The Most Circuitous of Routes

by Tito Morales

LONG BEACH, Calif., July 10. EACH athlete who competes at these U.S. Olympic Trials has a unique story to share, but the universal theme is triumph over adversity. These swimmers, quite simply, are experts at defying the odds.

Surely one of the most implausible tales here, though, must be that of Katrina Radke, who is scheduled to swim over the weekend in both the 50 and 100 meter freestyle events.

“We’re just thrilled that we can be here at Trials,” says Radke, turning to smile at long-time coach Ross Gerry. “We already feel so lucky.”

Since this is actually Radke’s second trip to this, the most prestigious of domestic meets, she’s certainly no stranger to the unique ambience surrounding the event. The thing of it, though, is that her last appearance in the Trials was all the way back in 1988.

That Radke, 33, is here again after 16 years is improbable enough. That for much of her lengthy hiatus she was physically incapable of even covering 25 yards in a pool makes her presence here all the more remarkable.

Many in the competitive swimming community might remember Radke. As a youth she was good. Extremely good. In 1988 she earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team in the 200 fly. She later went on to finish fifth in Seoul. In this sport it scarcely gets much better than that.

But the roof fell in on her as she was finishing up a successful career at the University of California, Berkeley. That’s when Radke’s powerful body began to fail her.

Radke had already battled through bouts of mononucleosis. So when the loss of energy first appeared, she was well familiar with the routine. But then came a loss of feeling in her arms. And even more lethargy.

By the time she discovered she had chronic fatigue system, the disease had so ravaged her body that she had difficulty rising from bed.

“My immune system was shot,” Radke recalls. “I couldn’t swim. I couldn’t even go to school.”

There is no medicinal cure for chronic fatigue system, an insidious autoimmune infliction which essentially zeroes-out one’s energy level.

“I would sometimes do one lap and I couldn’t function after that,” she says. “During certain times of the month the pain would be so severe that I wanted to leave my body.”

Radke, a seven-year US National team member still at the height of her career, had gone from possessing a never-back-down mindset to becoming a physical and emotional wreck who struggled through even the most mundane of tasks.

“Some days I would be lucky if I could get out of bed, go to the grocery store, and make it back home,” she recalls. “I felt as if I was a 90 year-old.”

Her comeback was not long in the making. She didn’t suddenly wake up one day and rediscover her youth and vigor. It wasn’t until 1999, in fact, that she even attempted to get back in the water again. And it wasn’t until three years later — in 2002 — that she managed to work her way up to a 500 yard workout.

That’s only 24 months ago.

When Radke did finally slide back into the pool, qualifying for the Trials was the very last thing on her mind. She was just ecstatic to have finally immersed herself in chlorinated water again. But one thing led to another, and pretty soon she started musing about possibly racing again — strictly at the Masters level, of course.

Gerry humored her. Her coach was as thrilled as she was to see her physically active again.

A race or two later, though, and… Well, here she is competing at the Trials against many swimmers who hadn’t even been born yet when her career was in full bloom.

Radke, who’s seeded 47th in the 100 and 21st in the 50, is just as curious as everyone else to see just how far she can push this dream.

“I really do feel blessed,” she says, downplaying her chances.

Secretly, though, she and Gerry are hopeful of what might possibly happen here. And maybe they should be.

After all, who could have ever predicted that such a circuitous route would lead to Long Beach?

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