Life has taken me as high as ranking top-30 in the world in the 100-meter butterfly to as low as multiple doctors in the ER telling me I was not expected to survive.
I went through an 18-month spree of multiple surgeries and a couple of injuries that should have ended my swimming career, if not my life.
When reflecting on this time period, one specific memory stands out. It was a Halloween night when I was in a hammock about 20-plus feet in the air between two trees. The clip behind me broke and I fell head-first onto the ground.
I spent over a week in and out of the emergency room with about a dozen doctors telling me I shouldn’t have survived the fall. “I didn’t just dodge a bullet, I dodged a missile” they all told me. My next three months were spent locked in my dark room with no electronics or lights.
That was the first turning point.
I had no other choice but to face myself in that darkness. It was a moment for self-reflection to ensure I was a new person when it was time to step back out into the light.
Before those few months in and out of the hospital, I was the type of person that always wanted to take control of everything I was doing.
I wanted to get back to swimming. I wanted to do it this way. I wanted to be good.
It was always I, I, I.
When I’d try to push the envelope and get things rolling again, something would always inhibit that in some way. Things just kept happening to me.
You can call them coincidences or messages, but after my near fatal fall, I finally gave in.
I realized it wasn’t my story.
That was the moment when I let my faith take over.
I started to go into everything with an open mind and heart. It became more about me simply allowing things to fall into place naturally than forcing them.
A top orthopedic surgeon in the country told me I’d never be able to swim the butterfly again. Fortunately, my story was beyond his control as well.
I worked my way back and went on to make the Olympic Trials. My entire attitude shifted in training, lifting and running. I stopped doing and started listening.
Swimming is an incredibly competitive sport and I was always willing to put in more than just blood, sweat and tears to be great at it.
It’s hard to explain to other people, but swimming is like running while holding your breath. It’s all-out physical exertion with as little oxygen as possible. I wasn’t going anywhere beyond high school in a sport like that with my previous state of mind.
My new outlook on life led to an Olympic Trials appearance and my phone eventually ringing with calls from college coaches from all over the country.
I had about 30 different coaches calling me, along with receiving countless letters and emails. I took the time to go through every offer, regardless of division. I wanted to be thorough in my search for the right fit.
There was a real cultural change, especially coming from Chicago, when I started to visit SEC schools.
I absolutely loved my visits to the south and one visit in particular captivated me.
I remember driving down University Boulevard at The University of Alabama and just being blown away seeing all of the houses lined up. There was a feel to the campus that just reminded me of home, it was somewhere I could see myself for at least the next 4 years.
I also had an instant connection with the coaches and meshed really well with the team. They all talked about training in terms that made sense to me to the point where even my mom nodded in agreement.
It was at that moment I knew Alabama was the perfect place for me.
You often hear about people getting homesick and missing the life they had before college but that was never really an issue for me. I grew up in a setting where I was able to leave home and not really have any emotions about it.
It wasn’t really until sophomore year that a lot of questions in my life started to arise, though.
There were so many social, physical and emotional problems that started creeping in, particularly with me being away from home for so long.
I essentially went from a very small private high school to an exceptionally large state school. There were suddenly concerns of what I planned on doing after college and where I planned on going, even though that path had been set in stone for years.
I always knew what I wanted to do and, without any reasoning whatsoever, I suddenly didn’t seem to understand anymore.
I started questioning if I should even be swimming, period.
The hard part about college sports is the commitment it takes to be successful, which is something I was all-in for during my freshman year.
I’d been hitting double training sessions every day for a couple years at that point. That’s when sleep deprivation, school and the mental capacity for completing all of my tasks started taking a toll. Swimming is just very constant, and I was starting to feel overwhelmed.
So I decided to take six weeks off near the end of my sophomore year. I hung out with friends, focused on school and didn’t even think about swimming. I went into college with this goal of how I’d progress through the years and I suddenly didn’t have the drive anymore.
The coaches were very understanding and, thankfully, they allowed me to take the time off to decompress.
I was on a camping trip with my family at Yellowstone Park when I got the news. New coaches, standards and training—everything was changing.
Coley Stickels had been named the new swimming and diving head coach. We’d be given a chance to train with Olympic medalists and world record holders. That wasn’t a typical occurrence with our program at the time.
I honestly don’t know what it was exactly, but something just sparked in me. I went from not even thinking about swimming to taking the first flight out of Yellowstone back to campus to work my butt off.
I was in full-on attack mode.
It was really just a restarting of the engine and getting all of the oil and gas burning again.
And fortunately, my parents have been really supportive.
I could do a million other things in my life, but there’s nothing right now that can take me out of the pool.
I definitely plan on going out with a bang in my senior year. When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an Olympian and compete for the United States. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that dream.
Yes, I want to be an Olympian. I want to go on to the world championships and win medals for my country. I want to compete against the best swimmers in the world.
I will make sure I do anything and everything I can in my power to better my team at The University of Alabama. Wherever it takes me, I will always put every ounce of effort into it.
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t count my blessings and show my gratitude through the endless blood, sweat, and tears.
Where my senior year takes me is unclear, but hard lessons of life have taught me much about dealing with uncertainty.
What I do know though is that I will give it my all every single day.
I look forward to seeing what the future holds. I feel blessed to be living my dream.