row2k kicks off our 2013 Spring Collegiate preview with the story of Australian Victoria Kielty of Bucknell. Part I of her story is about how she got her start in rowing in Australia, found her way to Bucknell, and ultimately fractured three vertebrae in her neck during her freshmen year. Check back on Thursday for Part II on how she made her recovery and is back rowing for the Bison.
HOW I GOT IN TO ROWING
My introduction to rowing was not too dissimilar to any youngster's introduction to high school sport. At age 13, if all my friends did something, naturally I had to do it too. However I was anything but athletic. In fact I was its absolute antithesis. I spent my lunchtimes and afternoons in orchestra, singing lessons, play rehearsals and various choirs and vocal ensembles. I never excelled at anything much until I discovered music.
Naturally when my parents became aware of this newfound sporting passion of mine, they were duly supportive but clearly a little surprised. The physical education staff at St. Catherine's school for girls (Melbourne, Australia) took all who volunteered down to the boathouse and asked us to sit on some of these strange machines and go as hard as we possibly could for a short distance, a few hundred meters. You can imagine my surprise when I was one of the first to complete the distance, even before some of the most athletic girls in the year. I was a little disbelieving, wondering whether I could disprove what looked like a fluke; an off chance performance. And so, much to the contrary of my friends and family's (as well as my own) expectations, I continued with the sport.
At the beginning of tenth grade I switched schools. I moved to Methodist Ladies' College (also in Melbourne). Exponentially larger than St. Catherine's at 2,000 girls (compared to 800) so the move was an intimidating one. I wanted to continue my involvement with rowing and so contacted the head coach, Brent McDonald. He welcomed my interest and asked that I attend the team's preseason rowing camp before the beginning of the school year. MLC was a formidable opponent in Australian Schoolgirl Rowing, holding several national titles to its name and with the largest girls team in the field at well over one hundred athletes.
Needless to say I questioned my decision (and sanity) many times in the lead up to camp. This however turned out to be the best decision I have made to date. I learned under the MLC program to love the sport and respect the commitment needed to succeed in it. I made friends for life on that team, bonding either over a common love of camaraderie or the shared hunger for a relentless pursuit of perfection. I competed in their varsity quad my junior year and their championship eight the following season, both times traveling to the Australian Rowing National Championships, first on the Sydney Olympic Course and then Lake Barrington in Tasmania; the most beautiful course I have ever seen. From that point I intended to follow rowing to a university level, and began rowing with several of my high school teammates for Melbourne University Boat Club.
MOVING TO AMERICA – APPLYING TO UNIVERSITIES
My family's relocation to the States was a rather unexpected one, but as no stranger to international moves or a challenge I decided to go with my family to America. Thus I began the long and arduous process of preparing for and sitting the SATs, completing the common application for several east coast schools with a Division 1 rowing program and contacting the coaches.
My experience of the application and athletic recruitment process was condensed into a couple of all-too-short months, spliced over two hemispheres and conducted in conjunction with my final Victorian Certificate of Education exams (my senior year finals). These, unlike the equivalent in the US, dictate where you attend university and are not a way to 'finish off strong' and get some good grades on the board. If, in the worst-case scenario, I failed to get in anywhere and needed a contingency plan, I needed to succeed on these exams. This combination made for a very high-pressure situation in October and November of 2009. Two schools that were highlighted in my research of American institutions for their academic programs and athletic prowess were Virginia and Bucknell. Out of all the schools I looked at, these two particularly struck a chord with me; from the prevalence of Greek life right down to the red brick, white pillar architecture, Bucknell was a mini version of UVa.
Both schools had impressive rowing programs, headed by coaches Kish of Bucknell and Sauer of UVa. Both are men who command respect and let the athlete know from the onset that a commitment to this sport at the Division 1 level is a privilege and something that is not to be undertaken lightly. True to form, the taste of the challenge being offered was enough to convince me that I was looking in the right place. Though the power and national prestige of Virginia's program was inspiring and incredibly appealing to me, I chose to focus my application efforts on Bucknell. Every athlete is different, and their choices are influenced thusly. In this case, at that time in my life and considering my athletic and academic goals, Bucknell and its program could offer me more.
I wanted somewhere I could grow as an athlete and an individual whilst still experiencing the heat of NCAA Division 1 athletic competition. Virginia, whilst it clearly delivers the latter, was a place I felt I might get lost in due to its sheer size. Bucknell has not disappointed me in either case, and having helped this team to its seventh consecutive Patriot League Championship with the potential for an eighth as well as a qualification for the national championship on the cards, I am sure I made the right choice.
HOW THE INJURY OCCURRED
I have always been a little accident prone and over the years seem to have developed a propensity for getting myself stuck between a rock and a hard place - so to speak. Skiing tumbles, slippery pavements, skinned knees and jarred fingers are not uncommon when it comes to me, but I managed for the most part to stay out of serious trouble in my youth. I had not ever experienced an injury that had the potential to incapacitate or seriously endanger me.
My freshman year at Bucknell, however, blind sided me with something that I was in no way prepared for, nor will ever forget. On February 13, 2011 my freshman hall went on a Sunday afternoon trip to the Bounce Funplex. Essentially it is an old barn that has been converted into a trampoline center. It was any youth's dream outing. At the end of the outing my group made its way to the smallest section of the venue: the foam pit lanes. Jumping from one to the next in order to reach the pit, I underestimated the tightness of the final tramp's springs. The force threw me between ten and twelve feet in the air, and due to my momentum and the force of the springs, it flipped me upside down.
I could not right myself and so fell directly on top of my head into the pit. I remember thinking that something on the trampoline had broken; such was the volume of the crack I heard. It sounded like a gunshot going off in my ear. Everything that follows occurred in probably all of three seconds.
I landed head first in the pit and was plunged into darkness. The volume of the crack startled me, and I thought it must have been the equipment breaking, but I realized I was in the foam pit and surrounded by cinder block-sized cubes, there was no equipment near me. The crack had come from my neck. As a reflex, I wriggled madly to right myself, but ended up still submerged in the foam cubes on my back with my knees bent at right angles in front of me and my right arm above my head; my left arm was slightly crossed over my chest by my side.
I registered a strange heaviness on my left side, as though someone were sitting on my body, but it, in the next half second was completely obscured by a white hot pain that shot from the back of my neck, down my spine, across and underneath my shoulder-blades and in to the base of my head. Something was also pressing into the back of my throat, pushing towards my chin. It was stopping me from taking a full breath.
I started to panic. I wanted to get up, but was literally paralyzed by fear and pain. I could only scream. My friend who had jumped in next to me from the opposite lane called for help. When the paramedics arrived, it took them and several other civilians at the scene a very long time to extract me. Trying to retrieve a potential spinal injury from a pit full of hundreds of foam cubes that move three inches if you move one is a difficult task. After what seemed like an eternity I was moved onto a back board and taken to the ambulance.
At the hospital, an emergency team was waiting. They took everything I had off my body. My clothes were cut off, my jewelry taken. What little dignity I had left was covered in a cotton surgical gown. They stabilized me and assessed my condition. I distinctly remember one of the ER physicians saying, "page neuro, we have a break" while I was in the MRI machine. The resident neurosurgeon, Dr. Stephen Toms came to update me of my situation. He showed me my x-rays. He held them above my head so I could see them from my horizontal home. It was difficult to miss on the films.
He told me I had broken my neck. I had broken it in three places. Vertebrae C5, C6 and C7 had been cracked, crushed, chipped and one had split straight down the middle. I had minimal sensation in my left arm and leg; I could still feel the press on the back of my throat. I could see it now too. The broken bone was pressing into the back of my throat.
I didn't want to believe it. Up until this point I had been rationalizing and trying to figure out how long I would be out of practice. I told myself "ok, it's just a sprain or something, they'll send you home in a collar and you'll look a bit awkward but you'll be fine. Two weeks, tops, then you'll be back." This couldn't happen, I was in the middle of winter training, and I needed to be back on the erg.
The surgeon explained to me that the human body is an incredible organism and that, given the right care, can recover and heal itself miraculously. He was referring to my neck. In an effort to avoid surgery he was going to attempt spinal traction to try and pull my neck into place over several hours. At various intervals, weight would be added to a pulley system at the end of my bed, attached to a halo that would be screwed into my skull. From the horizontal position, the hope was that my neck would be realigned by the weight and surgery would be avoided.
Under a local anesthetic, the halo was drilled in while I was awake and the process began. It had now been ten hours since everything began. It was 11pm that night. I spent the night in traction, remaining awake because the attending’s needed to check my progress and add weight every hour. The nurse on duty read to me to distract me from the pain. It was a book I neither recognized nor remember but having her there with me the entire night was more of a comfort than anything. At the beginning of the night, my teammates came to visit me and my dad arrived having cancelled a business flight.
Unfortunately for me, the traction was not successful in straightening out my neck. Due to the compressive nature of the injury, the lamina of C6 and C7 had crumpled and locked together. Trying to pull them apart was not working. They needed to be reconstructed. Dr. Toms informed me that they would be prepping me for surgery immediately. It was now early the next morning, Valentines Day. Dr. Toms and his team performed a cervical laminectomy and fusion of the three broken pieces with bio-composite putty and eight titanium pieces: six screws and two rods.
Read Part II of Victoria's story here.