By Katie Cardner and Rachel Mayan
If you frequent the indoor or outdoor pool in the afternoons or evenings, chances are you may have seen HAC Member, Pierce Conlon, getting in his daily laps. With a quick glance, you’d likely assume he’s active, fit, and can exercise without a hitch. You’d never guess that swimming is the only form of exercise he can do consistently after being unable to move for almost four years.
“I primarily joined the club because of the outdoor pool. I’ve swam at other clubs my whole life, but they always close the outdoor pools in October. I’m friends with one of the lifeguards here, Graham. He told me about the outdoor pool and no less than 20 minutes later, I became a member.”
My alternative plan was going to be to drive to Lums Pond or the Delaware beaches to swim outside. I had never even heard of HAC before Graham mentioned it to me. I was very impressed by the facility. The people are very professional here. It’s a little bit of a hike for me to make it out here, but it’s worth it.
I used to do a lot of walking outside, which was nice. I like to be able to exercise and still be outside, but swimming is traditionally an inside sport, which made this challenging before I joined HAC. I’m used to running and having fresh air and Vitamin D while I exercise. That’s something I find important while exercising. But the only physical form of activity I can do now is swim.
I have a spinal cord injury. When I was in high school, I was a runner. I would run around 50 miles a week. I was state champion, all state; I got a full ride to run at the University of Delaware. When I was 19, I started to get pain in my feet and knees. The way my skull was attached to my spine was causing my body to twist around itself. The bones are constructed incorrectly in my skull, probably from playing rugby when I was younger and getting hit in the head. This caused my skull to not be in the correct position. Over my whole life, my body was twisting itself.
Eventually, I was completely immobile for about four years. I went from running 80-90 miles a week and being extremely fit to being immobile. I had several different doctors who couldn’t figure out what was happening, and finally I found a doctor who knew what was wrong with me.
I had gotten a recommendation from the physical therapist here at Elite, Andrew Rudawsky. He would send all the patients that he knew who needed more help to this particular doctor. I saw him and he knew what was wrong with me right away. I have been seeing him for the last three to four years. From when I was 19-22, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, so it was nice to finally have someone who was able to help me.
When I was 25, I was finally able to walk again. It was the only form of exercise I could do, which was really boring for me as someone who was used to more strenuous activity. Last year I was able to start swimming a little. It was still pretty painful, but now I can swim around 2 miles every day.
I have also been doing yoga and tai chi for the past year and a half, which has been really helpful. I went skiing five times this year and have mountain biked a little bit. I want to be able to lift again, so I am seeing a trainer here about getting back into it. I’m hoping to get back to being able to compete [with running].
I’m going to try to race in a triathlon this year, just the swim part. I have friends who will do a relay with me. My end goal is to get healthy, run again, and break 4 minutes to the mile. I ran 4:20 when I was in high school. I’m just happy to be back in a gym. I’m really happy with everything here.”
Pierce’s condition is not well known, nor is it well understood. His particular spinal cord injury, aside from rendering him immobile for some time, causes the brain stem to compress, leading to a bodily imbalance. One side of his body experiences things such as tightened neck muscles, hamstrings, and calf muscles, as well as contracted shoulder and spinal muscles. The injury also causes that same side’s shoulder to sit lower, the hip to be raised, and the leg to be shorter. All of these effects can result in a variety of daily pain.