Three years ago, doctors were debating whether senior Michelle Konkoly would ever walk again. After a horrendous accident, Konkoly was left temporarily paralyzed below the waist. But she battled; she endured several surgeries and an arduous rehabilitation program. Months later she was walking. She then returned to the Georgetown swim team before she was named to the U.S. Paralympics National Swim Team.
No one was expecting Konkoly to achieve these milestones after the accident she experienced her freshman year. On Jan. 11, 2011, Konkoly fell out of her fifth-floor Village C West room, resulting in numerous injuries, including broken vertebrae in her spine, a couple of broken ribs and a shattered heel.
Despite these injuries, Konkoly remained positive.
“She said something about asking the doctor whether she could do flip turns or not with the rod in her back. … To ask that question, it’s just tremendous optimism. I truly believe that if this happened to someone else who wasn’t as positive or wasn’t as determined, they wouldn’t be where Michelle is today,” Head Swim Coach Jamie Holder said.
Konkoly spent the next two weeks in The George Washington University Hospital where she underwent a slew of surgeries. She had three major operations: two on her spine and one on her foot. Having already withdrawn from the semester, she was then moved to Philadelphia — her hometown — to rehab at the Magee Rehabilitation Hospital.
Such a devastating set of injuries could have easily left even the most optimistic person dejected, but from the beginning Konkoly displayed a degree of resilience that has come to be an integral part of the success she has achieved since the accident.
That strong determination carried her through months of difficult rehab. Initially, all she could do was wiggle a few of her toes, and it took over three months for her to be able to stand and take a few steps. She first spent five weeks in inpatient care, and then she went home to wait for her foot to heal before she could put pressure on it. With some physical therapy at her house, it took over two months for her foot to heal to a point where she could slowly begin walking again.
The following April, she started doing intensive day therapy — five days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. At that point she was able to walk very slowly with a walker. After the first eight weeks of therapy, she progressed to being able to walk with two canes, and then after another eight weeks spanning into July, she was able to walk on her own.
As far as swimming goes, she did the best she could to keep in shape.
She was able to get back into the pool early for rehab, and then during the summer she swam a bit in the pool in her backyard. Although she knew regaining the same abilities she had before the accident was not likely, she still was determined to give it everything she had.
“It was pretty clear when I started swimming that I wasn’t going to be as competitive as I was in high school,” Konkoly said. “But I was pretty steadfast through it, and I knew I was going to do whatever I had to do.”
When she returned to Georgetown in fall 2011, she decided to redshirt her sophomore season to give herself the time to regain as much of her form as she could. Just like with her rehab, the process was a slow and arduous one.
“We took things one day at a time. … She started off just jogging in the diving well,” Holder said.
She gradually eased her way into full practices, but it was not until after about three months that she was able to participate fully. During this time, it was difficult for Holder to gauge just how much pressure to put on her.
“I think initially I was handling her with kid gloves … and she actually told me ‘Hey, tell me if I’m doing something wrong.’ That made me put her in more difficult situations,” Holder said.
To her teammates, although they knew what she had been through, she acted normally.
“She just kind of put her head down and did everything she normally would. … The effort that she puts in kind of masks [the effects of her injuries],” teammate junior Jillian Carter said.
Although Konkoly was making tremendous strides in rehab, it soon became clear she was not going to be that competitive for Georgetown, and toward the end of her sophomore year she began exploring the U.S. Paralympics team.
During spring break she travelled to Baltimore to swim for coaches of the Paralympic team, who evaluated her highly as being able to compete. She then travelled to Ohio to get classified, meaning she would be assigned a number based on her disabilities. Classifications are from a one to 10 with one being the most disabled and 10 being the least disabled. She received a level nine classification.
Konkoly’s Paralympic career quickly took off. After swimming in a couple of meets, she found herself at the Paralympic trials in North Dakota in June 2012, competing for a spot to go to London for the 2012 Paralympics. Although she did not make the team, the opportunity was a great experience and she was not upset at not being chosen.
“I had gotten involved so quickly that I wasn’t that disappointed because this hadn’t been something that I even thought was possible,” Konkoly said.
During her junior year, she did not compete in many Paralympic events, but during the following summer she was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel to the Paralympics training facility in Colorado with Holder, which provided both Holder and Konkoly with a learning experience.
In February this year, Konkoly competed in a Paralympic meet in Virginia in which her times qualified her for the U.S Paralympics Team. She also competed at CanAms in Miami in March, during which she qualified for the 2014 Pan Pacific Para-Swimming Championships, which will be held from Aug. 6 to Aug. 10 in Pasadena, Calif.
Konkoly’s journey, however, is not over. She will return to Georgetown in the fall to complete her biology degree.
“I came in as a bio major, pre-med, and I’m able to leave as that, which is really cool because I saw a lot of people that I met in rehab that really had to change the track of their life or modify it significantly,” Konkoly said. “Being in the hospital — exposed to medicine — really encouraged me that that was something I was passionate about.”
But with one year of eligibility remaining, she will be able to swim for Georgetown next season. Upon her December graduation, Konkoly must decide whether to continue with the U.S. National Team or to go medical school, to which she has been in the process of applying.
Whatever she decides, Konkoly’s future is limitless, which was something that was unimaginable to most after her accident in January 2011.