Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

After life-changing fall, swimmer prepares for Paralympic competition

The limp is barely noticeable when she wears sneakers that cushion the injured nerves in her left foot. At poolside, barefoot, it is more obvious.

Training, for the Paralympic Games next summer in Rio de Janeiro.
Training, for the Paralympic Games next summer in Rio de Janeiro.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

The limp is barely noticeable when she wears sneakers that cushion the injured nerves in her left foot. At poolside, barefoot, it is more obvious.

Memories of the dreadful accident on the Georgetown University campus will never disappear entirely. But almost five years after the five-story fall that shattered her body and her hopes of college swimming stardom, Michelle Konkoly still is working to be the best she can be.

In September, the Montgomery County woman expects to be in Rio de Janeiro, competing again in swimming, but this time, she will be in the Paralympic Games.

In fall 2017, she will enter Thomas Jefferson University for medical school, aiming for a career working with disabled children.

"I think one of the main things that's different is how grateful I am for the little things," Konkoly, 23, said recently as she relaxed on a couch in her family's Eagleville home. "Living independently, driving to the grocery store."

And though she has wanted to be a physician for as long as she can remember, she sees medical success differently now, too.

"Because I have a permanent disability, and I see so many other people with permanent disabilities," she said, "I take it as, 'Let's see what we can do to improve your status, increase your flexibility and mobility.' That will be my mantra."

On an unseasonably warm January day in her freshman year, she opened a window in her dorm room on the Washington campus, slipped, and fell to the pavement below. Her injuries included a fractured vertebra, a punctured lung, broken ribs, and a broken foot.

"There was significant paralysis," said Warren Yu, the spinal surgeon who twice operated on Konkoly at George Washington University Hospital. "There was a potential she would not walk again."

But the hospital recovery room was only the start of an arduous trek over an unexpected path.

There was a stay at Magee Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia, therapy at home, and then outpatient therapy at Magee, six months in a wheelchair either part time or full time, struggling across the kitchen while she used the counter and the island as parallel bars to regain her upper-body strength.

There was pain - but no pessimism.

Ben Yoder, her coach at Methacton High School, remembers his visit with her at Magee.

"I hadn't been looking forward to seeing her," he said. "But when I first walked into the room, I felt relief. Her face was just so optimistic, and I knew she was going to be OK."

Physical therapist Kelly DeWan, who worked with Konkoly at home, recalls the first time Konkoly was able to use a walker. She slowly started moving across the kitchen as her mother, Jane, snapped pictures.

"She was so highly motivated," said DeWan. "She was awesome."

By that time, Konkoly had been back in a pool for the first time, an almost comical episode at the Shannondell retirement community in Audubon.

The Shannondell pool has a ramp and a waterproof wheelchair. Jane Konkoly wheeled her daughter into the water and told her to stay in the wheelchair.

"But I obviously wasn't content to sit," Konkoly said. "I wanted to splash around. I kind of paddled off. It was tricky. My legs were deadweight. My mom was nervous I would drown."

By the fall, Konkoly was back at Georgetown and swimming, slowly getting into shape.

Though she was eventually named captain of the Georgetown team, it soon became apparent she would never be able to compete at the top collegiate level.

"It was heartbreaking," said Jane Konkoly. "She had worked so hard, but by the end of the season, she wasn't competitive at Division I level anymore. It just wasn't going to happen. So at the end of the season, I started googling."

With a few keystrokes, she discovered the Paralympic Games, organized in parallel with the Olympic Games.

Mother and daughter traveled to Baltimore to meet Paralympics coaches and then to Cincinnati to be classified. Paralympics athletes are rated based on their level of disability, from S1, the most severe, to S10, the least. Konkoly was rated an S9.

Later that year, the Konkolys traveled to North Dakota for the U.S. team trials, but she didn't make the cut.

Still, Georgetown coach Jamie Holder said, Konkoly never got discouraged.

Her attitude was, " 'That's the new best time for my new body.' "

After graduation, Konkoly moved in January to a one-bedroom condo in Naples, Fla. She works out eight times a week at a nearby pool with Paul Yetter, a former assistant coach for the 2008 U.S. Women's Olympic team.

This is Yetter's first time working with a disabled athlete, and he has to be careful not to push her beyond what she can do. "She's made me a better coach," he said.

Konkoly works in a chocolate shop to fill spare time and raise a little extra cash, but she doesn't have to worry about buying expensive swimsuits: She gets them from a sponsor, Dolfin Swimwear, rare for a Paralympics athlete.

She now is rated No. 1 in the world for the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events in the S9 class and expects to make the U.S. team at the June trials in Charlotte, N.C., then go on to Rio.

"As long as I don't get slower, I'll be OK," she joked.

And she is very aware that her injuries are giving her a chance to compete at the international level. While she was becoming a strong collegiate swimmer before her fall, she said, she had little chance of making the Olympic Games.

"I'm so grateful for the opportunity," she said. "It's so cool. I was thrust into this world so late in the game, and it really opened my eyes.

Many of "my closest friends have disabilities. . . . They all have some life-altering medical issues. It's become so nonimportant to them."

And after Rio? She laughed.

"Once I get into medical school, swimming will just be for fitness."