Australian ‘sometimes backstroke sprinter, sometimes mid-distance freestyler’ Bobby Hurley has been a fixture on the international swimming scene for quite some time now, but most fans and enthusiasts may not be aware of the physical struggles the 26-year old has endured in order to keep driving towards his ultimate goal, competing at the 2016 Olympic Games. Hurley recently opened up to SwimSwam and detailed out his journey, both good and bad.
Hurley’s early career ranged from racing his way to a short course world record in the men’s 50m backstroke back in 2008, to winning a bronze medal as part of the Australian men’s 4x200m relay at the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, to becoming short course World Champion in the 50m backstroke in 2012.
In fact, Hurley says “most people are surprised to find out that he was able crank out a 15:00.97 1500m freestyle in 2010 in between his 50m backstroke World Record and Worlds win”.
All the while, Hurley was racking up an astounding number of individual short and long course Australian national titles along the way.
However, towards the end of 2013, on a technical stroke level, Hurley felt as if he “was pulling less and less water” and was experiencing limited range of motion and overall discomfort in his left elbow. An MRI revealed disappointing news, as worn-out cartilage and arthritic conditions were apparent within the joint. Hurley suspected the damage was due to what he described as, “probably a build-up of wear and tear”. With the Australian 2014 Commonwealth Games’ squad being determined in a matter of months, Hurley opted for a cortisone injection, then gritted his teeth and tried to maintain his mid-distance freestyle training regime despite the diagnosis.
Further down the path of training, however, Hurley’s body just simply would not cooperate, as the right elbow started experiencing the same symptoms in February 2014. Hurley described this period of time as being “extremely mentally difficult.” He went on, “as an athlete, I am always trying to get everything out of myself, but I simply couldn’t.”
Pushing himself in practice would only result in swelling and pain, as bone was grinding on bone with every stroke. Hurley says he “was not even able to complete freestyle sets in practice”, forcing him to switch the focus to backstroke.
To further aid with the situation, Hurley had three cortisone injections prior to Australian Nationals just to be able to even race. Despite Hurley’s mental perseverance and attempt to keep his training up physically, the injury prevented him from performing well enough at 2014’s Australian Nationals in order to be selected for the Commonwealth squad.
From that devastating point, Hurley’s training continued, albeit with a focus primarily on sprint backstroke, as the injuries limited range of motion effect came into play more detrimentally in his freestyle stroke. Hurley was hampered by what little he was able to do in the weight room, a symptom which caused him to severely drop down the dry land intensity level at which he was used to engaging to supplement his in-water work.
With Hurley’s Commonwealth Team hopes dashed and only small, if any, gains being made as a competitor, he decided to visit a sports specialist in Sydney to explore treatment options. The doctor’s candid description of Hurley’s elbow situation instantly instilled fear in the athlete.
In his words, the doctor “really freaked me out.” Hurley was told that, if left untreated, the arthritic conditions in both elbows could end up negatively impacting ongoing regular life physical demands, with everyday physical tasks potentially becoming problematic for the otherwise superbly in-shape athlete. The doctor even mentioned the words ‘retire from swimming’, a concept which had never entered the then 25-year old’s mind, but posed a scary enough proposition to spur on his pursuit of state-of-the-art treatment in an effort to keep his Olympic dreams alive.
“Growing up you never think you’re going to retire from the sport you love due to injury. I especially had a great 2013 and had my heart set on Olympics, so I pursued different treatment.”
In May 2014, Hurley underwent Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) therapy, a relatively new healing treatment where doctors extract the patient’s own blood, put it in a centrifuge, and inject the resulting separated platelets back into the patient’s problematic joints. Hurley took this treatment one step further, by undergoing a stem cell procedure to add even more healthy, healing agents to his ailing joints. The stem cell process specific to Hurley, involved his first adding fat to his otherwise lean body via refraining from exercise for almost a month in order for doctors to laparoscopically remove fat from his lower back and inject it into athlete’s elbows.
For those readers longing for a break from our grueling sport, Hurley clearly stated he “got very bored and tired of not doing anything” during that time.
All told, Hurley was out of the water approximately 11 weeks after the stem cell procedure and only then could slowly make his way onto the stationary bike for his mode of exercise. He had not been able to lift any weights from December 2013 to September 2014 and says he lost about ” 3kg (6 lbs) of muscle mass.”
It was also during this time that the Australian decided to make perhaps the biggest change to his career, moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan in order to ramp up his training as part of the Club Wolverine Elite program. Having been friends with existing CWE member, Michael Klueh, for quite some time, Hurley liked the idea of being around a group of mid-distance freestylers who all train together, something Hurley was not able to do frequently at home in Australia.
In the 2011-2012 time frame Hurley had trained with James Magnussen at Olympic Park under Brant Best, before moving to Arizona in 2013 alongside Matt Grevers. Hurley then moved back to Sydney, training alongside Australian teammate Kenneth To at Trinity Grammar School under the direction of Matt Brown, but he was never in the environment he so sought – one he describes as having “several like-minded, similarly-talented middle-distance freestylers who would push each other day in, day out, bringing out the best out of one another in the process.” Hurley believes the whole team environment is what suits him best as an athlete and will ultimately be what enables his competitive career to thrive.
“The whole team environment gets the best out me. I am competitive and like to race people. With the [CWE] group, I think we have 11 guys that swim 1:49 or better in 200 freestyle, 6 guys that break 3:50 in the 400 and 5 that break 15:10 in the mile….so I am surrounded by some of the best mid-D swimmers in the world.”
Having been living in Ann Arbor and training with the CWE squad since September 2014, Hurley now feels he is physically almost back to normal and views his double-elbow ailment as more of a “maintenance issue”. He visits a Michigan trainer two to three times a week to get joint work done and still ices his tender spots on a regular schedule. Hurley can also feel muscles around his elbows, including forearms and biceps, feeling more sore as they work to compensate for what his elbow joints no longer perform naturally. Hurley has also received six PRP injection into each elbow since the stem cell procedure, just to enable him to maintain his current level.
Follow-up MRIs indicated that Hurley’s right elbow has indeed re-grown cartilage and is mending well, while his left elbow is maintaining its status, which Hurley still sees as a win, as no degeneration was noted. Turning his attention back towards freestyle with aspirations of making his country’s 4×200 freestyle relay for Rio, Hurley has found himself changing up his stroke a bit, moving away from the severely high elbow catch for which he was typically known and instead option for more of a straight-arm pull. He is still experimenting with the right blend of movements that return his stroke to one of power, but also one of no pain.
To put his training to the test, Hurley is targeting the U.S. Nationals in San Antonio as his next major meet, but will be making a stop at Georgia Sectionals in a few weeks for a tune-up. Hurley also envisions making his way to a few FINA World Cup stops this year.
Further into the future, he sees himself continuing in the short-course realm of the sport and wants to be “good enough to make the [Australian National] team and make an impact on the international stage as well.”
Although Hurley envisions 2016 serving as his final year of long course competition, he is most hopefully striving for it to be one that will be capped off with an Australian Olympic team berth.