Elizabeth Wasil gets disoriented when she swims, so when she was first helped out of the pool at the Jimi Flowers Classic meet in January in Colorado Springs, Colorado, she had no idea what all the yelling was about.
“I don’t know where I am when I’m done swimming and my teammate, Reilly Boyt, was screaming, ‘You got a world record,’” Wasil said. “I was like, ‘Who are you talking to?’”
Boyt was talking to Wasil, a sergeant in the U.S. Army, who has gone from newcomer to Paralympic hopeful in just four years. Just days after being named to the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National “A” Team, Wasil broke Jessica Long’s SB7 world record in the 50-meter breaststroke with a time of 41.21 seconds. This September, she hopes to represent her country at the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games, which has been her goal, she said, since the very start of her Paralympic swimming career.
“As soon as I found out that there was a chance that I could become a member of Team USA, I wanted it,” she said. “That was my sole focus and drive in every practice, every weight session, every competition.”
Wasil isn’t comfortable discussing the specifics, but the bilateral hip injuries she suffered while serving as a medic in Iraq in 2010 led to multiple surgeries and the loss of function in her lower left leg. Though she was never a swimmer growing up, her desire to return to active duty led her to the pool in January 2012.
Soon, Wasil was training for the upcoming Warrior Games, and after her first competitive swim meet she was hooked on the sport. In July 2012, just six months after entering the pool for the first time since becoming Paralympic-eligible, she met the military standard and was accepted into the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. That allowed her to train for the Paralympic Games alongside the nation’s other top athletes while still maintaining her military career.
Based out of Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Wasil continued to improve and in 2014 was slated to compete in the first Invictus Games in London, featuring more than 400 injured service members from 13 countries. Wasil was one of 98 U.S. service members to make the trip.
The day before the team flew out of Washington, D.C., Wasil lost her voice. She didn’t feel great, she said, but she also didn’t feel terrible and attributed it to doing a number of interviews. By the time the plane landed in London, however, she couldn’t breathe and was taken to the Royal London Hospital and admitted for what they believed was pneumonia.
Within 24 hours, she said, her health degraded to the point where she fell unconscious, went into respiratory failure and had to be intubated. Her lungs filled with fluid and she was put on life support.
Wasil was on a machine known as ECMO — extracorporeal membrane oxygenation — that works as an external lung for 10 days.
She woke up in the same hospital in Germany that she woke up in after being medically evacuated from Iraq four years earlier.
Doctors never determined what caused the illness.
The ECMO saved her life but left her with some neurological impairment and further decreased mobility in her legs, which caused her to become Paralympic-eligible. The length of time on the machine also led to a decrease in lung capacity.
“My lungs don’t function as well as they used to; however, because I was a swimmer before, that aided in saving my life because my lungs were so healthy that I rebounded better than most people would have,” she said.
Although it felt like hitting a reset button, Wasil said, she was determined from the moment she woke up to get back to swimming, and she did.
With the disorientation and vision issues she has in the water because of lack of oxygen, Wasil now uses the same tappers as her visually-impaired teammates to let her know when she’s approaching the wall. She also needs to have someone there to help her out of the pool.
Queenie Nichols, high performance director for U.S. Paralympics Swimming, said because Wasil pushes herself so hard, her coaches sometimes have to pull her back as she continues to adapt to the changes in her body.
“When her lungs don’t cooperate and she has to back off, it’s tough on her,” Nichols said. “We’ve learned to adapt to all of it. She lets us know how it’s going and whether she can breathe that day. Starting from the beginning we took it slow and said if it wasn’t going to work, we wouldn’t practice.”
A year after her illness, Wasil broke her own American record in the 200-meter breaststroke and won four gold medals and two silvers at the California Classic meet. In addition to setting the world record in the 50-meter breaststroke in January, she also broke the American and Pan American records in the 200 breaststroke with a time of 3:17.89.
The goal for the next few months, Wasil said, is to continue to work on finding the delicate balance between training hard enough and overtraining as she gets ready for the U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in June. She’ll also compete in the Invictus Games, being held in May in Orlando.
“It’s kind of my redemption race,” Wasil said. “It’s something I wanted to check off my list because my team from the Army was the most beautiful support system (when I was sick). The entire team took pictures and sent me encouraging messages, and it was this bunch of gruff, grumpy, injured vets with the biggest hearts in the world, and I can’t wait to go and perform for them.
“I think it will be a really feel-good race for me before the trials and give me something to hold on to at the trials.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.