Amy Bilquist Retires From Competitive Swimming, Leaves Legacy of Elegant Resilience

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Amy Bilquist walks off the pool deck after her last race at Olympic trials. Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Amy Bilquist wanted to give her dreams one last shot.

Despite a pain so severe that it numbed her arm, coming on the heels of a separate shoulder surgery, Bilquist decided to swim at the Olympic trials, even though she couldn’t feel her left arm in the water.

Stunningly, despite all of those setbacks, she finished ninth in the 100 backstroke at trials, just one spot from making the final. It has been a long road since finishing third at the 2016 trials, one filled with huge obstacles Bilquist constantly had to overcome.

That is the legacy she leaves as she retires from competitive swimming — a legacy of elegant resilience that few elite athletes have matched during the past decade.

Amy Bilquist has won a U.S. national championship with a broken hand, won International Swimming League (ISL) races with a shoulder in need of repair, and won NCAA relay titles for Cal with fractures in her feet and legs, on top of other injuries.

It has been a long road full of these setbacks, each that could have easily made her want to quit or not allow her to get back to the same level in the sport. But each time, Bilquist rose up to not just overcome those obstacles, but become who she wanted to be along the way — a tremendous legacy to leave in the sport.

“I don’t really think about it as a legacy because it is my life, but I would just love if anyone could learn from me that you are dealt certain cards and there is a way to play them — learning how to play them in a way that makes you better. How are you working on yourself to come back better?” Amy Bilquist told Swimming World. “The legacy I would like to leave is to not just overcome but become. Be better. Become who you want to be and overcome everything you have to overcome to become that person.”

Bilquist announced her retirement from competitive swimming after her latest surgery to correct her painful arm-numbing injury.

 

 

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“With everything I have gone through, I don’t think I will ever be the same after this surgery. I am not retiring from the sport, but I am retiring from the elite level I have been doing it at,” Bilquist said. “I am definitely a little sad, but ultimately really proud. I didn’t achieve everything I wanted, but I know I gave it everything I had. I gave it every single ounce my body could give it. I gave it all the attention I could give it for 23 years. I gave it my social life. I gave it so much. I am happy with being able to leave the sport and still love it. For me, that is the biggest accomplishment. I have seen so many people go out hating the sport, but I still love it. I am excited to one day be able to get back in the pool and swim laps again.”

 

The Latest Setback and Triumph

After undergoing a shoulder surgery in January, Amy Bilquist was determined to make it to trials and give her dreams one final shot.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Recovering from that surgery, then still having further issues present themselves just before trials was devastating. But instead of feeling sorry for herself, she focused on doing what she could, amazingly finishing ninth — in an insanely loaded women’s 100 backstroke field in the U.S. — in the face of pain, numbness and lack of a full preparation time in the water.

“I think I can confidently say that I was disappointed in not making the final or that lifelong goal (of making the Olympic team), but at the same time being so proud of myself for going out there knowing it wasn’t going to be what I wanted. I gave myself the shot that I deserved and (would) be OK if I fail. For me, that was probably the thing I am most proud of, coming to terms with that and being happy and secure in that — knowing I did everything I could with the cards I had been dealt.”

Then, she took some time to reflect and get her latest surgery that ultimately ended her competitive career. The surgery involved removing one of her ribs, among other things, in hopes of correcting her dislocated sternoclavicular joint — where the collarbone meets the sternum — which has led to several points of excruciating pain, coupled with numbness and nerve damage.

“I found out that I dislocated my sternoclavicular joint (SC Joint). It is the opposite of the AC joint in your shoulder. This is the one in your chest. I dislocated the left side of it. What that essentially did was shift my collarbone up to my chest which began to crowd my shoulder. That put a lot of pressure on my nerves and blood vessels, which is why I was having numbness and a dead arm when I was swimming because I was actually losing blood flow and damaging those nerves,” Bilquist said.

Often this is corrected by removing the collarbone, but Bilquist’s doctors decided to remove a rib in hopes of keeping her mobility and allowing her to keep an active lifestyle — even if that doesn’t include competitive swimming.

“Unfortunately with the dislocation, the (typical) surgery would (take out the collarbone and) forever mean a difference of lifestyle for me. But we did the decompression surgery to cure the outlets that would help my joints set back into place naturally. They went in and did a first ribosection (taking out the top rib altogether) and remove the scalenes on the left side of my neck and got rid of the damaged nerves. That was all in hopes of getting the feeling back in the arm and fingers. Hopefully, that will help with the dislocation problem,” she said.

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Photo Courtesy: Amy Bilquist

Bilquist has already noticed a difference just days after the surgery, feeling her nerves in her fingers for the first time in months.

“Normally when I lift my hand above my head, I would instantly lose sensation. … It was really exciting to feel my fingers again. I think I was so in denial of the thing because it happened right before trials and I wanted to swim fast there that I was telling myself that it wasn’t that bad.

But when I was swimming the 100 back at trials, I really didn’t know where my left arm was in the water and that was really scary,” Amy Bilquist said. “Just knowing that I could finally take a step back and realize I had to do this right now. It was nice to know that I was able to have that payoff and know I sacrificed for trials, but didn’t sacrifice too much.”

 

Journey and Lasting Legacy

Amy Bilquist started swimming at age 4 and was a competitive swimmer at age 6, swimming for Ryan Kent at the Westside Silver Fins YMCA in Arizona, later swimming for Matt Rankin in the senior group.
It was then on to Scottsdale for a six-month stay, training with Kevin Zacher and Bob Platt before moving from Arizona to Indiana and joining Carmel, led by Chris Plumb and Ian Murray, becoming a U.S. national team member and helping Carmel High School continue its streak of state championships.

She earned a scholarship to swim for Teri McKeever at Cal and after one year in Berkeley, had a stellar, but heartbreaking Olympic trials in 2016. She finished third in the 100 backstroke behind Olivia Smoliga and future Cal teammate Kathleen Baker, missing the team by eight hundredths of a second after overtaking legends Missy Franklin and Natalie Coughlin in the race.

She also finished fourth in the 200 backstroke, just four tenths of a second away from the second spot that Franklin earned.
Bilquist went on to Cal and became an NCAA champion on five relays for the Golden Bears.

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D.C. Trident’s Amy Bilquist; Photo Courtesy: Mike Lewis/ISL

After battling several injuries, she became a U.S. national champion in the 100 backstroke in 2019 despite a broken hand, and then was one of the pioneers of professional swimming, signing with Arena and joining the ISL where she swam for the LA Current, then for the DC Trident.

“There are so many different moments that could have been the best. The best team moment was definitely 2019 NCAAs. That was just a feeling that was never replicated and I don’t think could ever be replicated again,” she said.

But Bilquist’s lasting legacy has nothing to do with her times or specific performances in the water, though they have been impressive. It is her resilience in the face of constant painful obstacles that is part of that legacy, as well as her championing of positive body image.

It is something the 6-foot-3 Bilquist has dealt with her entire career, first as a tall, skinny kid, then adding muscles and curves as she grew into one of the world’s elite swimmers.

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Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“Growing up, when I started to get teased, even by coaches from colleges I wanted to go to. For me, that was such a slap in the face and a rude awakening that I wasn’t just being judged on my times, I was being judged by what I looked like. I think every young athlete is going to reach a point in their life where they are going to second-guess what they look like and as hard as that is, you have to know if this body is helping you become who you want to become. Hopefully the answer is always yes. If people are judging your body, honestly, you are probably doing something right,” Amy Bilquist said. “People are going to say things are good or bad your whole life. Bodies aren’t good or bad. They are bodies and they are all unique. In order to become the best version of who you want to be, you have to fuel that body and believe in that body.”

That is what Bilquist wants to pass on to the next generation.

“Being able to come to terms and do those things is what is going to make you the best. My body has changed so much. I am a tall, muscular woman, but at the same time, I have had a lot of scars put on that body and I have been able to cope with those at well. I have one now almost like a necklace,” she said. “But that is not ugly, it is beautiful because it shows a time where I was able to push myself to a point I didn’t think I could be pushed — and I was able to do what I wanted with my body one last time.”

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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Cathy Kriegshauser

    Congratulations Amy! All of the Kriegshauser family is so proud of all that you have accomplished throughout the years. Its been our joy to watch you grow.
    Loved seeing you this weekend
    Cathy Kriegshauser

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