If you’re anything like me, the feeling of pride and accomplishment that floods over you when you achieve a goal you’ve set for yourself is a wonderful reminder of the work you’ve put in to get to that point, and also a great motivator for setting and achieving new goals in the future. This idea of ‘set a goal, work towards it, and achieve it!’ is so instilled in us, though, that when, for whatever reason, we don’t achieve our set objectives, we can feel lost and disappointed. Nothing throws a monkey wrench in previously set goals like the unpredictability that accompanies life-altering injuries. During my recovery from a spinal cord injury and subsequent return to competitive swimming, I learned to trade my Type-A goal setting habits for a more flexible model that allowed me to still reap the motivating benefits of setting and achieving goals, but also be able to realistically adjust my objectives according to my new body.
When I was entered Magee in January 2011, I immediately set my mind to a goal I had heard tossed around a few times since I had been thrust into the world of spinal cord injuries: wheeling into the hospital and walking out. I had seen the heartwarming picture of Adam Taliaferro walking tenuously on his crutches out of the Magee doors, and thought to myself that naturally, I would do the same thing. When I was admitted, the only inkling of movement I had in my legs was a slight wiggle in my toes. In a month or two, when I expected to be discharged, I knew I’d still be weak but didn’t see why at least taking those few precious steps across the threshold wouldn’t be doable. I proudly stated my intent at my first goal meeting with my PT and OT and promptly set to work to make this dream a reality.
Fast forward a month, and with my discharge date only a few days away, it was obvious I wouldn’t be walking anytime soon. While I had made great strides and my therapists agreed I would indeed walk again sometime in the future, it certainly wouldn’t be happening when I had envisioned. Despite working as hard as I could in every rehab session, my nerves were on their own timeline. In the five weeks I had been an inpatient, though, the idea of walking out of Magee took a back seat to more immediate (and thus more achievable) goals, like improving my sitting balance. Before the ultimate goal of walking, there were countless smaller milestones that had to be achieved first. Sure, a tiny part of me was disappointed that I wouldn’t achieve what I had initially set out to do, but I took great pride in the progress I had made.
Returning to competitive swimming was another wake-up call. Like many people, I was initially unwilling to accept my spinal cord injury as a ‘permanent disability,’ and for a while, believed I would eventually recover completely. When I began racing again, my times were drastically slower than before my injury, but I was confident they would drop exponentially as I continued training. Before my injury, I spent hours during practice gazing up at the record board that looms over the Georgetown University pool, knowing that the school records were within my reach. I thought that by my senior year, I’d surely get my name up on that board. I had set this same goal in high school, and sure enough, left my mark on the record board by the time I left for college. Accepting that my legs were now permanently weakened and that I’d never be within reach of school records or even competitive Division 1 times was a tough pill to swallow. What would motivate me now that my goal was unrealistic?
As fate would have it, just as I was questioning whether I could go on competing in a sport that just constantly reminded me of how I’d never be as fast as before my injury, I discovered Paralympic swimming. The first thing I did upon receiving my classification was check out the record book – and this time it wasn’t just school records, but American records. And they were most certainly within my reach. My initial goals had to be scrapped, but these new standards were not only a realistic goal I could work towards, but they were even more prestigious, which fueled my fire tremendously. This realization quickly overshadowed my lingering disappointment and taught me that not all unfilled goals are ‘failures’ – in fact, they can often lead to new directions that are even more exciting than we ever imagined.
So what if I didn’t walk out the doors of Magee? When I finally did take my first steps, I most certainly got that flood of pride, even if the moment happened a few months later than I had planned. Even greater was the rush of emotions when I set my first American record in the 100 yard freestyle. I adjusted my ambitions away from hard-and-fast goals that I thought I should achieve, and instead focused on outcomes that still challenged me but were realistic and achievable. I encourage you to do the same! Whether your objectives revolve around rehab milestones or returning to the activities you love, don’t be afraid to modify your goals – you’ll be surprised where they might lead you!
‘Road to Rio’ is a monthly blog series written by Paralympic swimmer and former Magee patient Michelle Konkoly as she prepares for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.