Michelle Konkoly has been swimming lately, but she knows she’s not cutting through the water as fast as she did at the Paralympic Games this past summer in Rio.
“Oh my gosh, it feels like (Rio) was so long ago,” she said, laughing. “I’ve been swimming — not training a whole lot — but swimming reminds me of how fast it all goes away. I was in such great shape and swimming fast was so easy for so long. It really goes away fast.”
Konkoly, 24, is still coming down from her terrific experience in Rio. She won gold medals in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle in her S9 classification and also won a silver medal in the 4x100 free and a bronze in the 4x100 medley.
After Rio, she spent a couple of weeks with her family in Pennsylvania, visited the White House to meet President Obama with her teammates, and has been taking things easy at home in Naples, Florida, visiting friends, hanging out with her dog and, for a while, staying out of the pool.
After an intense 18-month training period before the Games, she didn’t swim for about three weeks. Finally, she dived back in. Now she’s swimming and lifting about three times per week because she was “getting antsy.” Yet it’s far from her rigorous pre-Games schedule.
“It’s great to stay active,” she said. “I love that feeling of getting a good sweat on, but it’s also really nice not having to drag myself back to practice when I’m exhausted for the second time every day.”
Konkoly is set to compete for the first time since the Paralympic Games at the Can-Am Open in Miami on Nov. 25-27. She’ll swim the 100-meter free and 50-meter back but bypass the 50-meter free. With the meet so close to Naples, it’s just what she needs.
“It seemed like a natural fit to go there,” she said. “I’m not looking for any crazy performances. I’m jut going to go and see my teammates and have a good time.”
After the Can-Am, she’s not sure what comes next for her swimming career.
She’ll begin medical school in August at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Until then, she’ll continue to train while doing some public speaking and some swim clinics.
“Once med school starts, that’s obviously going to be my focus,” she said. “I wouldn’t completely rule out a comeback for Tokyo (in 2020) … but I think I’m going to just have to assess where I am at that point.”
She said if she does decide to try to make the Paralympic team in four years, she’d likely take a leave of absence from her medical studies and training.
While she’s enjoying the chance to catch her breath and plan for her future — while spending every day with her best buddy Ollie, a corgi with his own Instagram account — she admits to yearning for that sense of purpose she felt before Rio.
“I miss that drive you had every morning and that intense hunger that I think training with really specific goals fuels in you,” she said.
She went to Rio feeling primed for success. While she didn’t know what would happen on race day, she believed she had done the work to win gold medals. Then, in her individual races, everything came together.
“My first gold, in the 100 free, it really was like I was living out my dream,” she said. “I had thought about that moment and watched videos from London and talked to teammates who had won gold, asking what did that feel like. So I really had a pretty good mental image of what that moment would be, because it was so motivating to me. I thought about touching the wall and winning gold all the time during practice, so it was really, really special to be able to have that become a reality, instead of something that was just in my head.”
She set a world record for the S9 classification in the 100 with a time of 1:00.91. Then, in the 50 free, she won in a Paralympic-record 28.29 seconds. She was disappointed that she and her teammates couldn’t win gold in their relays, yet savored the moment with them on the podium.
Long before she went to the Games, Konkoly had the word “Believe” tattooed on her side, just above a scar from one of her surgeries following a five-story fall from her dorm room at Georgetown University in 2011. The fall left her partially paralyzed from the waist down, with a broken back, a damaged spinal cord and several broken bones.
At the time, she wasn’t even aware the Paralympics existed. She simply wanted to fight back and walk again and swim for Georgetown. “Believe” was the slogan of the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia where she learned to walk again, and it came to represent her own belief in herself.
Said Konkoly: “I just wanted to be back as an able-bodied swimmer, so to really pass that, and not only become a two-time Paralympic gold medalist, it still feels crazy.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.