Going backward to swim forward

IN THE POOL, my shoulders were squealing and screaming in agony. The pain was too much to bear. It felt as though my shoulder blades were being torn apart like a wishbone. Every muscle in my body shouted for me to stop swimming.

I didn’t want to surrender to the pain, but I knew I had no other choice. I dragged myself out of the pool during swim practice in the winter of 2014, took the walk of shame toward the bench and sat in sorrow. I held my head in my hands, hiding my ruby red cheeks while my ears steamed with anger.

St. Paul Johnson boys swim team
Aaron Young (middle row, fifth from left) and the St. Paul Johnson boys swim team. Young a senior, had to relearn to swim after suffering an injury to both shoulders during his junior season.

Sitting on the bench reminded me of my past struggles. During my freshman year, I was diagnosed with Raynaud’s disease—a circulatory issue that causes a cold, uncomfortable sensation in my hands—and due to shock and frustration, I dropped out of swimming. The following year I suf­fered a sinus infection and appeared sluggish and slow upon return. As the season began junior year, I was side­lined while recovering from a cyst, and I didn’t make my debut until midway through the season.

Instead of giving up, I decided to confront my misbehaving shoulders and sought assistance on the matter, as I had done before. I hung up my goggles for the year in swimming, but I knew this wasn’t the end. It was only the beginning of the biggest hurdle I had to face in my swimming career.

I took my bent-out shoulders to the doctor for an examination. The doctor asked me to extend and stretch my arms out. I played the role of a puppet, moving at the com­mands of the doctor’s voice. My face grimaced from the pain as I maneu­vered my shoulders in the proper directions.

I was diagnosed with swimmer’s shoulder, a condition in which inflammation occurs in the rota­tor cuff. Upon discovering this news, I was devastated that I had to overcome yet another obstacle in my swimming career. I didn’t want to surrender, but at the same time I was frustrated that I wasn’t able to competitively swim for the rest of my junior year. Both my rotator cuffs had “In need of repair” signs on them, and the doctors told me I needed to undergo physical therapy to fix them.

Each week at OSI Therapy, I performed a variety of drills, ranging from basic stretches to weightlifting to complex band stretches. I also got to feel the pain of needles being poked into my shoulder muscles during acu­puncture. I had no other choice but to confront the pain head on.

When I first started therapy, I would be forced to lift my shoulders up in agony, sometimes with a two-pound weight in hand. As I stretched my arm outward, the anguishing pain would immediately come back, and I was forced to face the fact that the recovery process would be more difficult than I thought. It was exhausting and frustrating, but I was determined more than ever to get these shoulders back in action.

After months of rehab, my shoul­ders were finally getting back on track. The next challenge would be relearning how to swim. Although my shoulders were getting signifi­cantly better, the core of the issue was yet to be solved. To relearn proper swim techniques, I went to Viverant, a physical therapy clinic, where I worked with a swimming specialist. Unlike at OSI, where I went through the basic exercises, this time I targeted specific muscle groups to improve my freestyle stroke and speed. I also worked with a swim coach at Foss Swim School to master the fundamentals of each stroke.

As I returned to the pool in my senior year, I was ready to put all the knowledge and strength I had gathered on display. I jumped into the pool on the first day of practice and started swimming. This time, though, it was different. I was out­performing many of my teammates and darting through the water like a bullet. My freestyle was at a top-notch level. My coach recognized how far I had come and told me my stroke looked better than ever.

When the first meet came around, I was ready to showcase my talents to my teammates, my coach and my parents. I wanted to show them the progress that had been made. Not only did I swim well, I ended up fin­ishing first in all my races that night.

Through this experience, I learned that sometimes in life, you need to take a few steps backward before you can progress forward. I had to go through physical therapy and relearn how to swim in order to get launched in the right direction. As a result, I have become a more resilient human being and have grown in charac­ter, knowing I can accomplish and overcome anything that comes my way in life.