I met butterflier Doug Wake in the summer of 1997. Previously he was just a name, attached to the body of an age-group star, very tall and very fast. I came to know him as a fellow swimmer sidelined with shoulder injuries. When we met the first question I posed was if he had had his appendix removed. When Doug declared that yes he, just like myself, had had an appendectomy, he began to clarify my quest: to solidify the case I was building as to why I had become injured.
"Why me?" was a question I have asked myself a thousand times. The "why me" syndrome occurs in those injured swimmers who not only battle the physical adversity that comes with injury, but the mental struggle as well. Toronto Olympian Stephanie Richardson, now retired, still faces the pain and emotional anguish of her injuries. "I hated sitting on the pool-deck icing my shoulders and having to watch everyone else swimming sets without me. Even though they were joking, some of my best friends would say I was faking it to get out of practice. I knew they were kidding, but I still went home crying. It was very hard and very frustrating."
For Doug, the solitary hours out of the water were also a struggle. "Days and months go by and everyone around you is getting better. When the injury hit me, my swimming hit a plateau. The hardest part was being patient while everyone else got faster. I wanted to be doing that too."
The Downward Trajectory
It is hard to pinpoint the exact moment it begins. In hindsight you see how the injury crept into your life. It starts with an annoying amount of pain, soothed by ice and perhaps one workout missed in the pool. But as time progresses, the pain grows deeper, the time out of the water gets longer, and the ibuprofen increases, until one day you wake up and finally understand that you do have shoulder injuries. Sometimes you don't ever wake up and the denial becomes the biggest battle you face, inevitably leading you down a road of self-destruction.
It was 1992 when Stephanie began to first feel pain in her shoulders. It seemed innocent enough in the beginning, nothing too serious. One workout off every few months and things were back to normal. A year later when her age-group coach Mike Gurgol told her he'd keep her out of Canada Games if her shoulders weren't better, she secretly vowed not to tell him even if they weren't. "I wasn't going to let that happen [miss Canada Games]; I was going to say I was okay even if my shoulders were sore."
When competition arrives your denial blinds you and you cannot understand what is happening. "You never want to make excuses for why you don't race fast. But it is hard to swim slowly at a meet and think that the other swimmers and coaches don't know you are injured," says Stephanie. "That they think you are just a 4:19 400 freestyler is difficult to deal with. You want people to know you are battling an injury and that you really are a better swimmer than that."
Pain is Temporary, Pride is Forever
Pain - it engulfs you, it eats at you, it becomes you until in numbness you go through the mechanical motions no matter what the physical parameters, because the fight becomes not with your shoulders, but with your mind and your pride. You try to ignore the stares from ignorant teammates and the coaches who roll their eyes, and you try to forget the times when you look up at the scoreboard with disappointment in your eyes. But whether it is the kind of pain you associate with being stabbed in the shoulder with a knife or the kind of nagging pain that wakes you from a rich slumber, the pain is always there in some way, being ranked on a scale of 1 to10.
But the battle is not with coaches or competitors. The conflict is with yourself. How far will I go today? How long can I go, and how much pain can I tolerate today? Outside stress and fatigue impede injured swimmers' ability to go forth each and every day with the same intensity and tolerance for the pain that plagues them every moment of every waking day. The decision to climb out of the pool, to pack up your equipment, and walk to the change room is the hardest choice you make, because you always do more than you should. If the pain is at 9, you just say to yourself "one more thousand, then I'll get out."
Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body
"Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body" An admirable thought, one ingrained in the minds of all US Marines, as it is their motto. But one truly felt by a swimmer with shoulder injuries they dare not admit to. Workouts, days, weeks, and months go by, and the reality of the injury is overshadowed by short term goals, coaches' encouragements, and teammates comments. Words like "overtraining" never enter your mind. Like Marines, there are swimmers who believe that rest is a four-letter word; that recovery time is wasted time. Understanding that we are not robots is the most difficult part of being injured.
Learning to Swallow Your Pride
It often takes years to realize the damage that could have been prevented had an athlete not been so stubborn. When pride is on the line, rational judgements become blurred. Intelligent, informed decisions are shut out; the ability to tolerate pain becomes the only basis for day-to-day survival.
"During a workout I would massage my shoulders during sets. But I would try to hide it from my coach Byron [McDonald] because if he saw me he would know they were hurting and tell me to get out," says Stephanie. "Although his support and coaching were always positive and in my best interests, I just couldn't see how getting out of the water was going to make me any faster. No one wants to get out in the middle of a hard set...but sometimes you just have to."
Creating Your Own Destiny
Nicknamed the "spider girl" by swimmers from other countries, Stephanie used to take an average of 54 strokes per length in workout. During a 100 free she took over 60 strokes - an absurd amount of strokes for anyone at the international level, especially for someone who towers in height at 5'11".
I have always had bad posture and for the last four years my mother's nagging about standing up straight has plagued me daily. What if I had only listened to her? What if my rhomboids were stronger and my rotator cuff muscles too? I figured that if I could bench press 150 lbs I had to be strong; how wrong I was. The reality was that I was strong in the wrong places. All swimming movements strengthen the internal muscles. Strong pectorals tighten and pull the shoulder forward and the tiny muscles in the shoulder are unable to keep the shoulder in place. As swimmers, we need to have flexible, almost elastic shoulders, but if they are too loose problems ensue. What follows are combinations of ligament and joint capsule laxity, impingement syndrome, tendonitis, and muscle tears. "You think you are so strong, then you get injured and the physiotherapist gives you a two-pound weight to lift and you can't even budge it," says Doug Wake. "You really have to stick with the strengthening routine and make all those small shoulder muscles stronger."
Failure is the Opportunity to Begin
Again More Intelligently
The good part about being injured is that you not only become an expert about your body's physiology, but you have the opportunity to work on your weaknesses. "I wasn't the greatest kicker, so when I couldn't swim I had a chance to really improve my legs," says Doug. "I did everything to build my legs, from roller blading, to step aerobics, to Stairmaster. I just kept hitting them and my legs were in the best shape of my life."
After ice, ultrasound, heat, electric stem, chiropractic care, massage, deep tissue massage, stretching, strengthening, stretch cords, weights, Relafen, Voltaren, Naprosen, ibuprofen, cortisone shots, x-rays, MRIs, and herbal tinctures, I tried acupuncture. After a two-hour interview with my doctor, she informed me that it was not surprising my shoulders were injured. According to her, the stomach and shoulders are on the same energy pathway. So when I had my appendix removed, it weakened the whole pathway, causing my system to put more stress on my shoulders.
This may sound a little wacky for some, but when you become injured you will try anything and listen to anyone to escape the prison of pain. That is why the information I received from Doug on our first meeting was crucial to my ability to come to terms with my injury.
In the quest for the magic cure (which, it turns out, seems to be only time and patience), I met an abundance of people who wanted nothing more than to help make me well again. Parents, teammates, coaches, trainers, and doctors tried to keep me positive, never letting me utter the unspeakable "I'm too tired, I can't go on...this is too hard." But as supportive as the people are around you, there is a loneliness that you can't escape because you can't quite explain what it is you are working through. The loneliness almost drowns you.
What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger
When faced with the choice, I chose not to have surgery that would chisel down my atrium so that my shoulder would have more room to move in my shoulder socket. I am fortunate because, with eight months out of the pool and a change in strokes and training patterns, I am still able to swim without most of the pain I once had. For Stephanie, there was no choice involved. After one attempted comeback Stephanie learned that only major surgery to tighten her shoulder ligaments would allow her to live a normal, active life. Unfortunately, that normal active life would never again include competitive swimming. "Not choosing when I stopped is the most difficult part of all. I was not satisfied with my career, and now for the rest of my life I have to sit back and wonder ‘what if?'"
In between my story and that of Stephanie's is the yet-unfinished story of Doug Wake. Injured in early 1995, Doug decided to have shoulder surgery after cortisone shots in the summer of 1995 did little to ease his pain. Doug flew to London, Ontario, and within two weeks was having bone shaved off his atrium. "The decision to have the surgery was completely mine. In hindsight I was a little naive to think I could make the Olympic Team and I rushed getting back in the water and back into shape. But I don't regret the surgery. It helped me. I still have pain during heavy training, but I now have days that are totally pain free." Doug's patient and positive attitude has been refreshing as I delve into my past and come to terms with my own injury and career.
Sometimes Success is Just a Matter of Hanging On
"Why me?" is a question I have finally answered and come to terms with. I know why I became injured; I can trace it to several specific weeks when I didn't swim over winter break and headed back into 10,000-metre-plus workouts out of shape. I know that physically my shoulders and the surrounding muscles were weak and that I was more susceptible than other swimmers to the injury that claimed me. I know that I made many decisions based on passion and pride without listening to my body and taking time to recover. So I know why me. The what-ifs will forever haunt me as they haunt Stephanie.
Doug has no regrets. Everything he's been through has made him a better, tougher swimmer. Already he is a success, never succumbing to the loneliness and mental fatigue that often plague an injured athlete. Whether he will have the fairy-tale ending Stephanie still dreams of is yet to be determined.
Deconstructing old habits is the hardest part of getting on with my swimming career.
For years I lived by the words of countless cliches, chanting them in my head over and over again as I swam up and down the pool. Something had to get me through those difficult times. But once you begin to understand and move on from your injury, you realize that the slogans were only meant to be small reminders, not creeds to live by. I will admit these words still hang by my bed: "Failure is the opportunity to begin again more intelligently." However, now they are merely reminders that mistakes and enlightenment are part of the journey.