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Through Life's Challenges, Michelle Konkoly Comes Back To Swimming

By Joanne C Gerstner | July 28, 2014, 11:30 a.m. (ET)

Michelle Konkoly
Georgetown University's Michelle Konkoly will compete for Team USA Aug. 6-10 at the Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships in Pasadena, California.

Michelle KonkolyThree years after falling out of her dorm room window, Michelle Konkoly is a hopeful for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.

Michelle Konkoly doesn’t quite understand how she arrived at this place, and yet, here she is. She didn’t think she would be good enough to swim in high school. Then she didn’t think she’d want to work so hard at school and swimming at the collegiate level.

An international-level career, representing Team USA, seemed even more ridiculous of a pursuit.

But no matter the stage, or the challenge, Konkoly has not only been ready, but has excelled. She is now indeed part of Team USA, preparing for her first Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships. She will compete at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center, in Pasadena, California, from Aug. 6-10, in 50 and 100 freestyle and relay events.

She comes into the meet as the American short-course record holder for the S9 classification in the 50-, 100- and 200-yard freestyle.

“When I got the USA team shirts, I just put it on and was like, ‘Wow, this is real now,’” said Konkoly, who is a senior pre-med major at Georgetown University. “I never thought this could be possible, especially everything that has happened. Swimming means so much to me, it has been such an important part of my life in many ways. I am so honored to represent my country like this.”

Konkoly, a native of Eagleville, Pennsylvania, has lived through dramatic turns the past five year, but the twists always led her back to swimming.

She was seriously injured during her freshman year at Georgetown University in January 2011 when she fell five stories out of her dorm room window. Konkoly, then 18, was trying to open a stuck window for some air. Her tugs led to an unexpected slide of the window, and the force propelled her through the frame.

She woke up in intensive care at a nearby trauma center, having shattered her right heel and right foot, broken several ribs, fractured a vertebra and suffered damaged to her spinal cord. She was paralyzed from the waist down, and scared.

Her Hoyas swimming career was in doubt. Her path through life looked seriously altered. A series of major surgeries — one to fuse her left foot and two to stabilize her spine with two rods — helped regain her health. The paralysis eased, then nearly vanished, as her spine recovered from trauma, although she still has problems with mobility.

And then it was up to Konkoly to do the rest through rehab and determination. She took a semester off and then redshirted her sophomore season at Georgetown to recover.

She relearned how to stand, walk and do the normal tasks of life. She got back into the pool, taking swimming back to the basics.

“I never thought that I wasn’t going to swim in some form; it turned out to be really good for my recovery to be in the pool,” Konkoly said. “I wasn’t sure how far I could or would recover from this, but I never thought about not swimming. Being in the water, working hard, doing your best and pushing yourself — that means so much to me.”

Her determination was clear, even it the most fraught moments in the hospital. She told Jamie Holder, her Hoyas swim coach, the day after her accident that she wanted to stay on the team. Holder promised to help her come back, and Konkoly vowed to do her best.

Both have held up their ends of the pact, with Holder coaching Konkoly again for Georgetown and now helping Konkoly’s burgeoning career as a Paralympic swimmer. Konkoly also continues to swim for the Hoyas and scored points for her team in meets last season.

It’s been a learning process for both, figuring out how to maximize Konkoly’s changed body.

Her repaired body has new quirks, ongoing items to figure out and make adjustments. Konkoly’s left foot doesn’t flex as before, and the rod in her spine stiffened her freestyle form. Sometimes, there is pain and frustration.

“Michelle’s determination and work ethic is nothing short of amazing,” said Holder, who is coaching his first para-swimmer in Konkoly. “She’s an inspiration to have on the team, because she never lets a moment go by without making the most of it. She never looks ahead; she stays focused on what the task is now. She knows how precious this is. She’s had to fight for it.

“When you’re 18, 19, 20 years old, swimming in college, you may not want to work hard every day. You may want to complain a little. Her teammates see Michelle, working hard every day and giving everything she has, and they grow up a little. A lot don’t even know her story, what happened, they just see how hard she works.”

Konkoly isn’t looking ahead toward bigger events such as the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games, instead taking her changing swimming career one step at a time. She has one more semester left at Georgetown and is applying to medical schools to pursue genetics or pediatrics. Swimming is in the mix as she considers how to combine medical school with a serious Paralympic career.

“I don’t like to dwell on what I have been through; I want to focus on all the positives,” Konkoly said. “Swimming has brought me to so many amazing places, and the fact that I get to have a team supporting me, like Georgetown and Team USA, makes it all the more special to me.”

Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for USParalympics.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.