All my life, I’ve known one thing: I want to represent my country, swim at the highest level, and compete against the best athletes in the world in the sport that I love.
So last year, in the middle of training and recovery (I’ll get into that in a second), during maybe one of the lowest points in my swimming career, my wife Ali asked me why I was still doing this. Why was I training two to three times per day? Why was I putting such a demanding physical toll on my body? Why did I still want to compete?
And for the first time in my life as a swimmer, I simply could not answer that question.
And that was scary.
After all, I had been to the very top of swimming. I had won my signature event, the 100 meter breaststroke, at the 2014 U.S. Nationals. I had won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. I had won a bronze medal in the 100 meter breaststroke, at those same Olympics. I carried that momentum and success into launching a successful social media platform through YouTube videos and Instagram and Twitter content. Everything was going just the way I wanted it to go for so many years.
So why, after just a few years after this amazing and life-changing success, did I not know the answer to the question of “do I even want to keep doing this?”
To answer that question, I need to take you through a series of events.
All the way through the Rio Olympics, into 2017 and carrying over into 2018, I continued to train with the professional group at Indiana University under Head Coach Ray Looze. And while I certainly did not maintain the same workload and training regimen as I did prior to Rio throughout that entire time, by the time 2018 rolled around I was ready to get my body back into peak racing form. Unfortunately, my body wasn’t necessarily going to cooperate.
For the first half of 2018, I experienced a tremendous amount of pain in my knees – the part of the body that, for a breaststroker, undergoes the most amount of intense torque, pressure, and overall wear and tear of any part of the body, and arguably any other part of the body of any other stroke specialist in the sport of swimming. Think of an NFL running back, who, over a career’s worth of cutting, changing direction, and absorbing blows from grown men two to three times his size, eventually has their body wear down. My knees were the equivalent of that running back; damaged, strained, and painful.
Perhaps my biggest mistake in this whole journey was the decision to simply push through that pain. Over the course of a swimming season, we go through an absolutely ridiculous amount of training; in the water, out of the water, weight training, dryland training (which focuses on core and overall body strength in a wide variety of different ways). All that time, the body is in a constant state of discomfort. What I failed to recognize, though, was in the case of my knees, it was not discomfort, but rather a broken part. And because I tried to push through it, that broken part became more and more broken.
So fast forward to 2018 U.S. Nationals, and because of the extent of these injuries, and more importantly how it impacted my training, I did not have a good meet.
I placed fifth in the 100-meter breaststroke, and fell outside of the necessary world rankings that qualify me toward funding from USA Swimming. It also took me out of competing at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. The finish also caused me to fall out of favor with some of my swimming sponsorships, which are tied to performance in the pool.
In short, it was not a good meet, and because of it, I lost out on a lot of money and a lot of opportunities. And as someone whose primary source of employment is as a professional swimmer, missing out on this money meant that I wasn’t going to be able to provide for my family in the way that I want to, and that is not a good feeling.
I needed to get to the bottom of what was happening with my body, and I took serious steps to do so.
I’m no doctor, so bear with me through my explanation of what was happening with my body:
- I have what is called Plica Syndrome, which is essentially the breakdown or irritation of the layers of tissue that fold and line the joint in the knee. This was caused by simply overusing that joint and continually breaking down these folds of tissue through countless breaststroke kicks. Again, think about that running back.
- Because of the Plica Syndrome, I was unknowingly favoring the other knee, causing to accelerate the over-working of that knee.
- From there, the Vastus Medialis (otherwise known as the VMO), which is the big muscle that runs on the inside of your quadriceps muscle from the inner part of your leg and through the knee, and is THE muscle for breaststroke kick, shrunk 70% over an eight-month period. Yup – 70%. Big trouble.
- And finally, the icing on the cake, I had small tears all throughout my MCL and meniscus, and a ridiculous amount of unoxygenated blood that was causing more pain, more inflammation, and more discomfort.
Again, I’m no doctor, but once I realized what was actually happening with my knees, I finally knew what I needed to do to combat it and finally get back to feeling like myself again.
So, I saw more doctors. I saw physical therapists. I even went so far as to drain all that unoxygenated blood out of my knees to get them back to some semblance of normal size and function (you should check out the video on my YouTube channel of me going through that procedure – it’s pretty gross!).
Now, I arrive to each practice a solid 20-30 minutes before any of my teammates, just so I can go through the appropriate exercises to strengthen, stabilize, and protect my knees. It’s a drag, but it’s what I have to do.
But through that discovery and recovery, I have made a complete 180-degree recovery and am finally beginning to get back to doing the things I want to do in the pool. Recently at the TYR Pro Series meet at one of my favorite pools in the world in my hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, I not only won the 100 breaststroke with a time that was faster than that magical race at the ’14 Nationals in Irvine, I also won the 200 breaststroke, going a personal best for the first time in four years. It was an amazing meet, and importantly for me, it was a meet that showed the world – and showed myself – that I was back.
And now, my horizon is super bright. Over the course of the past few months, I signed with DC Trident, which is part of the new International Swimming League (ISL). This league is an incredibly exciting development in our sport. Most importantly, the league puts tremendous value in its athletes, and compensates them accordingly. It makes it so athletes like me and swimmers all over the world who may not be afforded the same sponsorship or other financially-beneficial opportunities as some do in the sport are able to simply make money. Again, think about that NFL running back. He plays for a team, he has a contract, and he’s able to support himself by playing football.
Another aspect of the ISL that I am incredibly proud of and support is the fact that prioritizes gender equality. Each team has 12 male and 12 female swimmers, and in the case of DC Trident and many other teams in the league, all of the athletes get paid exactly the same amount. That’s truly groundbreaking not only in swimming, but in professional sports.
DC Trident is headed up by its General Manager Kaitlin Sandeno. You might know her from her own amazing swimming career as an Olympic multi-medalist and now as a media personality with USA Swimming’s Deck Pass and other platforms. She was a truly amazing partner throughout the process of signing with DC Trident, mostly because the bulk of the time that I was learning more about the team and the league and eventually negotiating a contracting and signing was spent dealing with the real down part of my injury. But Kaitlin showed faith in my ability to bounce back and be a leader of this team both in and out of the pool, and that’s what I plan to do. I’m super psyched to be a part of this amazing new development for our sport.
As I write this, I am gearing up for the Pan-American Games in Lima, Peru, where I am representing Team USA by swimming, once again, the 100 breaststroke. I’m at a point in my training where I am feeling fast, strong, and ready to race. I can’t wait to see if I can carry the momentum from my awesome meet in Indianapolis and once again make my mark on the international swimming stage.
There are a few things that I credit my ‘comeback’ to. One is the fact that I have surrounded myself with amazing people who have helped me every day get through one of the most challenging times in my professional life – from my wife Ali, to my coaches, to my teammates who I train with every day at Indiana University, to Kaitlin and the DC Trident team. Another is the amazing group of doctors and specialists who were able to help me get back to performing at my best.
But I also give myself a pat on the back as well; because without determination, grit, self-awareness and perseverance, I think I’d still be left unable to answer Ali’s question of why am I still doing this? And I think it goes to show, if you believe in yourself and your ability to overcome whatever obstacle is thrown at you, your answer to that question can be what mine is now: because I love it.