Thanks to Danielle Elliott, Northwestern journalism student and swimming alumnus, for contributing this profile piece. If you have a story you’d like to submit, please send to [email protected]
Crawling Down The Stairs
By Danielle Elliott
Van Donkersgoed is on deck at practice just as he should be, just as he has been for the last 10 years of his life. It is 6 a.m., and the rest of Northwestern University men’s swim team is jumping in the water. But Donkersgoed takes a seat on the diving block behind lane four. He pulls out his stopwatch and watches the practice.
Just a couple weeks ago he traded in his role as senior captain for student assistant coach. “Am I bummed about being done with swimming? Yes,” he says. “Is it reality? Yes. That’s it. At the end of the day, it’s reality.”
There is reluctance in his voice. He gave up something he did not want to, something that was not his choice. So he sits on the deck and reads times to the guys he used to race.
The switch to coach happened in one weekend after years of pain. Donkersgoed started to get debilitating headaches in November of 2010, during his junior year of high school. He would wake up in the morning and go to the pool, only able to do 2,000 of the 10,000 yards he could formerly do in a single practice. He became a shadow of the star athlete he used to be. Every day he had to crawl down the stairs of his house because it was too painful to stand. Some mornings he would just lay on the floor of his club coach’s office with the lights off, unable to train at all.
The migraines kept him from going to class, but he never let it keep him from swimming. At 5’10,” Donkersgoed is not a giant athlete: He is not very muscular or overly strong. While he has natural talent, he has to work hard in the water to compete with the best. A break from training was a huge setback. He took the time he could not spend in the pool and dedicated it to the administrative side of the sport. He threw himself into his position as member of the rules committee for USA Swimming, eventually leading to his current role as athlete liaison on the board of directors.
But the headaches kept coming. For a full year. It starts with a tingling in his nose. Then his whole body starts to tense, and he is sweating profusely. The only way to relieve it is to move, but then the world starts shaking and he cannot walk.
The doctors did not know why. They could not explain why a kid who had been on the USA National Junior Team—training alongside future Olympians and competing on an international level—suddenly couldn’t make it through a day without a migraine that started at 9 a.m. like clockwork. He was prescribed antidepressants, anti-anxiety and multiple different drugs for headaches. Nothing worked. He popped Imitrex, a common drug for migraines, like candy. The headaches returned with vengeance.
In 2011 he went to the Mayo Clinic, and they told him he was addicted to Imitrex; his former doctor should never have given him consent to take the drug with that much frequency.
Many drugs act on a slow release, and when Imitrex wears off, the body craves it again. Donkersgoed was so high on narcotics that it was causing him rebound headaches. He spent the next year in withdrawal. When he came to Northwestern in the fall of 2012, his headaches were just under control.
Seven neurologists and three neurosurgeons failed to offer an explanation, but Donkersgoed has a theory. One day when he was around six months old he would not stop crying. His nanny picked him up and shook him violently. His brain bled and swelled. Doctors put a shunt in his skull to relieve the pressure from the expanding brain fluid. The shunt no longer serves a purpose but remains permanent in his skull, potentially causing his intense pain. Some babies die from shaken baby syndrome, some suffer severe brain damage and mental disabilities. Donkersgoed had incurable headaches everyday for two and a half years.
Northwestern was a new start. In his freshman season he set the third fastest time in Wildcat history in his signature event, the 200 breaststroke. Then in the fall of his sophomore year he hurt his back while lifting in the weight room. The homeostasis he had reached with his entire nervous system ended. The result was perpetual neck, lower back and upper T-spine pain. The headaches came back, not the really bad ones, but the daily thumping headaches that made it hard to train.
Donkersgoed went to a pain specialist within the athletic department who suggested dry needling. It worked.
“It was kind of surreal,” he says. “I never experienced any type of relief before. Even to this day it’s like this big cloud is lifted. It sounds really cliché, but I can see straight again. Light looks differently.”
Once a week, or at the height of his pain management, once every two weeks, Donkersgoed would go to the training room and have dozens of needles placed in his spine. He bleeds a lot, but it is the only thing his body has ever responded to.
“I know it sounds weird but there is some value in feeling pain. There really is, it means something is wrong,” he says.
But the cycle was wearing him down. Donkersgoed compares his treatment to duct tape. Every week he breaks down, gets wrapped up again and put into service. Only to fall apart again. “I spend all this damn time rehabbing to get back to some state of operationalism and then I break again.”
The routine became even more exhaustive during the start of his junior year when, due to injury liability, Northwestern athletics took away dry needling. Donkersgoed begged through tears to bring back the treatment. It wasn’t until April that it came back. By then it was too late.
His exhaustion rose to new heights. Years and years of training as a high-level athlete left him tired, but this was new. He could not function past 10 p.m. It started to affect workouts. Pain started shooting up and down his legs.
His personality changed. He would walk on deck and the head coach could tell if it would be a bad or good day of training. Donkersgoed started to regress in the pool; he got slower.
He never thought once of quitting. To him, it sounded like a death. Swimming was the blood coursing through his veins, and the moment he would stop would be the moment everything ends. So he held on until he could not hold on anymore. He held on until the pain consumed him.
“I swear to God quitting wasn’t even on my mind. I just thought I was going to have to grit it out and fight another year,” he says. “I was deeply afraid this summer about walking away from the sport bitter.”
The assistant coach pulled Donkersgoed out of the water one day in July, telling him he needed to take some time to think about his health. He mentioned medical disqualification, a NCAA provision that allows athletes to keep their scholarship but stop training. Donkersgoed came back after the weekend and decided it was time to stop swimming. “I didn’t even flinch,” he says.
Technically Donkersgoed now goes to more workouts than when he was an athlete. He comes early to practice, coaches the distance group and stays after to talk to his teammates if they need him. If he was not swimming, this was the next best thing. “You want your last swim to be on your terms not your injuries terms,” his head coach says. Donkersgoed was not able to finish his career on his terms, but coaching was a way to do that. Something about swimming sucked Donkersgoed in and never let go.
He says he does not miss being an athlete and hopes to have a professional career in the sport long after college ends. “I don’t know if we can answer the question as to why people stay in this sport,” he says. “If we could, we solve a lot of problems.” He says it is something about the people, the discipline and skill they have, the way no other sport in the world makes you wake up at 4:30 a.m. to jump into a freezing cold pool and churn water.
So he pulls out his stopwatch and watches his teammates practice, sitting in the exact place he wants to be, the same place he has been for the last 10 years of his life. His cap and goggles are off, but the clock just started.