April 3, 2014
WASHINGTON - By Bobby Bancroft
Upon entering Georgetown as a member of the Class of 2014, swimmer Michelle Konkoly (Eagleville, Pa./Methacton) figured to face many challenges, both in the classroom, as well as in the pool over the next four years.
What she ended up encountering just a few short months into her freshman campaign was something no student-athlete can realistically account for on any sort of contingency list. Although her response to adversity might make you think differently.
"I woke up at the trauma center at GW in the most pain that I hope to ever experience in my whole life," Konkoly remembered about that night in January 2011 that would forever change her world. "At that point I knew that my Mom was on the way and I was really excited to see here. It was all kind of just a blur, I'm kind of fortunate that I don't remember too much about it."
A few hours earlier, Konkoly had fallen out of her dorm room window before plummeting five stories to the ground.
Konkoly, who was in the middle of her first season competing for the Hoyas, suffered many serious injuries as a result of the accident. She broke her right heel as well as multiple bones in her left foot. She also broke a couple of ribs, but her most serious injuries were to her spinal cord and fractured vertebrae which left the swimmer temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.
As part of the initial healing process, Konkoly had three major surgeries - one to fuse her foot and two more to stabilize her spine. She spent two weeks in the D.C. area before beginning rehab closer to her childhood home in Philadelphia at the Magee Rehabilitation Center.
From there Konkoly was under the watchful eye of some of the best spinal cord injury doctors in the world at Magee and - perhaps even more importantly - her family.
"I can't even imagine what this process would be like without them," Konkoly said about the relationship she had with her family during the beginning of the recovery process when she took a semester off of school. "I was lucky enough to be able to go there and my family visited all the time which made such a huge difference and it really kept my spirits up."
And it wasn't just family that mattered for Konkoly, it was her extended family.
"I remember there was one day where my Mom went home to get some new clothes and my teammates made a Google Doc so that somebody would be there every single hour of the day just to be there by my side and it wasn't always pretty, but they were there. I think it speaks a lot about the type of students that are here at Georgetown, especially on the swim team."
Despite the initial grim outlook, Konkoly never lost sight of her ultimate goal of not only returning to Georgetown, but competing in the pool with her Hoya teammates. It was something she made very clear to Swimming & Diving Head Coach Jamie Holder right from the beginning.
"I said `Jamie I'm coming back to the swim team whether or not I can walk or not'. For me it was more focused on continuing to do the things I wanted to do regardless of how much I would be able to walk in the future."
So with the help of her doctors, family, and teammates, Konkoly began to make strides with little victories along the way. Whether it was wiggling a toe, kicking back for the first time, or taking a step with the aid of a walker in the family kitchen, she continued to stay positive.
In fact one of her only setbacks along the way was from a request she made after taking her first steps.
"I asked for a puppy when I learned to walk but that didn't happen unfortunately," Konkoly said laughing. "My parents were like you are enough to take care of we don't need a dog."
Jokes aside, Konkoly insists that she didn't really need goals to motivate herself during the long recovery. For her it was just enough to get back to the everyday things in life that many people take for granted.
"I remember when I could empty the dishwasher and start to be more helpful around the house then to be a burden. It was more just exciting to be able to do things and that was its own motivation."
With Konkoly both back at school and in the pool, she began to feel as if something was missing.
Enter the Paralympics.
"It had been a long season with Georgetown and I was really happy to be back with the team, but I was really not competitive at the level."
"I'm a competitive person and I was itching for a little more so when we found out about the Paralympics I got into it right away and my second meet was the trials for London so it all happened pretty fast."
Despite not making the London Games for Team USA, Konkoly had now found a new outlet for her competitive fires that helped make her a decorated high school swimmer before eventually choosing Georgetown.
With a new goal to look towards, Konkoly continued to work hard with Coach Holder as he accompanied her out to the Olympic Training facility in Colorado Springs.
The Paralympics are divided into 10 categories for physically impaired athletes with the lower categories representing the most impaired. Konkoly currently competes at a level 9 in a category that gets reevaluated every couple of years.
She currently holds the American records in the 50M, 100M, and 200M freestyle as well as the 100M long course freestyle.
"I was pretty competitive in high school and it was fun for me to try and break records and win and I didn't get that as much at Georgetown after my injury so it's really great to have an outlet to still achieve those same goals and have them be just as meaningful."
With another semester of eligibility coming this fall, Konkoly still hopes to improve on her contributions with the Hoyas. This past season she achieved a dream by contributing a point and qualifying for the BIG EAST Championships.
"Swimming at BIG EAST has been my dream since I was in the hospital. When I was in the hospital I would look at pictures of where the BIG EAST competition was going to be held my senior year and say I know I'm going to swim there."
A biology major who has already applied for med school after graduation, Konkoly does have a choice to make after just recently being named to Team USA and with the 2016 Games in Brazil right around the corner.
So while college changes everybody in one way or another, Konkoly honestly feels as though her accident happened for the best and has made her see life in a better way.
"This experience has definitely changed me for the better. It's made me appreciate things in life that I definitely didn't appreciate before like being able to jump in a cold pool instead of having to sit in the handicap chair and be placed into the pool."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Since sitting down for this story, Michelle broke the American record in the 100m freestyle and the American and Pan-American record at the CanAms in Miami, Fla. She has been named to the U.S. National Paralympics Team and will aim to compete next in the Pan-Pacific Championships in August.