Anita Nall had just turned 16 when she won three swimming medals at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Two years later, she was found to have chronic fatigue syndrome, and her career came to a halt. Now, she is back in the pool and in the early stages of a comeback she hopes will take her to the 2000 Olympics in Australia.
"I do have hopes of making it," Nall said. "But it's hard for me to think that far ahead. It's two years. It's early for me to say that, but at the same time I have to begin work now to make it."
Now 22 and a junior at Arizona State, Nall is pursuing a degree with the intention of becoming a bilingual elementary school teacher. She is also working with Dr. Peter Rowe of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine to find answers to the illness that has kept her from practice and competition.
Training with her former coach, Murray Stephens of the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, for about 60 days this summer, Nall has gone from being a distant memory to qualifying for the World University Games team that will compete in Majorca, Spain, next July.
She made the team for the world games with a 12th-place finish in the 200-meter breaststroke Aug. 12 at the senior national championships in Clovis, Calif., where she clocked 2 minutes, 33.45 seconds.
"Anita's story is a good story, a great story," Stephens said. "But it's not over yet. Our goal is to see if she can regain her performance level. Right now, she's like a snowball rolling downhill, picking up momentum."
As a 14-year-old from Towson, Nall was setting records. By the time she went to the 1992 Olympics, she had established the world record for the 200 breaststroke at 2: 25.35. That record was broken in 1993, but it still stands as the American mark.
At the Barcelona Games, she earned gold as a member of the U.S. 4 x 100 medley-relay team, silver in the 100 breaststroke and bronze in the 200 breaststroke. Although she said the three Olympic medals were amazing and wonderful, she was bothered by the fact the media found her performance disappointing because she had earned "only" a bronze in the 200, her specialty.
The year after the Games, Nall continued to do well. She was consistently No. 1 or 2 in the world. But in 1994, she began getting sick.
"No one knew or knows what chronic fatigue syndrome is," she said. "I was just getting sick a lot. I got a lot of sinus infections, and my workouts were really, not sporadic, but inconsistent. I'd get to the point where I'd start to get strong again and then I'd get sick. And then I'd start to get better and then I'd get sick."
Doctors treated the symptoms with antibiotics. And then, this summer, Stephens suggested she see Rowe -- the father of one of his other swimmers -- who had been researching the malady's causes.
Rowe had found a connection between chronic fatigue syndrome and abnormalities in the control of blood pressure and heart rate when people are in upright positions.
Individuals with these problems develop exaggerated elevations in heart rate or severe drops in blood pressure after prolonged standing -- such as when in line or taking a hot shower -- or often after exercise.
In the process of finding that connection, Rowe and his colleagues also came upon a subgroup that suffered from an allergy to cow milk.
Taken together, the low blood pressure-elevated heart rate and the allergy have been found to result in chronic tiredness.
Nall exhibited the low blood pressure and the milk allergy and has begun a dietary program involving substantial increases in salt and fluid intake and the removal of milk products from her diet. Since beginning the program, she has been free of the sinus infections.
VTC "It's hard to prove milk allergy is the cause of a sinus infection," Rowe said. "But Anita has had good results since we've diagnosed the allergy. Of course, a skeptic would say it could just be a good period in her life.
"Time will tell. At this point, we're not 100 percent sure if she will be able to continue to maintain her practice schedule. And we've got a lot of work to do to prove the connection to our colleagues."
Out at Arizona State, where Nall works with swimming coach Mike Chasson, she is excited by how far she has come.
On returning to Arizona after the national meet at the end of August, Nall, who still calls Towson home, swam about an hour a day. Now, she has picked it up to 2 1/2 hours a day and spends another half-hour on out-of-the-pool exercises. Her next meet will be in Norway in November.
"In 1996, I thought I was done swimming forever," she said. "But I started feeling like I could do it again. I know I have a lot yet to accomplish, but I feel like I can do it. I feel like I'm going somewhere with this, and I plan to put a lot of energy into it."
Pub Date: 10/06/98