Mar. 3, 2013 Sunday edition cover story by staff reporter Stefanie Loh (@StefanieLoh) of the U-T San Diego
She was excited to swim that night.
But strangely, UC San Diego senior Beth Dong felt no pressure when she stepped onto the blocks to begin the 400-meter individual medley final at last November's Arena Invitational.
Arena was the Tritons' first big meet of the season. Beth was coming off a blazing fast 4:19.20 in the morning prelim where she'd shaved five seconds off her personal best.
It was a phenomenal result - especially for a Division II swimmer racing against an Olympian and a host of other top-notch Division I athletes.
It also meant that Beth had punched her ticket to Birmingham, Ala., for Wednesday's Division II National Championships. Quite an accomplishment for a woman who, in the past eight years, had survived two major back surgeries as well as the loss of her mentor.
So in this final, she had nothing to lose.
The call came: "Take your mark."
A couple lanes down from Beth, Cal's Caitlin Leverenz was getting into her start position.
Yes, the same Caitlin Leverenz who'd won a 2012 Olympic bronze medal in the 200IM right around the time Beth was preparing to have her back sliced open on an operating table.
Freshman Beth might have been intimidated. Senior Beth was unfazed. She was going to be just fine.
"I remember just being really grateful that I was there," Beth recalls. "Swimming in finals, even swimming at all."
After all, there was a time not so long ago, when the woman the Tritons call "The Comeback Kid" had wondered if she'd ever swim again.
The swimmers sliced into the water.
JANUARY 25, 2006
Beth was 14 the first time she woke up drugged and in doubt, after a six-hour surgery.
Her strong, previously-unblemished swimmer's back was now dissected by a massive line of stitches that ran from the bottom of her neck all the way to her tailbone.
"It looked like a horror story," Beth recalls.
Or at least she assumes it did since she never actually saw the wound. It apparently looked so horrific that her mother didn't take a picture for fear that it might traumatize her daughter.
But all physical scarring aside, the scariest thing about that day was all of the unknowns.
After an 11-year love affair with competitive swimming that started at the age of 3, an extreme case of scoliosis had forced Beth to say goodbye to the sport that had come to define her.
Scoliosis is an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine that, in extreme cases, can severely compromise organ function.
Beth was first diagnosed with the problem after a routine scoliosis screening in fifth grade.
The school nurse ordered Beth off to see a doctor, who found that the girl's spine was already curved at a 44-degree angle. Specialists generally recommend surgery to correct curves of more than 50 degrees.
So for three years from sixth grade on, Beth wore a thick, hard plastic brace under her clothes.
The thing was uncomfortable, and the only time Beth was allowed to take it off was when she was in the pool.
Read the rest here.
-- UCSDtritons.com --