AN OPEN LETTER TO SWIMMING, FROM AN ATHLETE WITH A CHRONIC INJURY

“To swimming, I thank you for making me strong enough to handle not just this hardship, but all the other challenges that are yet to come in my life.” Photo via Jack Spitser/Spitser Photography

Courtesy: Casey Summers

Dear Swimming,

My name is Casey Summers, I am 19, and I am lucky enough to say I have known you for the last seven years of my life. In my high-school years, I swam for the Stevens Point YMCA and was lucky enough to continue my athletic career at the University of Northern Iowa (Go Cats!). I have you to thank for my happiest moments and strongest relationships. But today, I’m writing about the other half of my journey with you: chronic injury, incessant pain, and the things I’ve learned from the experience.

I’ve been training through injuries for three years now. To be fair, you aren’t entirely to blame. I have a shallow femoral groove in my right knee, a genetic deformity, which caused my kneecap to align poorly with my leg and hip. This led to chronic pain, and eventually, to a severe knee dislocation. To combat these issues, I have done years of physical therapy, had cortisone shots, gel injections, and two surgeries thus far with one more (final!!) surgery still to come this winter. All these experiences have taken a drastic toll on my athletic career, mental health, and even my daily life. I could be angry at you, or that I am plagued with this nagging pain, and that injury has changed my life. Truthfully, at times I have been. But while you have left me broken in some ways, you have also given me the tools I’ve needed to fight through my injuries and carry on, lessons that will stay with me forever. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Pain becomes “chronic” when it persists for longer than three months, meaning I long ago qualified as a sufferer. My condition defines me, in ways both good and bad. At times, the steady aching in my knee resembles a secret, remaining invisible to those around me, including teammates, coaches, and even my family. Complaining feels useless, because if I allowed myself to begin, I would never stop. The persistent soreness makes every aspect of life harder. As an athlete, pain limits my abilities, making it difficult to get through tough practices and races. Few understand what I would give to be free from aching, for the chance to swim a full practice without wondering if I am overdoing it, or to walk up the stairs without worrying about my knee alignment.

Yet, this same pain also makes me a stronger person. A quote by Oriana Hill, a poet, summarizes life with a chronic ailment: “It’s like swimming upstream every moment you’re awake.” Although prolonged aching causes difficulties, I would not resemble the same person I am today without this added challenge. Hurting may put me at a physical disadvantage, but I am mentally stronger than those who live a life free from ailments. I work harder because I confront an obstacle to overcome. I enjoy life more because I understand what suffering feels like. Pain makes me who I am, and I would not change that for the world.

Pushing through chronic injury for the sake of the sport has brought me to my lowest physical and mental moments. After my knee dislocated, I asked myself if it was time to step down for the sake of my health. But then I realized, most of my problems stem from a genetic predisposition, so my injury would probably have happened either way. I took a step back and thought about what my life would look like without you in it, and I didn’t like what I saw. It dawned on me that you have given me a strong work ethic and taught me how to accept loss without feeling defeated; two skills that remain essential to tackling this recovery. In addition, the thought of going through this without a team to support me feels impossible. While injury can be lonely, it has also brought me closer to my teammates and coaches in ways that would not have happened had I not been rendered so vulnerable by my physical pain. I have needed my teammates, coaches, and athletic trainers. I have leaned on them, both literally and figuratively, to get me through this. The relationships that I formed through you are the reason I will persevere.

So to swimming, I thank you for making me strong enough to handle not just this hardship, but all the other challenges that are yet to come in my life. I thank you for allowing me to transform this adversity into a deeper sense of determination and strength. I don’t know what my return to the water will look like, but I know my coaches and teammates will support me no matter the outcome. At the end of the day, I am just a girl who fell in love with the pool, and that love still runs deep even in my darkest moments. To all the athletes out there who are currently struggling with injury, or who will in the future, I urge you to listen to your bodies and take the time you need to recover. But never forget what swimming has done for you :).

With love,

Casey Summers