Five years ago, swimmer Michelle Konkoly woke up paralyzed from the waist down after she fell out of her dorm room window at Georgetown University. She suffered from a shattered foot, fractured vertebra and broken ribs. Only a freshman at the time, she told her then-coach Jamie Holder that she wanted to stay on the swim team as she went through rehabilitation and recovered from the trauma. Konkoly underwent major surgeries to stabilize her spine with two rods and fuse her foot.
She never once thought she would stop swimming.
Just eight months later, Konkoly came back to the Georgetown pool after a rapid recovery and her fierce competitive nature kicked in.
“I wanted to be at the top of the team, not at the bottom,” she remembered.
Her perseverance and strong will inspired her teammates as she trained with and raced her able-bodied peers. Konkoly’s former teammate, Kristen Pratt, reflected that “even before the accident, Michelle was one of the most positive swimmers on the swim team. She always had a big smile on her face and motivated me in the weight room which was sometimes our third workout of the day. I remember being so inspired by her commitment to our training.”
As a competitive swimmer my entire life, I too am in utter awe of Konkoly’s ability to recover from her five story fall and come back to the sport she loves. I asked Konkoly for some words of advice in overcoming setbacks and injury to which she replied “don’t ever limit yourself, find an expert and listen to them.”
She found an expert in coach Paul Yetter of T2 Aquatics down in Naples, Fla. Konkoly continued to push through barriers, both physically and mentally, and by January 2015 she began training full time with Yetter. Konkoly fondly remembered that he was “super eager to work with me.” He had never trained a Paralympic swimmer before and recalled that he “felt challenged and I like that feeling. Michelle’s first few weeks of training went great, she holds water well. She can swim fast, she can swim far, and she is world class at resistance training.”
Yetter explained that not only is Konkoly world class at resistance training but she also has a world class mentality. He described how every athlete experiences different levels of self talk that can often turn negative.
“The best athletes can stop the negative self talk and turn it into positive. Michelle has that abililty. She is optimistic about her performances and has an accurate outlook on what she is capable of,” he said.
Konkoly is about to prove herself on the world’s largest stage at the Paralympic Games in Rio racing in the S9 women’s 50m and 100m freestyle and in both the 4 x 100m freestyle relay and the 4 x 100m medley relay. She is the top seed in her individual events and is therefore the favorite for the gold.
Yetter and Konkoly are in contact everyday via text while she is down in Rio preparing to swim. She is classified as a S9 swimmer; athletes in this category have severe weakness in one leg along with slight coordination problems. Athletes that fall under the S1 classification have the most severe impairments and the S10 athletes have the least severe impairments. Dave Denniston, the former Resident U.S. Paralympic swim coach at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, mentored Konkoly post collegiately and believes she “has more strength than some able bodied athletes, she is a cool ambassador for the sport because she shatters the image that Paralympic athletes are somehow weaker.”
Konkoly rocks a tattoo that says ‘believe’ where she had her surgery, it is a reminder of the power of her mind that carried her into the international scene of Paralympic swimming. No matter the results in Rio, Konkoly has successfully inspired everyone who knows her story and will continue to do so, with or without a few gold medals.