Olympic Swimmer Thomas Overcomes Shoulder Injuries, Wins Gold
September 13, 2004
By Diana Barnes Brown for Shoulder1
Australian swimmer Petria Thomas was standing tall as she left the Athens Olympic games with three gold medals and one silver, accounting for over a fifth of Australia’s swim team’s total of fifteen medals.
Thomas, who took gold in the women’s 100-meter butterfly, helped the women’s 4x100 meter freestyle relay team take another, and took silver in the women’s 200-meter butterfly. She also broke two world records and is credited with pulling the Australian team to victory in the medley relay by swimming the fastest ever relay split in history, helping her teammates make up a 1.68 second deficit, and going on to share her well-deserved third gold medal with the team.
But the path to victory was not an easy one for Thomas, who, at 28 years old, is the oldest member of the Australian women’s swim team, who struggled through shoulder surgery and rehab to her wins this year. She knew, as she prepared for the Athens Games, that she could be heading to her last Olympics – if she was able to get her shoulder in shape in time to qualify for the Games at all.
After multiple surgeries to reconstruct her shoulder, Thomas had to work especially hard to ensure her continued capability in the water. She was out of the pool for months in 2003 after her third shoulder surgery, and in addition to the hours she spent every day on training activities, she had to add a rigorous physical therapy regimen to speed her recovery and reduce the chance of further injury.
All Thomas’ work and suffering paid off, however, when she went on to achieve incredible victories in the Games. “I’m going to savor it for the rest of my life,” she told reporters.
For swimmers, injuries to the shoulder are among of the most feared mishaps. Swimmers count on strong, stable arm motions to pull them through the water, and even a small instability or weakness can mean the difference between a record-breaking race and a disappointing performance in the water, not to mention the pain of constantly training with an already damaged shoulder.
Unfortunately, the “Catch 22” of swimming and sports that require similar shoulder movement is that a careful balance must be struck between an increased range of motion (which translates to more flexibility and a more powerful stroke in the water) and decreased stability in the joint. When combined with strength in the back and chest muscles responsible for pulling swimmers through the water, this flexibility leads to incredible leverage in the arms, which can translate to a competitive edge. But the farther the shoulder can move, the more stress is placed on the rotator cuff (the group of four muscles that control the rotation and lifting of the shoulder), and the more easily injury can occur.
This means that athletes such as swimmers (also known in sports medicine as “overhead athletes” because of the need to rotate their shoulders in such a way that they can throw their arms over their head repeatedly and powerfully) can be at much greater risk for shoulder injury than weaker competitors or, ironically, even those who are not in competitive shape.
When the muscles in the rotator cuff are damaged, shoulder motion can become painful, and the shoulder itself may become unable to withstand the constant stress of competitive athletics. Swelling, pain, and reduced range of motion may follow, and may worsen with continued use of the joint. Bursitis (inflammation of the tissue that protects muscles and tendons as they glide over bone) and separation of the shoulder (displacement of the junction of the clavicle and scapula bones) may follow with repeated stress.
While swimmers can combat these injuries with carefully planned training and physical therapy, in some cases the repeated used of the joint – no matter now careful an athlete is – can cause chronic injuries, which can, in turn, lead to multiple surgeries down the line.
But fortunately for Thomas – and due in no small part to her determination throughout rehabilitation – neither injury nor surgery was enough to prevent her from grabbing a stellar series of wins. This summer, the Aussie women’s team enjoyed a very happy ending to a bittersweet story of athletic determination.
Last updated: 13-Sep-04