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This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Diana Hanson:
Swimming must mean something special to every person who has made it a consistent part of his or her life. We spend thousands of hours traveling for, training for, working for, and competing for a sport that is all too unforgiving. However, understanding its personal meaning to each of us can be quite a difficult process.
I was introduced to swimming when I was very young and I quickly grew into a skilled swimmer obsessed with performance and competition. As I began to grasp the extent of my control over my swimming outcomes, I developed an intense self-drive and internal motivation. Swimming dominated my time and energy as I grew up, and before I knew it I was off to college to compete in a division 1 conference for Bucknell University. My first two years of collegiate swimming were better than I could have imagined. I couldn’t help but wonder how the momentum I had at the time would materialize during the next two years, and I set some big goals in anticipation.
Unfortunately, things did not work out quite as I had hoped. I was faced with serious challenges during my junior year that called the realism of those goals into question. I trained well, but I was hindered by emotional instability and unusual exhaustion at the end of each week. By the end of the year, my body was so exhausted that I could barely finish my races at our conference meet. I was continuously told how challenging college was and that I may have been pushing myself a bit too hard. I listened and reluctantly agreed, but it was clear to me that something else was wrong. Deeper into the spring and early summer months, my condition continued to worsen. On many days I needed help standing up from a sitting position, I had trouble making it up the stairs, and I was too weak to lift anything around my house. The simplest everyday chores and activities became nearly impossible. I would sleep constantly but always awoke just as exhausted as before. On top of the physical symptoms, my emotional demeanor was skewed. I developed a tendency to exclude myself from others and I interpreted every interaction with others as a personal attack. My family and I grew very worried about my health as my symptoms became increasingly severe, and I began to brace myself for the possibility that my swimming career had abruptly ended. However, as every specialist I visited declared me completely healthy, the thought that I was simply imagining it all became a growing concern.
After consulting with my general practitioner and meeting with a fatigue specialist, I was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS) and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). In basic terms, when I stood up, the autonomic response to resist gravity and maintain blood access to my brain was somehow hindered. Instead, blood would pool in my extremities, causing my heart rate to increase in compensation. As a result, I became dizzy and lost my vision nearly every time I stood up. On top of the immediate symptoms, these syndromes caused me to experience severe long-term fatigue and emotional instability. I was so relieved to finally have a name for my symptoms and to better understand the physiological mechanisms causing them. Even better, I was assured that I could regain my previous athletic abilities and even improve upon them with the correct treatment. I was appreciative of the prognosis, but at the time I was so disabled that it was hard to imagine.
Returning to school was incredibly difficult. I looked completely normal to those who hadn’t seen me in months, and very few people could notice when my symptoms were flaring up. It was challenging to be surrounded by people with seemingly endless amounts of energy when mine was so limited, and so few people understood why. It was also difficult to manage the connections that my physical symptoms had to my mood and emotional demeanor. When I was dealing with a large amount of pain, exhaustion, or discomfort, I had trouble putting on a face that contrasted how I felt. I had to carefully balance my energy in order to maintain my academics and my swimming, which caused me to be absent from many social events. It became very disheartening to sense people avoiding interactions with me or feeling uncomfortable around me because of my limited social participation.
While I was swimming, I constantly evaluated how I felt to maintain my safety. If I pushed myself past a certain level of exhaustion, my symptoms became unbearable for several days after, and I would likely miss a number of practices as a result. When my symptoms were bad, I would lose my endurance after a 25-yard effort and feel as though I was unable to continue moving my body. For example, something as simple as voluntarily flexing a muscle would become a serious challenge. It was common to see me lying flat on the pool deck to improve my circulation or to see me being convinced by my coach that we should call it a day and try again tomorrow. Although I was seeing improvements in my energy levels, progress was very slow and non-linear. There were several days I had to sit out entirely or when I would last only ten minutes before getting severely shaky and feeling my symptoms worsen. In addition, if I was stressed about something or did not sleep well the night before, my symptoms were worse than they would otherwise be. Despite the bad days, my doctor was correct and by our winter training trip in mid-December I was training like my old self. Suddenly, my goals didn’t seem so unrealistic and I started to again believe that they were feasible.
On the first day of the New Year, my team returned to campus for a training camp after our holiday break. Just a day or so later, I contracted a horrible virus that affected my respiratory system. The virus took several weeks to recover from and I was very careful not to push myself too much during that process. Regardless of my efforts, the virus retriggered many of my previous symptoms that had seemingly disappeared. I felt as though I was back to square one with our championship season rapidly approaching. My symptoms got so bad that I could barely finish a short race during dual meets and getting out of bed in the morning became an hour-long process. I secretly had the feeling that this may have been my final straw: I was experiencing the same symptom severity I had during the summer, only now I didn’t have time to recover. This relapse of symptoms was devastating because I had begun to expect exciting personal results in the coming weeks.
Once a week for the next several weeks, my coach and I sat in the emergency room for up to four hours while I received saline infusions. By this time, we were desperate to improve my health in the hopes that I would contribute during our championship season. My doctor suggested this option as a final effort before the meets in order to increase my blood volume and ensure its continued sufficient access to my brain. Our conference meet came and went and all things considered, I was very proud of my performance. With the infusions and some inspiration from my coaches and parents, I was able to suppress my symptoms enough to compete at a high level, even though I was not at 100 percent. Unfortunately, my symptoms resurfaced two weeks later at our final championship meet of the season, cutting my competitive swimming career a few swims short.
It was very difficult to cope with the ups and downs of the year. I couldn’t help but think about the unfairness of the situation. I had been so loyal to the sport for close to twenty years, and these syndromes prevented me from a chance to meet my ultimate goals. I was left without the satisfaction of knowing that the things I was capable of accomplishing were achieved, and that was devastating. Although negative thoughts about the experience littered my mind, I couldn’t help but think back to something my club coach told me on one of those difficult days the summer before. In short, he told me to stay positive because this experience would have an impact on the person I would grow to become. I kept his exact quotation on a piece of paper hanging next to my bed during the year as a daily reminder, but I don’t think I understood the full impact of his statement until I experienced my disappointment rather than just being aware of its possibility.
From there, I began contemplating the benefits of my situation. I began to comprehend the struggles of invisible illnesses and the challenges that come with existing around others who are blind to your internal pain. I learned what it feels like to have to fight for something you want, especially for something that might seem so far out of the realm of possibility. Most importantly, I was put in a situation to finally recognize the all of the things I have learned from the sport. Rather than assuming I had gone through something I didn’t deserve, I began to think about this experience as an obstacle that my passion for swimming had provided, and one that I am stronger than ever for overcoming. Because of my investment in swimming, I was able to embrace lessons from the sport in general and from this particular experience that may have otherwise been lost in my development.
I’ve learned that swimming is about so much more than what is on the surface. It gives us constant opportunities to accept challenges and embrace lessons that are buried within them to better ourselves. Challenges are ever present in our daily lives and our swimming lives, whether it’s something small like battling your mind through a hard set, or something larger like fighting for a chance to keep your competitive swimming career alive. I’ve learned that accepting those challenges and viewing them as opportunities to grow can make them most beneficial. My syndromes are still a daily struggle to manage and they still keep me from accomplishing everything I’d like. But this experience has taught me that its okay, because each time I have to sit something out or acknowledge a decline in my physical abilities, I am learning to become proud of who I am and not exclusively the things I can accomplish. For my entire swimming career, the sport meant competition. It meant getting stronger every day, becoming a better athlete, and reaching for the goals I set for myself. Today, it represents a learning process, a developmental journey, and a molding of my character through unexpected challenges. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I would like to thank my long-time coach, Rob Washburn, with the Nation’s Capital Swim Club – North for his everlasting and continual influence during this challenging time and in my life in general, and without whom I would appraise the inevitable ups and downs of life much differently than I do now. I am grateful for Bucknell assistant coach, Kristine Gaswint, for her compassion and incredible emotional support, her levelheaded demeanor, and her selfless willingness to be ever-present during each step of my unpredictable final year. Finally, it is unlikely that I would have been able to continue my swimming career without Dr. Peter Rowe at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, who quite literally keeps me on my feet, and who’s attentiveness and genuine care for my well-being gave me a fighting chance. To my parents, whose persistent love, compassion, and optimism on my darkest days always kept my chin up, who supported my development through a passion that was uniquely mine, and who ultimately provided me with this opportunity to learn.
Diana Hanson’s Bio
Diana Hanson is a recent honors graduate of Bucknell University where she was a four-year competitor for the swimming and diving program. She began swimming with NCAP in 2009 and continued to train with and compete for the club throughout her collegiate career.