It was opening night of women’s NCAAs, and the crowd was buzzing with the coming storylines – Georgia’s attempt to repeat as national champs, Cal’s star-studded roster and the first NCAA appearance for Olympian Missy Franklin.
The 200 free relay was the opening event, a kickoff to all the action that would fill the next three days of competition.
The race took a minute and a half, Stanford just missed an American record and the crowd moved on breathlessly awaiting the first of the meet’s individual events.
But lost in the NCAA shuffle was one of the nation’s best comeback stories, a story that culminated with that 200 free relay.
Whitney Weisz was a prospect of upside. A high school basketball player out of the pool, the small-town Minnesotan only started swimming really seriously as a high school junior, leading one of the best classes in Little Falls High School’s swimming history before heading to Division I San Diego State in the fall of 2012.
Weisz was the kind of prospect mid-major programs like SDSU thrive on – a raw talent with untapped potential that kept her under the radar of big conference coaches but offered tremendous potential to a program like San Diego.
She started to flash that potential as a freshman, helping the Aztecs win all three relays at the Mountain West Championships, setting school records in each race. She also scored in three individual events, the 50, 100 and 200 frees.
But after that strong freshman season, disaster struck for Weisz.
She was surfing with a teammate in late April when a wave took her off her feet and slammed her head into her surfboard.
Weisz surfaced, her head throbbing. She said she expected to find her head bleeding, but found nothing but an intense pain in her head. Weisz had struggled with migraines for most of her life, and figured the pain might go away with time, like her migraines normally did.
Returning to her dorm, Weisz crashed into a deep sleep, but woke up to some discouraging signs.
“I fell asleep for basically the whole day,” she says. “I mean, swimmers usually take naps, but this was way past that.
“That was when I knew something was wrong.”
Weisz found she couldn’t think straight enough to do schoolwork. She says it was like her brain wasn’t working. Eventually, her San Diego State teammates helped her get to the hospital, where she got some bad news, and some worse news.
Weisz had suffered a concussion. That’s scary enough on its own, but the worse news came later, when further tests showed that Weisz’s brain had a cavernous malformation – a cluster of abnormal blood vessels that can leak blood and cause a brain hemorrhage. Weisz would need brain surgery.
The next couple weeks were a blur of action for Weisz. The cavernous malformation had been the source of the migraines she’d suffered most of her life. It was about the size of a golf ball in her brain, a silent clump of bad cells that could have leaked and caused a brain hemorrhage at any moment. The surfing accident was a blessing in disguise because it alerted doctors to the malformation, but removing it presented further risks.
“We had an appointment with my neurosurgeon before the surgery,” Weisz remembers. He told Weisz and her family that the operation could potentially cause Weisz to become unable to move her limbs or other parts of her body, a prospect that spooked the 19-year-old lifelong athlete. But with few other options, Weisz put on a brave face and underwent surgery.
On May 14th of 2013, just over two weeks after the surfing accident, Weisz spent just over four hours in surgery, getting the malformation removed.
“My parents were really nervous,” Weisz says. “No one knew how I would respond to the surgery.”
That moment, as Weisz slowly woke up from the anasthesia, had to be one of the dicier turning points a young woman can ever experience. Her old life, the experiences and activities she knew and enjoyed, hung in the balance, the future uncertain.
The stake high, Weisz pulled through. “I was OK after surgery,” she says. “I could talk and move around.” And with those small, yet so-important victories, the 19-year-old began the road back to normalcy.
A return to the pool was never a sure thing. For awhile, merely a return to a regular day-to-day life seemed a giant task. Weisz says that for the first six months to a year after the surgery, nearly everything was a struggle.
Schoolwork was difficult. Where Weisz once found classwork and learning to come relatively easy, she now had to work hard just to accomplish tasks she’d found simple a few months earlier. Catching up on the schoolwork she missed during surgery and recovery only made things harder.
Extremely limited in her recovery, Weisz took the entire summer off. Taking three months off is often enough to send fully-functioning athletes into retirement, much less ones recovering from brain surgery. But as Weisz continued to progress, she rejoined her teammates last fall.
There were still limits. At first, her head would bleed whenever she dove into a pool. Weisz struggled with underwaters. The pressure deep under the surface would often be too much for her skull, which was cut open during surgery. In the weight room, she had a hard time finding her center of balance, and had to replace many of the balance-based and one-legged exercises her teammates would perform.
But Weisz persevered, overcoming her physical limitations with an aggressive mentality.
“I couldn’t do everything,” Weisz says. “But what I did, I worked really hard at.”
She first started competing in November, at the Arena Invite. Though well off her best, Weisz competed in a full slate of events, scoring in all three individuals (50/100/200 frees) and even swimming on San Diego State’s A 200 free relay, which won the meet.
At the Mountain West Championships, though, Weisz made a massive step-up. Less than a year removed from brain surgery, Weisz surprised everyone with lifetime-best swims, going from a 50.5 to a 49.5 in the 100 free, a 23.1 to a 22.8 in the 50 free, and perhaps most impressively, from a 1:50.5 to a 1:48.2 in the 200 free.
Most surprising, though, was that Weisz accomplished her early-season goal: making the NCAA Championships. It was a goal she’d been told wasn’t realistic, a stretch too far for a girl lucky just to be swimming.
But Weisz showed up in Minneapolis ready to compete with the nation’s best, and she and her 200 free relay teammates earned All-America Honorable Mention honors in that opening event, going 1:29.33 and taking 14th, with Weisz anchoring the team both physically and emotionally.
She laughs a little when asked if her surgery and recovery were on her mind at all during the NCAA meet.
“During the season, it was constantly there,” she says. “It was constantly on my mind.” But at NCAAs? She says she had other things on her mind.
“I never really though about it much. I was just focusing a lot on my swims.”
One common theme emerges in Weisz’s retelling of her ordeal, and that’s the presence of her teammates. From the accident to the hospital visit to the recovery process to standing behind those NCAA starting blocks, Weisz was never far from another Aztec. She says that’s no accident.
“I got super close to my teammates,” Weisz says. Those bonds formed during countless two-a-day practices run strong, and no swimmer will go through life without needing someone to lean on at some point.
Case in point: Weisz tells the story of her roommate, who dealt with some major injury issues of her own prior to Weisz’s accident.
“I was pushing her around in a wheelchair,” Weisz says, “and then suddenly she was helping me walk.”
San Diego is half a continent away from tiny Little Falls, Minnesota, with the only similarity perhaps being their proximity to water. But even in the midst of one of life’s scariest situations, Weisz never felt far from home.
“I’ve had people say to me ‘All this happened, and you were in San Diego, with no family there!’,” Weisz says.
“But I did have a family. My team is my family.”
Weisz says she’s back at 100%, and you can hear the excitement in her voice when she talks about the upcoming season.
“I’m really thinking about being mentally focuses on the little things,” she says as she starts what will be her junior season with the Aztecs. Weisz raves about her training partners, including All-American sophomore Anika Apostalon. Weisz has set a goal of qualifying for the NCAA Championships individually in the coming season.
And rather than just wanting to move on from a painful and scary chapter of her life, Weisz says she continues to draw a renewed view of life from her brush with death.
“For me, it’s been all about perspective,” she says. “Before, I always took so much for granted.
“This experience has taught me so much more than I had before it, and I’m really grateful for that.”
With two years of eligibility left, Weisz finally feels like herself again, ready to draw as much enjoyment out of her swimming career as she possibly can. She knows better than anybody how quickly life can change. Back in the saddle again, the junior says she’s not taking anything for granted – in or out of the pool.
“We only get one shot at this,” Weisz says, “and it’s about enjoying every little moment.”