Swimming against the odds

Coping with broken bones and indescribable pain, a driven athlete sets records and wins admiration.

February 28, 2005|By Bill Free and John Eisenberg | Bill Free and John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

RADFORD, Va. -- Lucy Gilmore swam to the end of her heat, touched the wall and turned to look at the scoreboard at the Dedmon Center at Radford University.

The news was good: Her two broken ribs had not kept her from setting an American record.

"It's exciting," said Gilmore, 21, a College of Notre Dame junior with McCune-Albright syndrome, a rare disability.

McCune-Albright affects the growth of children, mostly girls, and causes polyostotic fibrous dysplasia, the development of abnormal fibrous tissue in bones. When this occurs in weight-bearing bones, limping, deformity and fractures can occur.

Gilmore is 4 feet 8 inches with one leg shorter than the other, and sometimes uses a wheelchair when not in the pool. She has had about 50 broken bones since McCune-Albright was diagnosed when she was 3 1/2 years old.

"Lucy can break a bone just by walking down the street," said her mother, Mary "Sweetsie" Gilmore.

It is not unusual for Gilmore's ribs to break during her swimming races, and she has competed with a broken arm and broken legs. But the injuries don't stop her. She recently finished her third season of competing for Notre Dame against able-bodied swimmers, and though she never wins, her times are among the best in the country for her category of disabled swimming.

Last week in Radford, her hometown, she shaved eight seconds off her national record in the 500-yard freestyle during preliminaries at the Atlantic States Championship.

Using a one-legged kick and a steady arm crawl, she finished second in her heat and drew an ovation from the spectators.

"Rib-wise, it's probably the best I have felt coming into a meet, and knowing that, I felt I could afford to go out a little stronger," she said.

A soft-spoken photography major, Gilmore set national records in the 500 freestyle, 200 backstroke, 100 backstroke and 50 backstroke at the Randolph-Macon Yellow Jacket Invitational in December.

The records were in the S7 category of USA Adaptive Swimming, which is for athletes who have control of their stroke, including propulsive arm movements, good trunk control and some leg propulsion.

Dr. Michael Collins, Gilmore's pediatric endocrinologist at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, said he has never known anyone with McCune-Albright to take swimming to such a high level.

"Lucy's one of a kind," Collins said. "I try to encourage all my kids to swim because it's good exercise, but no one else has taken it to this level. I think she has some sort of intrinsic drive that very few people have."

That drive first became evident when Gilmore, at 15, competed with a broken leg in the International Paralympic Committee World Championship meet in Christchurch, New Zealand. She had to complete a 400-meter heat to gain a No. 8 world ranking, and she did so while dragging her injured leg through the water.

Two years ago, she swam with a broken arm when her Notre Dame team needed a fourth person to fill out the 200-yard freestyle relay and avoid a forfeit during a meet.

With her broken arm raised in an immobile cast wrapped in a plastic bag, she used one arm and one leg to move through the water and complete the relay to earn points for the team.

"Needless to say, Lucy sets quite an example for the rest of the team," said Notre Dame swimming coach Kurt Jordan.

Although she finishes behind most of her able-bodied opponents, she doesn't always come in last. In a meet against Trinity University in Washington, D.C., last month, she finished third in the 200-yard freestyle and 200 backstroke, beating able swimmers in each event.

Nicole Riegel, the senior captain of the Notre Dame team, just shakes her head at Gilmore's drive.

"If anybody else on the team had broken ribs, we would be sitting out on the side of the pool," Riegel said.

Her teammates not only have embraced Gilmore, Jordan said, but have also shown her respect by treating her as just another member of the team.

"That is so huge for her," her mother said. "Growing up, Lucy was unable to do the typical high school thing, going to parties and going bowling. She's never been part of anything like this team."

Gilmore said: "Being part of the team and part of the family the team represents -- I love that."

She lives on campus in a dorm room and faces a multitude of physical issues. Nine months ago, she underwent surgery to relieve severe head pain caused by her skull's compressing her brain. Her coming spring vacation is reserved for carpal tunnel surgery on her wrists. And her ribs constantly break.

"It's hard to describe [the pain]. It's just there every second," Gilmore said. "But I don't really think about it. I just make up my mind to swim through it. Whatever I'm doing, I'm going to keep going. I try to put it out of my mind and concentrate on the task at hand."

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