Why We Play: Jonah Strand, Swimming

I didn’t go any best times during my freshman year. It was the first instance that I hadn’t improved during a season, and it destroyed my confidence. That summer, I went home to work as a lifeguard and to coach/swim on my six-week, summer team, where I’d learned to swim at five years old. I was determined to break our 100-meter breaststroke record, and since I was 18, it was my last chance. At our third meet, my goggles filled with water during warmup, and I hit the wall with my right hand so hard while practicing a turn that two of my metacarpals broke completely. My last season on the team on which I’d swum for 13 years was over, just like that.

I was distraught. At our summer championship meet, the winner of the 100 breaststroke swam a 1:02.10, two seconds slower than my best time. I watched in a cast from the side of the pool.

My desire to get back to training festered for the entire summer. To channel my frustration, I played pick-up Ultimate and learned to do everything with my left hand, including throw a hammer.

When I got back to school, I realized my left side had gotten significantly stronger and more coordinated. I could finally take off my cast and start to practice again. Not only that, but I felt driven. I had been complacent with swimming. My failure in my first collegiate season and then my squandered opportunity to break the record over the summer helped me to realize how ungrateful I had been. Now, for this past season, I wanted to prove to myself and to my competitors that I wasn’t just on the swim team to have a friend group, or to stay in good shape. I was here to make my mark. I was here to win.

I devoted everything to training. I got more sleep, and I went to all of the extra practices. I started lifting three times a week and eating more. My lifting numbers went up, and I noticed my times go down. I trained harder and pushed my body. I did it all for two two-minute races and one one-minute race at our championship meet. In one race, the 100 breaststroke, I broke both the 50 and 100 records. I broke a third in the 200-meter IM. Now, looking back on my first year and on my injury, even though I cried all the way to the emergency room, I couldn’t be more thankful. It made me remember why I swim, and it proved to me that I can always give more, practice smarter and race harder. I just had to put on my blinders, keep my head down and get my hands on the wall first.

I spent the following summer continuing to train hard, but another barrier was thrown in my way. My older sister had been struggling with serious health problems since we were both in middle school, and after nine years of frequent hospital visits, she was finally diagnosed. She had mast cell disorder, which is when your body responds to almost any compound as if it’s an allergen. And that wasn’t it—she was also diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos (EDS), a relatively uncommon genetic disorder affecting the collagen in one’s body. The disorder is associated with reduced muscle strength, loose skin, weak joints, frequent dislocations and hypermobility. Occasionally, those affected experience serious malfunctioning in their hearts and other organs, so my sister had to get an echocardiogram, a much more serious test than a simple electrocardiogram (EKG). Thankfully, they didn’t find anything wrong. As my sister’s doctor informed her, she wasn’t the only person that needed to be tested.

It was possible that I also had it. I went to see my sister’s doctor, and she diagnosed me with EDS. She was unsure what type I had, so I was required to get an echocardiogram as well. The problem was, I was just about to start our fall swim season, and the only doctor qualified to examine the echocardiogram for EDS was nearly impossible to make an appointment with. So, my appointment was set for three weeks into the swim season, and I wasn’t cleared to swim. It was a repeat of last year, with me sitting on the sidelines waiting to be medically cleared to practice and compete, and it frustrated me even more this time. I was sure that nothing was going to happen to my heart at this point, not after the thousands of hours spent pushing my body to the limit over the past 13 years. I wasn’t going to collapse now.

I was angry, so I went to the gym every day and lifted. I channeled all of my emotion into getting stronger. By the time I was cleared to swim without any heart problems, I’d missed an entire month of practice. Not only that, but I’d come to fully understand that I’d always had a genetic disadvantage.

I didn’t let those thoughts enter my head. Situation didn’t matter anymore. I was ready once again to prove to myself, to my competitors, to my teammates, to my friends and to my family that I didn’t have any limitations. So I did the same thing again. I kept my head down, and I trained. At the end of the season, I broke four records and received second in the Upper New York State Collegiate Swimming Association Championships in the 100 breastroke.

Now I’m graduating in two weeks and I’m officially a “swammer,” but I won’t ever forget what I learned during those two years. Yes, I like winning, and I like breaking records, but that isn’t it. That’s not why I swim. I train hard and I practice relentlessly not for some selfish endeavor, but because tomorrow is a different day, and who knows what’ll get in the way. So today I keep my head down, and I get my hand on the wall, because tomorrow I might not be able to.

One Comment

  1. What a beautiful, mature and authentically raw account of your journey Jonah. I’m sure it will inspire others. Congratulations, and thank you for sharing !

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