice every day was frustrating because I was not with them, but seeing them practice made me want to do everything in my power to get my shoulder healthy and get back in the pool as quickly as possible.
This passion didn’t only apply to the pool however—my desire to improve carried over into my academics and future goals as well. I had a lot of time to think while doing cardio every day, and my thoughts turned into the goals, both long-term and short-term, that I am striving to reach.
Most important to me, I realized the importance of adjusting to and overcoming adversity. I have faced many failures, as well as successes, throughout the sport of swimming. Even when I thought a certain failure was the end of the world, it wasn’t.
From having numerous conversations with my family, my dad in particular, and my coach, I learned that what matters most is how one addresses the failure or setback and works to overcome and learn from it.
Recovering from surgery has not been easy, but all of the challenges that I’ve faced along the way this past half year have been worthwhile and eye opening. Though the first couple of days after my surgery were painful and it seemed that it would take a lifetime to recover, here I am six months later about to compete for the first time in almost eight months.
My injury, and the long recovery process, changed the way I think about my college experience, my goals, and most importantly, myself. Though it was extremely frustrating and taxing, the experience has been a blessing in disguise.
Now, I am willing to work harder than before because I know what I want to accomplish in my collegiate career as an athlete and in my lifetime. Every challenge has its obstacles and doubts, but I now look past those and seek the positives within each test, because I know that I have the strength and determination to overcome any challenge and trial that I put my mind to.
I have always been very adventurous, outdoorsy, active, and energetic; I’ve been this way since my childhood. I became an avid runner and deemed most valuable player on my high school cross country team. Outside of school, I rode my bike, roller-bladed, traveled to the mountains to white-water-raft and the beach to try my hand at surfing.
I placed an extreme amount of value on new experiences trying new things. In college, I was granted the opportunity to study abroad twice- both times in London. While there, I visited Scotland, Wales, and Amsterdam of the Netherlands. I made some amazing friends, had some incredible cuisine, and had two true adventures of a lifetime.
At my United States University, I was living the all-American dream lifestyle. I was in an awesome program- Communication Studies and I loved most of my classes and teachers. I had two roommates that I considered best friends. I had a part-time job at The Gap and all of my co-workers became a close network of friends who did everything together. Oh, and did I forget to mention I attended college at the beach? Life was great, but I hit my prime the year after I graduated.
It paid well, but it was very erratic and I was left with a lot of spare time. But that was the way I liked it. I became great friends with a very adventurous group of people- I had found my perfect companions. We played Frisbee golf every weekend, went zip-lining, skiing and snowboarding, jet-skiing, kayaking, hang-gliding- you name it. When I was outside or partaking in an adventurous activity, I was in my element.
About ten months into participating in these adventurous and outdoorsy activities, I discovered the long-board. Although it didn’t give the rush of flying three thousand feet in the air like hang gliding provided, long-boarding lent a new kind of adrenaline kick. For those of you who don’t know, a long-board is similar to a skateboard, but is made for cruising. My friends and I were long-boarding down roads, paved trails, and even parking garages. This new-found activity offered the most adrenaline I had ever experienced- looking back on it, I wonder if I was getting adrenaline mixed up with fear. But it was a new feeling and experience, so I was basking in its glory.
I had been borrowing a friend’s long-board, so the day mine came in, I couldn’t wait to break it in. I immediately called my friends and we hit the hills. In our boarding expedition, we came upon some new and uncharted territory. We all stopped and stared in awe at a steep hill. Not too much later, I hopped on my board nonchalantly, wanting my friends to think of me as bold and fearless.
I started the hill and went down a curve, only to realize the hill stretched on. The hill was longer and more daunting than I could have imagined. But it was too late now; I had already committed to it and was progressively picking up speed. I went around a second curve and that’s as much as I can tell you. According to my friends, I collected a bad case of speed wobble. Unfortunately, I could not recover, and what happened next started a new, foreign, and life-altering chapter of my life. I flew up in the air off of my board and came crashing down on the back of my head. Oh, yes- I forgot to mention: I was not wearing a helmet.
Where to begin? I had suffered a subdermal hematoma, or often called a traumatic brain injury. I spent twelve days in a coma. Upon waking up, I couldn’t walk and had no use of my left arm. I had a shaved head, no sense of smell, and a ventilator in my throat, making it very hard to talk. I spent two months in the hospital doing in-patient physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy. I had to learn how to transfer back and forth from a wheelchair to a bed. Being left-handed prior, I had to relearn how to feed myself. I had to relearn how to get dressed with the use of one hand.
I remember my family members wanting me to remain positive but realistic. They kept reiterating how lucky and very fortunate I was to not have suffered any mental deficits, but they also told me it was going to be a long road to recovery. Shock and denial kicked in and I chose not to hear them. I was going to return to my adventurous, care-free life in no time. I had only hit a little snag, but this would all be a distant memory. Not so much.
After being discharged from the hospital, I did out-patient therapy for a month. I then found a private physical therapist an hour away from home and I began to visit her once a week. My mom and brother rearranged their lives for me. They were at my beck and call 24/7. Thankfully, my mom was already retired. My brother took a semester off from school and they looked after me around the clock.
Two months passed and I graduated from a wheelchair to a walker. Whether I wanted to admit it or not, this was going to be a very long journey. I remember a specific time about six months after my accident. My family had taken me to Lake Johnson in Raleigh, a lake with a three mile loop trail surrounding it. I was still using my walker so I was a bit slow in my gait. We had only been walking for a few minutes when we came up on a slightly upward hill.
My mom and brother suggested we turn back and walk in the other direction. Ignoring them, I took two strenuous and unbalanced steps forward. Having only one hand available to hold the walker was making it all the harder. I stopped and looked around. There were two girls in yoga pants and tank tops jogging past and chatting away. I looked at their hair pulled up in cute pony tails and hearing them talk and laugh happily and carefree. I used to be those girls. I broke down, sobbing, as the realization finally dawned on me that I may never get back to running and being carefree.
Although I progressed and regained my ability to walk independently, life was still an everyday obstacle. I had been so physical in my past life and to have that aspect stripped away from me was almost more than I could bear. I went from having adventures, being in top athletic shape, and priding myself on my independence and efficiency to a disabled individual, having a difficult time even doing minute things such as getting dressed.
It’s been five and a half years since that tragic event. Let me update you: I walk better than I did, but I still have foot drop and I walk with a limp. As far as my arm goes, I still have very little movement. But that’s okay; I’ve made modifications as I learn to live one-handed in a two-handed world. I wear braces on both my foot and arm. I’ve finally learned to be grateful that my accident wasn’t worse. I easily could have acquired mental deficits, and I’m extremely thankful that I didn’t.
Whenever I get down, I just remind myself that the brain injury didn’t affect my memory, my ability to talk, and my capability to read and write. If I had suffered mental deficits, I may not have been capable of writing this story. I’ve had to work hard to gain back confidence under this new development. Yes, there are some things I can’t do, but there are plenty of things I still can do.
I set goals for myself each year and work hard to achieve them. This year’s goals: landing a full-time career and getting my driver’s license renewed. I turned my attention inward and started looking at work from home jobs. In the meantime, I applied for an internship in human resources with a virtual record label called Hit Records Worldwide. About six months into it, the instructor called me to inquire about another position I might like. It was in the marketing department, which was perfect as it was directly related to my college major. Working in that department for a year has allowed me to work my way up to Senior Regional Social Media Marketing Manager.
This internship has been extremely rewarding. We are working towards starting a non-profit called Getting Out Records, which will be an online community for foster care girls who want nothing more than to reach their goals of becoming music artists. I am very passionate about assisting these girls as I completely understand hardships and adversities. Some of the foster care girls my CEO has taken under his wings ironically long-board. I have spoken with them on the phone and have stressed the importance of helmet use. I think, or at least hope, that my story touched them and had some influential meaning.
My mom and I are writing a book about my journey and advocate for the importance of helmets. We see kids all the time biking and skating without helmets. I would like to educate them and tell them my story in order to make a difference in their lives. A helmet can make the difference in life and death.
I was extremely fortunate to have lived to tell. Since my accident, a lot has happened and a lot has changed. There have been very high highs and very low lows. There have been many laughs and many cries. Though I’ve suffered loss, I’ve still made gains. And though I’m limited in my capabilities, I’ve made many modifications and have still found a way to live life.
I’ve come to believe we choose how to play the cards we’re dealt. I’ve learned that it is okay to have bad days, but not to dwell on it. To try to be positive, and know that it could always be worse. I’ve come to believe that we are all on a journey of self-discovery.
In no way, shape, form, or fashion would I have believed that this is where I would be in my life right now. That being said, I now believe that this had to happen in order for me to end up where I do one day. This belief helps me cope and keep moving forward, knowing that this is only a part of my path. I don’t know what I’m destined for yet, but I do recognize that I had to go through this tragedy as a part of my journey. Perhaps I had to overcome this adversity in order to gain strength. Perhaps this strength will be put to use in the future.
I’m very hopeful that this will all be a thing of the past. They are making strides in stem cell treatment every day, and we are coming closer to finding cures. And perhaps I will not fully recover, but only partially. This will still be a good thing. However, I will always keep hoping.
Everyone is fighting a battle and undergoing a struggle, no matter how big or trivial. If you ever feel alone or feel like quitting, just remember that you are not alone and that there are millions of people trying to overcome adversities and underlying circumstances. We are all a team, rooting and cheering each other on through our trials and tribulations. We all are hoping that we can pull each other through the tunnels of darkness to see a sunnier sky.
So no matter how bad things get, just know in your heart that we are pulling for you. “Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.” Andy DuFrane, The Shawshank Redemption
I went to Brazil in the summer of 2015. Spent a lot of time meeting people and working on my Portuguese. I quickly trusted everyone I met there. The weekend came when I would travel alone to Rio De Janeiro, an idea that very few people encouraged.
I had started reading a book in Portuguese while I was there, Onze Minutos by Paulo Coelho. This book only helped to reinforce the fear everybody was causing me to feel about traveling to Rio alone. I started to feel like I could relate to the protagonist of the book. She was a naive young girl who was so excited to travel to Rio. She let what she thought was love and romance change her life and eventually she went with a man to Switzerland to become an exotic dancer.
I could not decide if it was something telling me not to go, or if it was pushing me to go for an adventure. On my way to the airport in Belo Horizonte I started telling the taxi driver about where I was headed, and the first thing he said was “sozinha (alone)?!” He went on to explain that Rio is super dangerous; that people got stabbed and robbed there.
I started feeling nervous again. The possibilities of me getting robbed, stabbed, abducted, or becoming an exotic dancer kept growing in my head. But, I hid all these fears and landed in Rio with a brave smile.
The first day, I met some men on the beach and played soccer with them leaving my bags in the hands of a man running a coconut water stand. Nothing was stolen, and the only thing that got stabbed was the coconut he gave me for free. I continued playing soccer with another group, and this time, something unfavorable did happen.
On the last day, I went with some new friends to the beach one last time and to make a complicated story simple, I got caught in a riptide. I will be completely honest; there was a moment that I thought I wouldn’t make it. I saw my friend waving at me to come back, but he wasn’t coming toward me so I thought nobody could help me.
The last thing I saw before a big wave took me was my friend coming my way. At that moment I felt hope and then suddenly we were both so far out in the ocean that we could no longer see the shore. I was so happy I was not alone, and the two of us were just laughing trying to stay afloat.
We did not know what we would do because we knew we could not go back into the waves. Within ten minutes a lifeguard comes out to us, and lends us his board to catch our breath, but he tells us that he will not be able to take us back- says he has alerted the helicopter.
We were picked up in nets and then dropped off on the beach where everyone was surrounding us with their cameras out. The experience was crazy. I felt so in love with life, though I could not help but feel a sense of anxiety again; I felt confused. I had been warned about all the dangers of Rio – primarily of all the dangerous people and yet, the people in Rio are the ones who took the best care of me.
I realized from my trip to Brazil that if you are going to be fearful then get ready to fear just about everything – because anything can hurt you. Sand can hurt you; water can hurt you; pavement can hurt you; love can hurt you – anything can hurt you. That is why I gave up on fear and decided to live guided by my intuition and YOLO. Let’s see where that takes me.
“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”