2022-12-02 19:34:34 By : Ms. Lin Li

I was 20 feet up when the ladder started to slide. High above the staircase in my entryway, prepping the wall for paint, I didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late. I tumbled 15 feet and landed on the hardwood floor. I knew I was hurt the second I landed — the pain was instantaneous — but I didn’t know how badly until I arrived at the hospital.

The doctor turned his computer screen around so I could see the break in my back. On the X-ray, a white line crossed all three columns of my first lumbar vertebrae, which carries the weight of the rib cage. I’d also fractured my wrist and shattered a bone in my heel. I’d need surgery to reconstruct my wrist and heel. For my broken back, I had two options: surgically implanted screws to stabilize my vertebrae or months of immobilization in an orthotic brace.

I had only one question. “Which option would get me back in the pool the fastest?”

“You have a long road of recovery ahead,” the doctor said. “Focus on getting better.”

He didn’t understand. Swimming wasn’t my hobby; it was my lifeblood. Twenty-plus years since I’d finished college, I swam at least two miles every morning, five, and sometimes six, days a week. I’d swum across shipwreck-strewn channels in Lake Michigan and thousand-foot-deep canyons in the Pacific Ocean. Some guys fly around the world chasing fresh powder or monster swells; I’d once flown to Croatia to swim through submarine tunnels used in World War II. It was 2021, and pool closures during the pandemic had already cost me months of swimming; the prospect of being out of the water for another extended period was worse than losing the use of my dominant hand. Though, as I would soon learn, that was a royal pain, too.

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I chose the brace. Made of hard plastic, it stretched from my throat to my pelvis, the two halves winched together with Velcro straps looped through steel buckles. Sort of like a straitjacket without the sleeves. I had to wear it 24/7, including to bed and in the shower. Titanium plates were bolted to my right arm and foot, then cast in plaster. I went home in a wheelchair.

At first, I needed help just to sit up, which meant I needed help with pretty much everything. If you’re ever wondering whether your partner really loves you, ask them to shower you down while your torso’s encased in Tupperware and your leg and arm are duct-taped inside Hefty bags. My wife did the job for months and, amazingly, she’s still around.

By the start of the summer, I’d gone from the wheelchair to a walker, then to a four-pronged cane. The back brace, however, stayed put well into June. I pleaded with my nurse practitioner to let me take it off at night, but she said no dice. She did, however, offer a compromise: I could try swimming, provided I wore the brace in the water.

My first morning back at the pool, a guy asked if my brace was a training device to help refine my body position. “Something like that,” I said, tightening the Velcro. The lifeguards stood at the end of my lane when I slipped into the water, their rescue buoys at the ready. The water filled the brace. I took a breath and went under. I nearly wept with relief.

I couldn’t flip turn, and my stroke looked like an elephant seal hauling up a beach, but my God, it felt good to be in the water. A month later, when the brace finally came off, my core and back muscles were almost completely atrophied. I’d need six months of physical therapy to build them back up again. All summer I swam at the back of the lane, quickly winded and easily fatigued.

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By Thanksgiving, I was more or less back to my old self. My back was still weak and walking on uneven surfaces made my foot throb, but I’d steadily increased my distance in the pool. I wasn’t fast and probably never would be again, but I’d survived a fall that could have killed me. I tried to keep that in mind.

On New Year’s Eve, I joined a crowd of die-hards for our annual Big Swim: what’s known in the swimming world as 100 100s. (Olympic pools are 50 meters, but the pool at your gym or local high school is almost certainly 25 yards. The hundred is four lengths of the pool. Repeat that 100 times and you get to 10,000 yards.) Swimming that long takes several hours and groups often make an event out of it, with snacks and music. Most years, I’m eager to get the set over with, but this time around something strange happened. I felt better the longer I swam. My back and foot felt loose. My arms, though tired, held up.

I started adding an extra mile to my morning swims and keeping track of my distance. I logged 80,000 yards in January, then 85,000 in February (about 45 and 48 miles, respectively). As I neared the first anniversary of my accident, I wondered how I might commemorate the experience. I considered getting a tattoo, something totally wicked and fierce, like a Minotaur biting off the head of a cobra, but then I had a better idea. I’d swim 100,000 yards, or 60 miles, in a single month.

I decided to swim 5,000 yards per day, five days per week. I broke each workout into five 1,000-yard segments, with each segment lasting roughly 15 minutes. I devoted one segment to kicking with fins, which not only helped strengthen my core but also increased the flexibility in my foot. In the second half, I worked on increasing my pace and reducing my rest.

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Within a week, the pace I could comfortably maintain over an extended period dropped by five seconds per 100. I went from making 100s on 1:20 down to 1:15. Then my pace dropped again, to 1:10. I could hold my speed with only a few seconds of rest between swims. My yardage count began to stack up. Counting backward from 100,000, I watched my remaining distance shrink by the day.

My final week of the challenge, I leaned into a set of 100s on 1:05 — an interval I hadn’t been able to hold since my 20s. I powered through them, one after another, my hips turning like a rototiller. At some point during the month, I’d punched through a barrier and found a gear I thought I’d lost forever. I won’t be climbing ladders anytime soon, but the accident nevertheless forced me to dig deep inside myself and to keep things in perspective. The fatigue of a hard swim was nothing compared to the pain I’d already endured. If I could come through that, I could handle anything.

What’s the line from Friedrich Nietzsche? That which does not kill us makes us stronger? There might be something to it, after all.

David McGlynn is a freelance writer based in Madison, Wis. His most recent book is “One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons From an Unexpected Fatherhood.”