ON STANDS NOW: Beneath the Surface: A story of surgery and sport

Butterfly had always come naturally to Lucy Hernandez, but she has only recently begun to see renewed success in her natural stroke, after eight years of battling sternum growth problems.

"The fly is not a big problem," Hernandez said. "I've always had rhythm. Fly has always come naturally to me.”

Hernandez grew up a competitive swimmer, and she found herself topping the results from a young age. She continued to experience success in the pool, but at age 11, an obstacle emerged from the most unlikely and problematic areas: her sternum. A bulging bone in her chest “didn’t seem quite right,” but Hernandez ignored the issue in an effort to continue swimming. Her parents also failed to realize the severity of the situation until a 500-meter freestyle race in December 2008 left her nearly unable to breath.

“When I jumped into the pool for the 500, I started falling back quite a bit,” she said. “I had to  breathe almost every single stroke just to get air into my lungs. It was almost as if my chest was working extra because by the time I got out, my chest hurt to the point where I actually had to lay down for a while.”

She struggled to finish the race but competed for the rest of the meet, focusing on her shorter events. The competition marked the first time that her health interfered with her performance, and the incident brought great frustration.

In an attempt to tackle the growth malfunction herself, she wore a device that strapped the sternum closer to her chest, but the apparatus only brought more discomfort. She feared the possibility of having to stop swimming, but after consulting with her doctor, surgery loomed as the best logical option.

Under the Knife

Large amounts of anesthesia prevented Hernandez from remembering the exact details of her operation, but her dad has filled her in on most of the gory details.

“[He] said they had to basically shave off part of my ribs just to get [them] to the proper position for the sternum,” she said. “They had to break the sternum in order to reconstruct it like normal people would have it.”

Despite the extensive operation, she only remained in the hospital for four days. In the months following the surgery, however, Hernandez struggled with daily tasks such as carrying a backpack during school and moving around with ease. A swimmer by heart, she said staying out the pool was almost worse than the surgery itself.

“Those four months just sucked so bad,” she said. “I had no idea what to do with myself. I had way too much free time. I remember telling my mom, ‘Can’t I do gymnastics or something?’”

Hernandez returned to the hospital later that year to allow the doctors to remove the metal bar that held her sternum in place, but the two initial surgeries never stopped her from swimming.

She dove back into to the water two weeks after the second surgery with a positive attitude, and she managed to complete sprint practices without too much breathing difficulty. Adjusting to the repositioned sternum, on the other hand, presented a greater challenge.

“It felt weird, like I was almost missing something because I was used to having it out here,” she said, pointing to her chest where the sternum used to protrude. 

“I still have [the weirdness]. It’s  not hard to breath; it just feels weird because I don’t actually have much feeling in my chest.”

The mental recovery, however, required more focus than the physically recovery. Hernandez avoided the 500-meter freestyle, which was once her best event, and she began to focus on the shorter events that brought less pain to her body. 

She started to specialize in the 100- and 200-yard backstroke and butterfly races, and she raced competitively in high school with the hopes of pursuing the sport in college. 

Adversity returns

Hernandez continued to fight her way back to her best times, but her sternum issues returned two years later and further challenged her progress. A growth spurt triggered the bone to burst out of her chest again, and her doctor encouraged further surgery.

The third operation progressed with less severity; she spent only two months out of the pool and approached her recovery with a more understanding perspective.

“I went from trying to wake up in the hospital and get up to just lying there,” she said. 

A few months later, the doctors conducted a fourth surgery to remove the metal bar that held her sternum in place.

Life as an Eagle

Hernandez’s passion for her sport pushed her to continue swimming at the collegiate level despite her sternum struggles.

After being admitted to AU, Hernandez approached head swim coach Mark Davin, explained her goals and asked for an opportunity to compete on the Varsity team. 

“I just basically sat with [Coach] Davin in his office, and told him ‘I can do this. I am capable of doing this. I’ve been trying to do this for eight years,’” she said.

Although she never attended an official recruiting trip at AU, she accepted the challenge of collegiate athletics with a determined mindset, and Davin presented Hernandez the opportunity to act on her promise.

Over the past year, she has dropped over 20 seconds in her 200-yard butterfly fly, a stroke driven almost entirely from the chest.

Hernandez holds herself to a high standard, and she said she looks forward to her sophomore swim season with the expectation of continuing her success, but she remains fearful of her condition. 

“I’m not growing anymore, and unless I do something to really damage my chest, I don’t think [my sternum] is going to move,” she said. “But there is still that ‘what if?’ that kind of haunts me in the back of my brain.”

sscovel@theeagleonline.com

Full Disclosure:  Shannon Scovel is a member of the Au Swim Team.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle

Would you like to support our work? Donate here to The Eagle Innovation Fund.

Coronavirus Project