Ryan Harty’s Journey From Elbow Injury to Finally Swimming Best Times Again

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

September 17, 2016. The day that current Texas junior Ryan Harty’s life changed forever.

It was a normal Saturday afternoon in Austin, Texas for Harty, who was in his sophomore season for the Longhorns at the time. Harty was coming off a very successful freshman season where he finished seventh in the 200 back at NCAAs and was the highest placing freshman in the event. He also scored in his other two events as he reached the B-Final in the 200 and 400 IM.

Texas had recruits in town that weekend and the team was going to spend a Saturday afternoon at the Green Belt in Austin, which is a popular destination for the swimming and diving team to take recruits. Harty and a couple of other swimmers were waiting outside the dorms for Max Holter to bring around Townley Haas’s big red truck so everyone could pile in.

There were a couple oak trees that Harty would frequently climb just for fun that were, in his own words, “fairly easy climbs” and “a fun way to kill some time.”

Harty was climbing the tree and tried to push himself up but slipped and fell directly backwards about 13 feet. When he slipped he put his hands behind him to brace for impact, and when he landed he didn’t feel any pain immediately. But it was when he got up that he tried straightening his elbows. His right elbow was fine but when he straightened his left elbow, it looked like he had two elbows poking out next to each other.

“I dislocated it but I didn’t know the extent to my injuries yet. I had to go to the hospital and they told me I dislocated my left elbow, fractured my radial head of my left elbow and my left ulna head of my elbow and I fractured my wrist as well,” Harty told Swimming World.

“So I had to get surgery on my wrist. I was in a cast for two and a half months and then the elbows, they didn’t put me in a cast and they didn’t do any surgery or anything. Needless to say I was out that season.”

The injury occurred early enough in the season that Harty could take a redshirt without it being deemed a “medical redshirt.”

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Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold / Aringo Photos

But Harty did not want to redshirt originally because he thought he could recover in time to still make NCAAs. He was out of the pool and came back in November with a waterproof cast and was strictly kicking, usually alone in the diving well either with a board or on his back, “which is horrible as is.”

He still believed that he had a chance to come back that year so he pushed his recovery as much as he could so he could be healthy and qualify. But coaches Eddie Reese and Wyatt Collins knew that the extent of Harty’s injury would still require a redshirt.

Right before Christmas break in December 2016, Harty was finally back in the pool without a cast and was cleared to use his arms again. He was put in sprint group, but it was still a lot of yards really soon.

“It was basically trying to learn how to swim again because I couldn’t straighten either of my elbows at the time,” Harty said.

“I didn’t want to call it quits in December and be like ‘I definitely could’ve been able to make it back.’ I figured if I’m going to do something, I might as well push it 100% to see what happens in the rare chance I’m able to make it back.”

When he went home for Christmas that year, his elbows were in so much pain that he did not swim while he was at home. He came back to Austin for intense winter break training and was swimming doubles for the first time.

“I remember days I would literally get out of the pool because I was so tired and in so much pain that I would go to the locker room and just cry,” Harty said.

“It was so miserable what I had to go through. I seriously thought about quitting because at that time it didn’t seem feasible I would get back to swimming just because of the shape of my elbows. How am I ever going to recover?”

The Texas team saw how much Harty was struggling through the season and rallied around him to help him get through the practices mentally, which Harty credited to him not giving up. There was one particular day Harty remembered that he was struggling through and head coach Eddie Reese pulled him aside to tell him a story.

“Ed loves his stories,” Harty said.

Reese was telling him a story about an ultra marathon runner that was being interviewed and was asked about how he is able to conquer such long distances and mentally grueling training.

“And his response was ‘it’s like eating an elephant. You just gotta do it one bite at a time.’ And that’s what Eddie told me, it’s going to be a tough process but you’re going to have to go through these next couple of months. But take it like eating an elephant and just do it one bite at a time. And that was something I kept in mind the rest of Christmas training and the rest of that season. And I still keep that in mind because I like that piece of advice.”

Harty did not compete for the rest of his sophomore season. He knew his role had gone from being a point scorer for Texas to being a cheerleader for the team. Harty was at all the home meets that season and still made all the team events. The men’s team took notice of Harty’s dedication to the team and decided to fly him out to the 2017 NCAAs in Indianapolis, where they won 11 total events and won by almost 200 points over second place.

But even after watching Texas win its third straight team title in 2017, Harty never thought he would make the meet again or be the same swimmer he was before the injury. But in December 2017, when he was a redshirt sophomore, Harty went a 1:39.23 in the 200 back at the Texas Invite, just 0.06 off his best time from 2016 NCAAs.

That swim gave him new hope for his swimming career moving forward.

That swim at the Texas Invite qualified him for NCAAs, where he finished 14th in the 200 back. He added a little bit of time from the Invite, but he was just happy he was back on deck at NCAAs, where he helped Texas win its fourth straight team title. And being able to watch from the deck was even better, instead of from the stands like in 2017.

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2017 NCAA Team Champions; Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

“That meet is just electric. I think that’s the only way to really describe it.”

“Being able to compete and being able to cheer on the team from the front row, it was unbelievable. Last year was a very stressful experience in the sense of how we performed and being behind until literally the last event. But it was a ton of fun being there and being with the guys and cheering on the team.”

Harty’s comeback sort of came to an end this season in December when he went his first best time in three years in the 100 back at the Texas Invite. He was a 45.35, which currently ranks him sixth in Division I right now. He was ecstatic, but more-so because it meant he didn’t have to do the 400 IM at NCAAs.

“I’ve been back and forth with the two events and I think that the way my underwaters have progressed the last couple years, it’s looking like the 100 back is going to be my more dominant event opposed to the 400 IM. So seeing I was able to perform that event and go a fairly decent time was very exciting especially for a December meet.”

Harty is also ranked fourth in Division I in the 200 back with his Texas Invite time (1:39.54).

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Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold / Aringo Photos

All in all, Harty’s injury did come with some good. He is currently a redshirt junior for Texas and next year he will finish his eligibility for the Longhorns while pursuing a Master’s degree in business analytics.

“(That) probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t fallen out of a tree.”

Harty has the Big 12 Championships this week in Austin, Texas. He said he enjoys having a less pressure conference meet because it allows the team to put all of its focus on the NCAA Championships, which will be in Texas’ home pool in four weeks.

Harty is especially excited to watch the freshman class this championship season because of how hard they have worked all season, despite coming in to a team of swimmers that have not experienced anything but first at the NCAA meet.

“I think there is going to be some really great breakout performances that are going to keep people on their toes for sure. And they’ve definitely done the work and now they’re going to reap the reward.”

Now that Harty has finally gone a best time this season, he is almost done eating the elephant. And with that conquered, he will have a lot to offer for the Longhorns at Big 12s and NCAAs.

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Photo Courtesy: Andy Ringgold / Aringo Photos

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Mema Ann Cheney

    What a journey you have been on. So happy the Father has answered your prayers. Hope to see you the end of March.