Life as a Swimmer with Crohn's Disease

My hands were shaking uncontrollably and I could barely see straight.

All I thought to do was look up into the stands around me and try to soak in the moment. Countless yards and practices behind me all for this very one moment that would encapsulate my time as a high school athlete. Hundreds of parents, children, students, and coaches were jam packed into Canton, Ohio’s C.T. Branin Natatorium on a frigid February evening for the state swimming meet and this would be the last time I would touch this pool that I had come to know so well.

There was no looking back. My first relay member was on the block and in my head I was telling myself over and over to remain calm and remind myself of the significance this final race. My coach came up to me a few minutes earlier, grabbed my shoulder, looked directly into my eyes and said, “Motch, the state meet is gonna come down to you.” Never in my life had I felt so anxious, excited, pressured, and nostalgic all at once.

Dive In

Two of my teammates had finished their swims and a third one was barreling through the water, flying his arms as fast as he could trying to get to the wall. I stepped up onto the block with chants of my name ringing from the student section behind me.

Entering the water in a three way tie for the state title I put all of my thoughts behind me and left everything I had in the water. It passed so fast that I barely remember how it happened, but I managed to sneak my hand in, just out-touching those on either side of me.

And as I walked up the steps onto the podium to receive the medals with my teammates I stopped and in an instant everything around me crashed to a halt. My racing thoughts came to a standstill, and for those few moments, all I did was smile. In the wake of emotion atop the podium, looking around at all of my family members, friends, classmates, teammates, and coaches, I thought back to how it was even possible for me to get there in the first place…

Entering the water in a three way tie for the state title I put all of my thoughts behind me and left everything I had in the water.

How did I get there? One moment that still stood out to me four years later was the memory of this little boy who stared at himself in the mirror and realized something was wrong. His skin was pale, his eyes were dark, and he looked exhausted.

He knew that this was a clear indication that he should have gone home and rested, but instead he blocked out any feelings of concern and continued to hoist a pair of dumbbells above his shoulders. Football and soccer players filled the weight room on a mid-summer morning, and as a rising eighth grader, he tried his best to keep up, his muscles trembling painfully. For weeks he experienced dizziness, fatigue, abdominal pain, weight loss and (worst of all) frequent and unpredictable trips to the restroom. Things began to change inside of him and he no longer felt normal. Emotions and thoughts filled his brain as he pondered the reasoning behind and the consequences of what was going on.

For weeks he experienced dizziness, fatigue, abdominal pain, weight loss and (worst of all) frequent and unpredictable trips to the restroom.

Sentiments of fear, uncertainty, doubt, inferiority, and weakness overcame him as he slowly began to get worse. For his entire life he had the mentality that something such as this could never happen to him. He thought he was invincible and unconquerable by any tragedy or illness that he might face. His body was failing on him, he didn’t know why, he was afraid, and his sense of control was gone. He refused to face the truth and acknowledge the severity of the situation, ignoring the problem and acting as if nothing was wrong.

Fear shot through his body as he looked into the mirror.

What was happening to me?

Was I going to be ok?

Why can’t things just go back to normal?

Having spent a total of eleven days in the hospital, he lost fifteen pounds, taking him down to only ninety-seven pounds total. Hope seemed to be completely lost for this little boy who was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at the age of fourteen, knowing he would have this incurable disease for the rest of his life. Little did he know that this disease would help shape him in ways he never even knew were possible.

Hope seemed to be completely lost for this little boy who was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease at the age of fourteen, knowing he would have this incurable disease for the rest of his life. Little did he know that this disease would help shape him in ways he never even knew were possible.

In the moments standing on the podium reflecting, I thought about how my entire life had been turned around with that diagnosis. 

My interests, hobbies, and approach to life had seemingly all altered in some way by my history. I went from a dominant force on the soccer field, basketball court, and baseball diamond to a fragile figure that was pushed around and spent a significant amount of time on the bench. After long consideration of what mattered to me, and what I wanted out of a sport, I returned to the call of the pool and rejoined the swim team.

An activity that I had previously dropped, swimming had brought me great success in the past, but I never enjoyed the ongoing practices that required me to go continuously back and forth in bitter cold water. This time the pool would become my home for good, as I not only rediscovered my drive for swimming, but it also helped me overcome the most difficult period of my life. Despite my return giving me a number of challenges, namely being one of the slower swimmers on the team, I still knew that I could potentially make something out of my time in the water by setting specific goals that I would try to attain as I improved and became one of the fastest swimmers in the state.

The pool would become my home for good, as I not only rediscovered my drive for swimming, but it also helped me overcome the most difficult period of my life.

Since I became aware of my Crohn's Disease, I have learned to think for myself and take charge of my health. I have grown to understand that doctors can only help a patient cure himself. 

I learned this lesson through an ongoing process of trial and error, trying to solve the mystery to a so-called never-ending illness. Fortunately, after many different approaches—including various diets and alternative medicine—I was able to maintain my health and regain my life. This twofold vision of looking within myself and seeking outside help was the central idea sparking my growth as a person, athlete, and student.

I learned that when dealt with a problem it is essential to look outward, accepting and adapting to a new environment; and to inward, aiming to discover resources that I didn’t even know I possessed. To confront a serious illness or any serious obstacle is not only to accept a new reality but also to be willing to be transformed by it. Experimenting with different approaches through the help of family, friends, and doctors, I was able to gage what worked best for me and help turn my life around for the better.

I have grown to understand that doctors can only help a patient cure himself.

With a newly discovered way to approach my health, I was able to delve fully into the sport of swimming and throw in all of my effort in trying to reach my goals.

Standing on top of the podium all I could think was how happy I was to be there. 

Podium

I was no longer the sick boy I was four years ago, the one who had almost forgotten what it meant to be healthy.

I discovered that healthiness was a daily and physical presence, rather than an absence of sickness. Realizing that I would deal with this obstacle for the rest of my life, I developed new habits in how I ate, worked, and took care of my body. There was no room for cheating my situation or acting as if it never happened. I had to dedicate my efforts towards treating my body well, taking my medications, eating the right foods, and making sure I could feel healthy.

I discovered that healthiness was a daily and physical presence, rather than an absence of sickness.

Snapping back to the moment I saw in front of me a shimmering gold piece of metal. It was cut into the shape of the state of Ohio and about the size of my palm. I had finally earned the entity that I had been working to hold for over four years. Immeasurable days spent on a pool deck or in a weight room giving all of my effort and beating up my body for this exact moment. Dreadful practices, time-consuming meets, long term progresses, and numerous failures were behind me as was my high school swimming career.

But in that instant I knew that all the work was worth it. Peering down into my hand I was reminded of the progress I had made—and the health I had regained—in facing my most rewarding and difficult experience. 

David
David Motch is a sophmore at Olin Business School, where he studies Healthcare Management. He is a competitive swimmer living with Crohn's.