Here at Magee, patients work hard and persevere to overcome obstacles following life-altering events like stroke, brain injury, and spinal cord injury. Someone who knows all about hard work and determination is former Magee patient Michelle Konkoly. Michelle is a lifelong swimmer. When a traumatic spinal cord injury in 2011 left her with weakness in her legs, that didn’t mean an end to her favorite sport. Her positive outlook, drive to get better, and fantastic support system helped her to achieve her goals and improve to the point of walking following months of intensive therapy. She began swimming as a Paralympic athlete in 2012 and is now training to compete in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I got to speak with this amazing young woman about her road to recovery and success.
Ashley Owens: Tell us a little about yourself.
Michelle Konkoly: I am 23 years old and was born and raised in Eagleville, PA, about an hour outside of Philly. I graduated from Georgetown University in Washington, DC where I studied biology. I am currently living in Naples, FL to train full-time for the Paralympics! After I’m done competing in Rio, I’ll be attending medical school in Philly at Thomas Jefferson University. Some of my hobbies and interests include scuba diving, cooking, baking, reading, and animals.
AO: You were a patient at Magee in 2011. Tell us about your injury and how you came back from it. What kinds of things did you have difficulty doing after your injury? What did you work on during your therapy sessions?
MK: When I was a freshman in college, I fell out of my dorm room window five stories up while I was trying to open it. I shattered my right heel, broke bones in my left foot, broke several ribs, punctured my lung, and shattered my L2 vertebrae. This spinal cord injury left me with little movement or feeling below my waist. After three surgeries at George Washington University Hospital in DC, I was transferred to Magee for acute inpatient rehabilitation.
I was an inpatient at Magee for five weeks where I learned how to adjust to life in a wheelchair. Though the doctors were optimistic I would eventually regain some function in my legs, they knew the process would be long and difficult, so a wheelchair was initially necessary. I remember having so much trouble with balancing exercises that would have seemed impossibly easy before my injury. Things like sitting on the edge of a bench and just reaching my arms out straight in front of me were harder than I could imagine. My OT Jackie came up with creative things for me to do to work on sitting balance, such as pouring water from one cup into another and making brownies, all while sitting. These functional exercises helped me to use my hands while working on my balance.
Eventually, I progressed to Magee’s Day Rehab program and was at the Riverfront for for months during the summer of 2011. It was there that I began to learn to walk and did Locomotor Training (LT) to improve my walking. My PT Amanda also thought of ways to challenge me. She knew that as an athlete I liked to push myself, so she fueled that competitive nature with things like having me kick a ball while walking backwards on the treadmill!
AO: How long have you been swimming for the US Paralympic team? What stroke do you swim, and what is your record time?
MK: I got involved in the Paralympics in 2012, just about a year after my injury. While I did return to the Georgetown team after I got hurt, I wasn’t really competitive in Division 1 anymore because of the permanent weakness in my legs. Registering for the Paralympics allowed me to compete against other people like me. In 2014, I made my first international Paralympic meet at Para Pan Pacs in California. This past summer, I was fortunate enough to be selected for Team USA at World Championships in Scotland. I came away with three silver medals in the 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, and 400m freestyle relay. My best events are sprint freestyle races, and I currently hold the Pan-American record in both the 50m free (29.14) and 100m free (1:02.74.)
AO: Tell us about Rio 2016. How has training been going?
MK: Rio is coming up fast! It’s hard to believe it’s only about a year away. I am finishing up a nice break of a few weeks out of the water after all my racing earlier this summer, so I’ll be getting back into the grind of training shortly. I found an amazing coach in Florida who coached the Olympic team in 2008, and he is super committed to helping me achieve my goals. Being able to train full-time without having to worry about school has also been a huge plus. I’m able to get so much more sleep and take care of my body which pays off in the pool! Trials for the Rio Olympics are in June 2016, and the team is selected based off of that meet. I am in good standing now but am always striving to beat my own personal bests.
I think Rio is going to be a huge turning point for Paralympic sports in the US. There will way more TV coverage of the Paralympics in the US than ever before, and I hope that gets more people excited about them! If I am selected to compete in Rio, I will most likely be swimming the 50m free, 100m free, and hopefully some relays. The actual lineup won’t be decided until much closer to the games.
AO: You’ll start medical school after Rio. Have you always wanted to be a doctor? Was there anything that inspired you to go to med school? Do you know what kind of doctor you want to be yet?
MK: I have been attracted to medicine ever since I was little. When I first started college, I was quite intimidated by the long road I knew it would take to be a doctor. However, after spending so much time in hospitals after I got hurt, I really saw how amazing medicine was. My doctors literally pieced me back together. Without them, I would definitely not be walking today. This motivated me to pursue the path to becoming a doctor, no matter how long or arduous it was. It also put things in perspective: if I could learn to walk again, I could study for the MCAT! I have always been fascinated by rare diseases, so right now I am leaning toward a specialty in skeletal dysplasia. I definitely want to work with kids with disabilities. Being on the Paralympic team has shown me that truly nothing can stop people from achieving their dreams. I would love to help kids figure out how to live rich, fulfilling lives, regardless of their physical limitations.
AO: You are so inspiring to many people because you have overcome obstacles and worked hard to achieve your goals. What advice can you give to anyone else recovering from an injury or going through a trying time?
MK: One of the things that I have carried with me from my time at Magee is visualization. Even before any of the muscles in my legs were working, I would spend hours each day picturing my muscles contracting. Even though it was frustrating when nothing happened in my legs, I just kept picturing this in my mind over and over. Sure enough, one day while I was visualizing while sitting up on the 6th floor, my mom and I saw a tiny flutter in my left quad! Even now, I use a lot of visualization with my swimming races. I know that if I can swim the race perfectly in my mind, when I step up to the blocks, all I have to do is replay that ‘movie’ in my head, and my body will follow along. It’s a powerful technique that everyone can apply to whatever goal they are working toward!
To see more of Michelle on her journey to Rio and beyond, follow her on Facebook.