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Mar 31 2016
by Alison Mai

What My Injury Taught Me

By Alison Mai - Mar 31 2016
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In the summer between sophomore and junior years of high school, I was in the midst of my training for French Nationals. I was peaking at almost 10 practices a week, with dryland exercises. My summer schedule revolved around swimming and preparing for nationals. About a month out, as we were heading into the last national qualifying meet of the season (a laid back meet for me, since I had already made all my qualifying times), in the middle of practice I felt a sharp, resonating pain in my left shoulder. It was nothing like I had ever felt before, throbbing and shooting down my arm. I kicked for the rest of practice, to rest.

I made it through Nationals, with a continuous throbbing in my shoulder. Nothing extremely painful, more annoying than anything. The physical therapist diagnosed it as mild bicep tendinitis, inflamed tendons in the joint keeping my shoulder together that turns thousands of times a day in practice. I kept up with massages and rehabilitation exercises at the pestering of my coach; he had to have me ready to compete come September as short-course nationals were in December. When we came back in September to get back to training, however, it quickly became apparent that making it through a 6,000-meter practice every day was going to be very tough.

Due to my injury (and other circumstances), I took my junior and senior year off from club swimming, and instead focused on my less-intensive Varsity team at school. I gave my mind and my body a break for the first time since I had started swimming competitively at the age of 6. Not swimming with a club team was partially why I didn't even bother to think about swimming on a varsity team in college; I thought I had burned out, I thought I was done.

But, I was encouraged to go through the recruiting process by my college counselor, and here I am, swimming with Emory University, where our women's varsity swim team just won their 7th straight National title. I approached training freshman year with all the gusto and excitement of a child, with open arms. I hadn't had pain in my shoulder for so long, I had pretty much forgotten that I ever had tendinitis.

But boy, I remembered around late October. It hit me like a freaking truck. I first thought I was just sore from getting back into shape and regular training, but those who have had joint injuries know - it's not the same pain at all. It's sharp, throbbing, shooting even, as if someone is puncturing your body at a particular spot. I had regular appointments with Emory's sports medicine department to combat this, to be able to handle the pain and keep training at the same time. I popped four Aleve a day (close to 1000 mg), like Tic Tacs. I spent more than a hour a day in the training room, between core exercises to balance out my strength and painful graston massages that left me bruised.

The road to recovery is not easy; I had good and bad days. Days where I could barely lift my arms above my head and days that I felt totally fine. Days I couldn't feel my pinky and ring finger of my left hand and days I could swim a double practice, no problem. The first day that the trainer told me that I could only kick, I was terrified of what my fellow teammates would think. Would they think I was a wimp? Not good enough for the team? I cowered away from them, ashamed of having to sit out of meets and to be kicking in their lanes while they (literally) swam circles around me.

But they were the opposite, in fact - they were incredibly supportive. They did not doubt for a second my abilities, and in turn, encouraged me to have faith in myself and to trust the trainers, trust my body, and trust my training. Christmas training was an obstacle they helped me hurdle, as the 22 days of training were our hardest out of the whole season, but lo and behold I made it through every practice without needing a day to kick, an incredible accomplishment for me since I had barely turned my arms in November. My warm fuzzies (notes we write to each other during Christmas training as a pick-me-up) all encouraged me, telling me how strong I was and the great progress I had made.

My injury held me back from competing in my first year, making me doubt myself and question if I really belonged here on this team. Overcoming it showed me that I'm much stronger than I think, that I am capable of doing great things, and that the support of my team, my family away from home, is priceless. I still have good and bad days, days where I have to rub my fingertips together to make sure I have sensation, and days where I'm right back to normal. But my injury taught me to slow down, to take care of my body, and proper recovery. Three years of rehab and a few thousand dollars of physical therapy bills later; I'm thankfully at an even better place as a swimmer, and as a person, than I was before.

Lead Image Credit: Alison Mai

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Alison Mai - Emory University

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