Rebecca Waterson, then an eighth grader, watches as her doctor places tens unit electrode pads on her shoulders. This became the first of several devices she had to wear in the following years to help heal various injuries. (Photo used by permission of Waterson)

CHLORINE CHRONICLES: The curious wardrobe of an injured athlete

In eighth grade, I had to wear this funky little device that was supposed to help heal my injured shoulders. Long story short, my injury stemmed from the beginning of a huge growth spurt coupled with a few bad swim habits, resulting in tears and inflammation in my shoulder tissues.

I remember the numerous visits to physical therapists, the months of not being able to do anything but kick, the thought that I would never be able to get back into the sport of swimming.

But this blog post isn’t about that; it’s about the weird contraption I had to wear during that time of uncertainty (and some other strange things I had to put on further down the line).

Eighth grade is the year you are “cool” in middle school. You are at the top of the food chain, and everyone pays close attention to what you wear so that they can copy you.

Unless you have two bright blue, glowing dots on your shoulders, wires hanging down your shirt and a strange blue goop that starts to peek out from underneath your T-shirt sleeve around noon.

According to my doctor, this device I had to wear was supposed to “stimulate the body’s natural repair process through the sustained delivery of low-intensity acoustic waves.” I don’t know how to say that in English, but the doctor said it was supposed to help speed up the recovery of my damaged tissue.

Even though I disliked it, it did help. I was back to swimming mostly regularly by freshman year, although it was just minimal butterfly. I then made it to the Husky Invitational meet in December that year, where I swam most of my main events, including 100-yard butterfly. Before entering the meet, I was at a solid 58.49 – not a slow time, but not phenomenal either.

An old X-ray of Waterson’s torso. Her scoliosis caused a 25-degree curve in her spine, which had to be corrected with a back brace. (Photo used by permission of Waterson)

I came out of the meet with a 55.19, dropping 3.3 seconds and gaining a Winter Junior Championships time. I was very quiet about the time drop, though, so most of my teammates were unaware that I had gone from being seeded in the high 40s to being seeded fifth in finals and then dropping one more place to finally finish in fourth.

Shortly after I re-found my love for butterfly, however, I noticed I still had shoulder pain. After seeing several different doctors to find out what was wrong, one finally noticed that I had an almost unnoticeable curve in my spine. Well, unnoticeable to the standard bend-over-and-see-if-there-is-a-curve check. After being X-rayed, I discovered I had a 25-degree curve at the top of my spine, which forced my right shoulder to be a little bit higher than my left.

But this time I didn’t need any blinking lights or blue ooze; I needed a ghastly back brace, which I had to wear my entire sophomore year. I despised every minute I was in it, from the sweaty and uncomfortable trek to school, to the uncomfortable way I was forced to sit in my seat during class, to the occasional loss of circulation in my left arm. (The brace forced my left shoulder up higher than my right, so there was a long part that dug into my armpit; in the wrong position, it made my hand feel pretty tingly.)

Besides pushing a shoulder up, the brace also applied pressure to my right side to straighten out the curve. This caused my right-side back muscles to become weaker and my left-side back muscles to become stronger. To equal out the imbalance, I had to continue going to physical therapy for the whole year I was wearing it.

I also usually sleep on my side, but the brace forced me to sleep flat on my back. And for some odd reason, I now have a permanent dent in my mattress because I couldn’t roll at all while in the brace.

Even though I didn’t like the brace, there is an undeniable difference that it made with my swimming. My shoulders don’t hurt anymore, which allows me to swim more butterfly in practice. I’ve also had better body position in the water, which is a bonus to all of my strokes.

After a long year of wearing the brace, I finally got to leave it at the doctor’s office on Aug. 9. I was given the option to run it over with a car, but after all it had done for me, the best I could do was leave it in safe hands. (Actually, the nurse said it might cause damage to the car, so my mom said I couldn’t run it over.)

—By Rebecca Waterson

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