Overcoming NEVER

Posted on May 9, 2010

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It was May 16, 1999.  Jennifer Willis, nine months pregnant, had her life changed forever on this day when her car was smashed from behind by a drunk driver. Her car rolled and she was rushed to the ER. She herniated two disks in her neck, sprained her low back, broke many ribs and had multiple contusions. Miraculously, her daughter was delivered unharmed just two days later.  This experience would have been enough to make even the toughest recoil from life, but not Jennifer. She had already survived the hardest life had to offer, years before at the University of Florida.

In the Beginning
As an age-grouper, Jennifer excelled in many events under the tutelage of legendary coach Jack Nelson in Ft Lauderdale. She developed quickly into a speedy high school All-American and state champion. In the fall of 1986, Jennifer headed to Gainesville to swim for the University of Florida. There she trained under hard-nosed Randy Reese, Skip Foster and Buddy Baarcke where she was All-SEC, All-American, and a 1988 Olympic Trial Qualifier.

As dedicated readers of the Swimmer Joe blog may have already read, those who trained under Randy Reese have often claimed it was the most difficult physical training of their lives, making anything else pale in comparison. This preparation would serve Jennifer very well on that fateful day in May 1999 as well as the months of painful rehab that followed.

Graduation & Motherhood
After school, Jennifer was an All-American masters swimmer and spent 2 successful years on the triathlon circuit. She stayed in impeccable shape through spinning, lifting weights and then, after the birth of her son Wyatt, dragging him along to the pool each day. The future seemed bright: a dedicated husband, a healthy son, and an athletic career that only seemed to improve with her age.  Then tragedy struck in the form of a single drunk driver.

Tragedy Strikes
“Visions flew through my mind as my truck rolled,” Jennifer recalled of the accident. “All I could think of was that I was going to lose my baby. I wasn’t going to be able to say goodbye to Glenn or Wyatt.  I was just running up the road three miles to the grocery store with my mother-in-law to get a few necessities…I was only a mile down the road when it happened.”

With the support of her husband Glenn, Jennifer spent months recovering, forcing herself through painful rehab. She often wondered if she would ever breathe normally again or be able to return to competitive swimming. However, a swimmer who had been through the ranks of a Randy Reese regiment somehow finds a way. She pushed her body beyond its limits, forced her muscles to comply with her mental will. Slowly she re-entered the water once again.  Her swimming would not be denied! Now with two children to tow to the pool, Jennifer resumed her swimming, still as determined as ever.

Another Set Back
Then in 2004, another nasty hurdle threatened to end her career. During a horseback ride with her dad, her horse spooked, threw her, dislocated and broke her right shoulder, and she ended up tearing a rotator cuff. She received a tremendous amount of therapy for years and reported she had NEVER felt so much pain! And then her doctor finally said the words she didn’t want to hear: “Jen, you’ll NEVER compete again!”

Time to Dig Deep
There are some people in this world to whom the word NEVER means something entirely different  than it does to the rest of us.  To them, NEVER is simply a suggestion, rather than an absolute finality. Jennifer is one of these people, and she decided NEVER would not rule her life. She disregarded the doctor’s prognosis, and set to work once again, for the second time in her life.

With Jennifer’s mental strength driving her to get back into shape, she went for it. All the muscle she had once had was gone, the endurance depleted, and the conditioning non-existent. Still, she started working out again, driving through the pain, pushing herself on all the dryland exercises.

She started swimming with the kids in the pool, just a little at a time at first, and then she spent 2006 swimming entirely on her own.  However, Jennifer was no longer a college kid; she was a 38-year-old mother of two who had suffered several major injuries. She began to wonder if she would be able to come back.

Ed Nessel with Cullen Jones

Ed Nessel with Cullen Jones

A Coach Comes to Help
Luckily, in the fall of 2006, Ed Nessel, former coach of Olympians Cullen Jones and Ron Karnaugh, got into her head! He found a way to tap into her inner drive and find the motivation to step it up even further. Time to get going.

Coach Ed Nessel is an excellent sprint coach and the exact person Jennifer needed.  After all of Ed’s bag of tricks—medicine ball throws, F1 Noise, crazy underwater streamline drills, sick core drills and unheard of water walking exercises—he rekindled Jennifer’s fire and made her strong! He was the “coach that made the difference!”

So, when she stood on the blocks at the Rowdy Gaines Classic in October 2009, a decade after nearly losing her baby and her life to a drunk driver, she knew she was already a winner. But to make it even more memorable, at this meet she swam the fastest time in the world for a woman 40 – 44 years old in the 100 Short Course Meters Freestyle: 59.55.

Thoughts from Jennifer:

  • Swimming is a lot different than it was in the 80s.
  • It took me at least a year to breathe on my power side in freestyle and to trust dolphin kicks off the wall.
  • I still do the grab start because I can get further off the blocks. It’s making a comeback after the track start craze.
  • Give me back my long-legged zippered tech suit!
  • I’ve made it a goal to perfect my breaststroke since it was my worst stroke as a younger swimmer. Proper drills and training are really helping out!
  • Streamlining is my friend!
  • I now know that staying physically fit is the key to overcoming injuries.
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