Watching Trials From the Hospital
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
When the vomiting didn’t stop, Lauren English knew she was in trouble.
The doctors didn’t know what was wrong. Neither did trainers, coaches, teammates friends, or family. Lauren English, swimmer at the University of Georgia, had just completed her senior year. She had overcome a broken wrist and had started training for the Olympic Trials. This was March – a week after the 2012 NCAA Championships. Her Trials training didn’t last long.
“I couldn’t kick. I can’t explain it,” Lauren said. “I was in practice, and it hurt so much, I had to get out and went into the locker room and threw up.”
Her coaches knew something was wrong. Lauren saw doctors, was given medications, but no one knew what was going on. Weeks later, Lauren vomited pure bile. Her roommate said, “This isn’t right.” Lauren saw more doctors. More tests.
“I was in the hospital for 5 days,” Lauren said. “I did tests. Nothing came out positive. And it was frustrating – I was weak, hurting, throwing up. I knew it wasn’t right. They said, ‘Let’s try taking out your gall bladder.’”
Things got worse.
The vomiting continued. After having her gall bladder removed, Lauren couldn’t keep anything down. Lauren saw a specialist in New York City. This doctor told Lauren that she had a condition known as sphincter of Oddi dysfunction. There were stones in her sphincter. Which is as pleasant – and painful -- as it sounds. Lauren had another surgery to fix the condition.
Things got worse.
“When I woke up, I was in the biggest pain of my life,” Lauren said. “I would not wish this pain on my worst enemy. I was clutching the side of my bed in the fetal position.”
Lauren developed pancreatitis. She had to be hospitalized longer. She had to be put on an IV diet. And this was Friday – three days before the Olympic Trials were scheduled begin.
Trials started without her.
Imagine Lauren, bedridden in the hospital, having undergone treatments, surgeries, and horrendous, confusing, and frustrating experiences. Instead of training for the Trials, Lauren was in the hospital. Instead of swimming alongside teammates, Lauren cheered from afar. Instead of competing, Lauren English could only lay in bed with an IV feeding her. She had to watch the Olympic Trials from a hospital bed.
A Star Crossed Career
We caught up over the phone following the conclusion of the Olympic Trials. Lauren’s email included a description of her story followed by her perspective on swimming. She said, “I just want to wish everyone good luck, and know never to take swimming for granted! Once you have swimming in your heart it will never go away!” She told me to give warning before calling so she could wean off medications and not sound “sleepy.” She then wrote, “Hope all is well and hope you are just as excited as I am about Trials!”
So I called Lauren. I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe someone who sounded “sleepy,” or depressed, sedated, or medicated. Instead, Lauren sounded upbeat and enthusiastic, well spoken and articulate. She was at home, out of the hospital, in bed, resting and recovering. She told me about her swimming journey thus far:
Lauren was 14, she finished 9th at the 2004 Olympic Trials. She was ecstatic. She figured she’d have two more Trials to improve – 2008 and 2012. Then, at the 2006 National Championships, she placed second in the 100m back. She made the Pan Pacific team.
Then the injuries began.
At Lauren’s first SEC Championship at Georgia, Lauren tore her shoulder in the preliminaries of the 100 back. Most swimmers would quit, see a doctor, and stop swimming. Lauren had other plans. In the finals of the 100 back, while other swimmers splashed and stroked for victory, Lauren kicked. With a torn shoulder labrum, Lauren kicked the entire 100 backstroke to earn her team 8th place points. Since she had qualified for the finals, all she had to do to earn points was finish. Beforehand, Lauren and her coaches checked with the meet officials to make sure she wouldn’t be disqualified. She wanted to swim. She kicked a 1:03. When she finished, her coaches pulled her out of the water.
Lauren had surgery. She redshirted her sophomore year. She missed the 2008 Trials. She went to physical therapy every day to overcome the torn labrum. She came back her junior year. She swam as well as anyone could coming off an injury. She set herself up for a great senior year. Then, freakishly, while at a tutoring session for the GREs, she fell down the stairs and broke her wrist.
Lauren finished her senior year. One week after her NCAA career ended, Lauren decided she’d give the Olympic Trials one last try. One last attempt to improve that 9th placement she got eight years prior. She decided she would train hard. She would give it her best shot. She’d do anything it took. She’d have one swim season where nothing bad happened – no broken bones, no torn shoulders.
Then she started vomiting.
“I was so amped and ready for long course season,” Lauren said. “I love long course, and I was having great practices, leading my lane. I felt good. My backstroke felt good. I knew I could have a great summer. I was recharged. If I didn’t have pain, I would have gone to Trials.”
Lauren remembers cheering from the hospital bed for her teammates. She remembers sharing a room with someone with a kidney disorder, and both of them cheering NBC’s primetime telecasts. She remembers nurses coming in -- knowing she was a swimmer -- and watching the meet with her. She didn’t tell some teammates about her condition because she didn’t want them concerned going into the biggest meet of their lives. While existing on an IV diet in the hospital, Lauren was focused on her teammates. Which is only fitting, coming from the same girl who kicked a 100 backstroke with a torn labrum.
The worst part was, for a while, some didn’t believe her.
“I think the biggest frustration was you know you’re sick, and you know something’s not right, but no one seemed to know, and they questioned you,” Lauren said. “And that makes you question yourself. Am I insane? Am I making this up in my head? They recommended me to go to a psychiatrist because they didn’t believe I had problems.”
Through it all, she found her positive perspective.
“I know I’ve had a lot of downfalls. More than other people. But it gives me a perspective on swimming, and more so on life,” Lauren said. “There will be things that happen unexpectedly. But you can’t stop. You can’t back down. You can’t say, ‘This situation has taken over me.’ You have to get through it and get over it.”
Lauren is at home in New Jersey. She rests in bed, but has some strength to make day excursions. She even made it to the ocean.
“I’ve been in the ocean and splashed around in the waves and have been like, ‘Aw, this feels so good.’ This is what I was made to do.”
She says she wants to swim. If she could do anything, she’d swim. Lap up and down. Maybe train again. A good, long set. She says she’ll do Masters Swimming “for sure.” But that’s down the road. For now, all she wants is to get healthy.
Lauren admitted to feeling depressed. She admitted to feeling down about some aspects of her career. That she missed so many competitions due to injury. But her silver lining is that you can learn from everything – even bad things. She learned to carry these lessons to other endeavors. Worse things could have happened, she says. In the grand scheme of life, she says, much worse things could have happened.
“It was unfortunate with my career. But there are worse things that could have happened. I’m glad it’s not something more prohibitive. It did take away something I loved, and I’ll always be a little sad. But if I looked back with regret, I could never look forward. “
Still, you feel for her. You wish she could have had one more swim at the Olympic Trials. Scanning the heat sheets, you’d never imagine that some of the 14-year-old swimmers would never get another shot. But it’s true. Some won’t.
That’s what’s inspiring about Lauren’s story. Listening on the phone to her upbeat personality, her fighting words, you feel as though she could accomplish anything. She’s already been through so much. After feeling depressed, Lauren found herself again. She found the fighting spirit. She found the person who looks forward, not backward.
“I think with swimming, people admire those with such talent and those who make the Olympics,” Lauren said. “But there are a lot of people out there with injuries like me, and struggling to keep up with the status quo. Anyone who has a disadvantage, keep fighting. If this is something you want to do, it will come. And it makes you all the stronger person because of it, to be a fighter. You can become so much more.”
For now, Lauren waits. She waits to get better. She waits for that day, maybe a tranquil, foggy morning, to go back to the ocean. To swim against the breakers, as wave after wave crashes against her, as she swims onwards.
Lauren is contemplating becoming a nurse.
“Since I have been in the hospital so much, I’ve learned to care for others just as much to care for myself.”
She’d already know a thing or two.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer with USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.