Just Keep Swimming

Michaela Sandeno’s resilience over injury paid off in the end.

By Maggie Franke

Michaela Sandeno was one of those athletes that just could never seem to catch a break, even from a young age. She had a difficult time feeling normal at birthday parties for a reason one might not expect.

“I have celiac. I can’t have gluten or dairy and am allergic to soy,” Sandeno, a Wheaton College (Illinois) swimming and diving team member, said. “I am also allergic to nuts, citrus, any kind of pork or turkey and chocolate. The dietary restrictions were hard for birthday parties; I felt kind of left out when people had pizza, cake, and ice cream. I can’t have any of those.”

The Sandenos took time to figure out how to supplement her diet other ways, but she’s still pretty sure that she has a harder time getting enough nutrients.

“I think that my bones are just weaker because I don’t have milk to get those specific nutrients in the easiest way especially when I was growing up,” Sandeno conjectured. The injuries started early for her and affected her young athletic career.

In high school, she broke her hand and then tore her MCL in her knee and saphenous nerve a year later. Even if she could not swim completely, she found a way to stay in the water. This would mark the beginning of a long, hard journey of injury-ladden seasons.

Sweet fun but…

Coming to Wheaton College, an NCAA Division 3 school, was a straightforward choice for Sandeno. Both of her parents are alums, and the head coach at the time, Jon Lederhouse, recruited Sandeno to the women’s swimming team.

A boisterous group of young adults, the swim team has a wide range of quirky traditions that Sandeno experienced almost immediately. “I remember the mastodon march my freshman year. Will McCauley was wearing an orange speedo and was super close to my face. I also remember the slip and slide which was really fun,” Sandeno noted.

Intertwined with lighthearted fun, Sandeno experienced more injuries in college.  “At our Halloween party, I got my foot trapped under a table,” she said. “I was on crutches through Christmas training. I was out of three meets first semester. I swam (Wheaton) Invite, but I had to push off the block with one foot all the way up to conference.” Her foot still hurts to this day.

This setback did not stop Sandeno from completing the season to the best of her ability. Sandeno finished fourth in the 100-yard breaststroke, seventh in the 200-yard breaststroke, and 16th in the 200-yard individual medley as well.

That summer was probably some of the best training Sandeno has put in during her swimming career. At the Colorado summer club state meet, Sandeno finished third in both of her events, which was a great performance for her. She really enjoyed the opportunity to swim that summer with her club team.

The first half of her sophomore year was injury-free. Sandeno swam a best time in the 200-yard breaststroke at the annual Wheaton Invitational and was feeling hopeful about her season. Then she faced another injury.

“The Saturday after Invite, I hurt my back,” Sandeno said. “We treated it as a slipped disk or a bulging disk. I did STEM at the trainer and wore tape all the time. It really hurt to do breaststroke with my back injury because you have arch and flex your back a lot during that stroke. It hurt to breathe.”

This time when the conference came around, Sandeno did not perform as well, but there were more complicated situations changing. “I didn’t go any best times at conference which was pretty annoying. It was fun to have Kiki (Rogers) swim and be right with me in both of my events. She was way closer to me than I was to Erin (Bagley) or Kayla (Roberson) my freshman year.” The addition of having someone to train with took away a lot of the disappointment of that season.

That year Sandeno also swam on the top two medley relays as the breaststroke leg, which was a new and exciting experience. Part of the reason she came to Wheaton was to contribute more to a team, and that’s exactly what she was doing.

Painful setbacks

Unlike the previous summer, Sandeno did not train as heavily after her sophomore year because she went and studied geology in Wheaton’s Black Hills program. An academic opportunity few would pass up, this resulted in a motivated mentality to return to her sport as soon as she could. However, at the end of that summer, Sandeno suffered a mild concussion before having to get reconstructive surgery on her nose to fix a poorly healed broken nose from her childhood.

“I had stitches in my face,” Sandeno said. “Then when I could swim, I could not dive or compete until after the second meet. I could have ruptured where the stitches had been if I dove in.” Once again, Sandeno found herself unable to swim, but this was not her first choice and left her feeling dismayed even more when she saw how her team reacted.

Sandeno said, “I just wanted to swim again. I couldn’t experience the pain of the set if I went.” Her sense of shame made it difficult for her to approach her teammates about her experience with injury, and this left her feeling isolated. 

According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, 90 percent of student athletes report some sort of sports-related injuries. Be it the team dynamic, the culture of individual sports or the specific environment she was in, Sandeno felt alone when in reality she is one of many athletes who are disappointed, heartbroken and sad to be unable to participate to the best of their abilities in the sport they love so much.

Despite all of this, Sandeno bounced back at the end of the season and had a very successful conference meet. “I made my college goal of the 200IM breaking 2:16,” Sandeno smiled as she remembered. “I went best times in the 200 and 100 breaststroke, and I won both of those. It was a fun meet.” Sandeno was no longer an average contributor to her team, she was one of the best swimmers and an essential component to any of the team’s potential success.

Once again, Sandeno’s misfortunes continued when she suffered a concussion during a kickball game at a swim team captain’s practice that March. This was her fifth  concussion, at least, and she suffered whiplash alongside the brain injury.

According to the CDC, injuries associated with participation in sports and recreational activities account for 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries among children in the United States. Concussions are hard enough for doctors to diagnose, much less for the people experiencing them to describe what they are feeling physically, emotionally and psychologically. Sandeno’s experience was no different.

Sandeno described her difficulty explaining to others:

         “It’s hard to explain when you have a concussion especially to people who haven’t had concussions before. Just the constant pounding in your head and nothing makes it feel better except sleep. All you want to do is sleep, but then you’re at school. You can’t sleep. ”

Sandeno did feel like an outsider during her senior season. It was difficult for her to attend social team gatherings, and she could spend very little time on the pool deck without experiencing severe concussion headaches.

Unlike with other physical sports injuries, icing, athletic tape, stretching, and physical therapy do not help a concussion heal. The only thing that helps a concussion is resting as much as possible, which Sandeno could not afford to do as a busy college student vigorously studying and wanting to graduate on time.

Then, one of Wheaton’s athletic trainers Lance Mathieu helped reintroduce Sandeno to in-water training in October, but it was hard for them to figure out just how hard she was able to push herself.  “I never knew if it was hurting because I was pushing too hard or if it was hurting because I had a headache like I always did with my concussion. I could not figure that out,” Sandeno noted.

The Comeback

Bit-by-bit, Sandeno was able to work her way up to a full practice and by December she was back practicing with her team, traveling with them to train in Florida in early January and ready to compete by conference once again. She had to reintroduce herself into the team dynamic and did not always feel welcomed back.

At times she wanted to give up in utter discouragement, but she didn’t. “There was never a point in college where I gave up or didn’t try hard when I was able,” Sandeno said. “The reasons I wasn’t there was never because I didn’t want to. If I had been physically able to, I would have been there.” This resilience paid off.

Her final conference meet was her best meet yet. “I went a lifetime best in the 100 breaststroke four times (1:05.02) and a lifetime best on the relay in the 50 breaststroke (29.6). I got a lifetime best in the 200 breaststroke (2:23.77). Our 400 medley relay got first. I went a lifetime best in my 100 freestyle too.” In short, Sandeno swam better than she ever had before.

Reflecting back on her time as a college athlete, Sandeno wishes that she would have taken a year off to really heal from her concussion and is disappointed that she never had the opportunity to go to nationals. Sandeno believes that she did the best she could considering her history of recurring injury, but it was so much more than swimming well, winning, or getting recognition. Sandeno loves to swim.

“Swimming, I love it. I love the sport. It’s a lot of who I am. Discipline with practices, teamwork,” Sandeno said. While loving her team was made difficult by her circumstances, her love for the sport motivated her to never give up.

There are plenty of athletes who never face injuries during their athletic careers or those who earn easy success or those who strive for recognition. All of this is well and good, but it’s athletes like Michaela Sandeno that remind us what life is really about.

Rocky Balboa said that, “Nobody is going to hit as hard as life.” Life’s obstacles, much like Sandeno’s injuries, oftentimes cannot be avoided. It’s the people who time and time again face those obstacles head-on and keep pushing while maintaining a passion for the things they love that inspire others. Michaela was one of those athletes during her college career. While her name might not be up on the record board or on Wheaton’s swimming wall of All-Americans, she’ll always be remembered as someone who never gave up and who never stopped loving swimming.

Image taken by Maggie Franke

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