Michelle Konkoly quickly walked down the familiar East Wing of Methacton High School hallway to her former home pool last week, a spring in her step, a happy smile on her pretty face.
A stranger would have never believed that it was just over two years ago doctors feared Konkoly might never walk again after her horrendous fall out of a fifth-floor window.
On January 11, 2011, in the early hours of Tuesday morning, the swim team had just returned from their winter training trip and class was going to start in a couple of days. It was uncomfortably warm in her Georgetown University dorm room high up there on the fifth floor. Konkoly, a former Methacton standout swimmer and by then a Georgetown freshman going into her second semester, figured she would open a window to let in some fresh air.
But the window wouldn’t budge. She started wrestling with it. And suddenly Konkoly lost her balance and plunged five stories to the ground below.
“Michelle Konkoly, a freshman swimmer at the University of Georgetown, was admitted to a Washington hospital in serious condition after falling from a five-story window early Tuesday,” read a story published online by AOL FanHouse, January 13, 2011. “Konkoly was transported to George Washington Hospital with an injured spine, broken ribs, a broken foot and a punctured lung from the fall out of a residence hall that was reported to authorities around 1:45 a.m. Tuesday, according to DC Metro police.”
Konkoly was 18 at the time.
“It happened and that’s out of my control now,” she said. “What is in my control now is how I take it day by day, following the actual incident. There is nothing I can do to change that it happened.”
She paused for a moment and continued, “It was the most painful thing I’ve ever experience in my life. Have you ever had a doctor ask you, ‘How bad is your pain? 1 is the least, 10 is the worst.’ Well, now I know the 10. Everything else is like a 2 or 3 now. It was pretty bad.”
And just hours after that fall, so many of her bones broken, unable to move in any way, Konkoly vowed right then and there to swim competitively again.
“The very first thing I said when I woke up in the hospital the morning after my accident and my coach was there, was, ‘Coach, save me a spot on the team next year because I’m coming back.’ It didn’t ever occur to me that this would make me stop swimming,” she said.
* * *
The nightmare call to her parents, Les and Jane Konkoly, came in the middle of the night.
“It was a phone call you never want to get and the worst phone call I’ve ever gotten in my life,” Les Konkoly said. “We got a phone call, whenever it was, 1:40 in the morning, that there had been a terrible accident. It was a guy named Todd Olson, who was the Dean, the Vice President of Students for Georgetown. And he said, ‘She is being taken to the George Washington Trauma Center. She is very badly injured. You and your wife need to get down here immediately.’
“And that was pretty much all he said because they didn’t know what her condition was at that point. They said she had fallen out of a window, but they didn’t tell us it was her dorm window. So I didn’t know exactly where she had fallen. They said the police were investigating it because they didn’t know what happened and were trying to figure it out. And then the police ruled it was an accident.
“We were in complete shock. It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and I just couldn’t breathe. But we very quickly said, whatever condition she is in, we’ve got to be strong for her.”
They instantly jumped in the car and rushed from their Eagleville home to Michelle’s bedside at the D.C. hospital.
“And the first time I talked to her in the intensive care unit, she said, ‘Daddy, I’m going to exceed all your expectations,’” her father recalled.
“That’s how she was. She had just gotten out of surgery, so it would have been at 6 o’clock that Tuesday night, so less than 24 hours after the accident. And she told herself, ‘OK, a terrible thing has happened, I’m going to fight it with everything I have. I’m going to try my best to come back.’ I’m trying to cheer her up, give her a pep talk, and she was cheering me up.”
“She was so courageous, had such a positive attitude, really from the first day. I really think her swimming background, all the training, the focus that these swimmers have. The ability to push your body further than you ever thought possible. Everything she had learned in high school swimming at Methacton helped her get through all this. It was like, every day she had to make a decision – am I going to give up or am I going to keep fighting to get better?
“We kept telling her, ‘You can beat this thing.’ But we didn’t know if she was going to beat it or not.”
* * *
She beat it.
Konkoly is briskly walking again, studying back at Georgetown, driving, working a weekend job, training and competitively swimming again. That is what matters now.
Not only that, she rejoined the Hoyas swim team. Additionally, she is chasing 2016 Paralympic dreams as a S9 paralympic swimmer. She recently returned from two weeks at the Paralympics Training Center in Colorado and is already the S9 American record holder in the 50-yard freestyle, the 100 free and 200 free for Short Course yards. All of these records were set this past season as a member of the Georgetown team.
“I feel great,” she said, when asked if the pain still flares up at times.
“I have very little pain now other than when I’m really sore after I go to the gym. Not that much more than anyone else who would be doing what I’m doing. Like my feet hurt after I walk for long periods of time. It really doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. I think the swimming definitely played a huge role, both physically and getting my mind-set ready to perform the recovery that I did.
“And being in such good shape from swimming when I got hurt, that allowed me to progress through my recovery a lot quicker because I had so much upper body strength to begin with. And mentally it got me back in that phase where every day when I go to practice I know, ‘You’ve got to bring the right mindset to work really hard.’ And it was kind of the same way when I got to the rehab gym every day – all right, this is practice, I’ve got to give it my all, I want to get back where I need to be.”
Did it enter her heart and mind that she might also never swim again?
“I knew that I was going to swim,” she said firmly. “I knew I was going to swim before I knew I was going to walk. The doctors told my mom that they were cautiously optimistic, hopeful, that I would walk at some capacity again. But I don’t think anybody really anticipated that it would be so soon. And that I would walk so well, without a limp or crutches or anything.”
* * *
In the hours and days after the fall, the doctors at the George Washington Hospital were not even sure that Konkoly would ever walk again.
“I was paralyzed, pretty much completely, for just about a month,” she said.
“I was an inpatient at GW hospital in D.C. for two weeks, where all my surgeries were done. From there I went as an inpatient at Magee Rehabilitation in Philadelphia for five weeks. That was a very rigorous rehab. Trying to navigate my wheelchair, it was hard.”
After the five weeks at Magee she returned to the family home in Eagleville for several more weeks of intense rehab. She still could not attempt to try to walk because of her shattered right heel and spinal cord injury. But swimming ...
“So that’s when I did some swimming at Shannondell, the retirement home in Audubon,” she said. “My grandmother lives there and it’s a great place. But I still had to do the daily rehab program at Magee for eight weeks. Every day we drove down to South Philly, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., for learning how to walk again.”
She happily remembers that first time back in the water, as she slipped out of the wheelchair when her mom had turned her head for a moment.
“Aaaah, it was so cool, really cool,” she said, her face lighting up brighter than the summer sun shining through the Methacton school front windows. “My mom drove me to Shannondell, put me in a water wheelchair, wheeled me down in the pool and said, ‘OK, you’re just going to sit in the wheelchair.’ And I said, “OK. Sure mom.’ She turned her head and I slipped out of the wheelchair and swam away. My mom was freaking out. She worried that I was going to sink because I couldn’t use my legs at all. But I swam with my arms. It was a little tricky not being able to use my legs at all. She came chasing after me, yelling ‘Get back in the wheelchair.’”
That was a mere three months after her fall.
Water and swimming is said to be great for rehabilitation. Slipping into the water there was one thing, doing a lot of rehab in it quite another, Konkoly pointed out.
“I had to wait a good amount of time until all my incisions healed,” she said. “And when I was first doing rehab, it was six hours a day, five days a week and a lot of times I didn’t even have the energy to go do more rehab at the pool. It was also quite the adventure getting me to the pool. I couldn’t drive, my mom had to drive me to the pool, get me in and out of the car, get me inside to the pool, put me in a wheelchair, go down the ramp, get me in the pool. So it wasn’t something that we could do every day.”
Though Konkoly was confident she would swim – even before she knew she would walk again – she soon was able to do both.
Stunningly, she was able to walk with the aid of a walker four months after her fall, for the first time at the family home on April 20, 2011, and by June she was walking without any aid.
Konkoly stressed how her dedicated mom, dad and two younger sisters – Karen, a recent Methacton graduate, and Abby, a rising sophomore – played a huge role in her recovery. It helped that her mother owns her own small business and works from home, she said. And while mom remained at her bedside in D.C., dad stayed home and took care of sisters Karen and Abby.
“My mom fortunately was able to shift some co-workers so they could pick up a lot of her stuff and keep the business running,” she said. “But it was really tough for her because I required a lot of care and a lot of time just to do every-day activities and then still run her business.”
Emotionally, Konkoly never got down, she insisted.
“Definitely not,” she said. “The hardest thing for me when I was at home was loneliness. I had been at college for months, had made great friends, was having such a good time. And then, all of a sudden, I’m alone in my house every day for like six months. That was hard. I had made these great new friendships and wasn’t with my friends anymore. My sisters and my parents were around. But it’s different than being college, obviously. You can say ‘Why me?’ all you want, but you’re still in that situation.”
When asked if she ever felt like giving up, her reply was a quick and firm, “No.”
“There were certainly rough points when I would get down a little bit,” she said. “But there were so many people around me, especially my mom and dad, just saying, ‘Hey, listen, you’ve got to keep going.’ My personal feelings were that I was very forward thinking, telling myself, ‘I need to get better because I need to go back to school in the fall. You can’t take a day off from that, you can’t take an hour off.’ And having so much support around me, there was no reason to give up with so many people encouraging me all the time.”
That ‘forward thinking’ – her belief and determination to recover fully – makes the idea of looking back to that fateful night too difficult to think about.
“I’d rather not talk about that,” she said, shaking her head emphatically and suddenly fighting hard to hold back the tears, when asked about the fear rushing through her heart and mind in those few horrific seconds.
Maybe to look back and dwell on the why is to lose focus on her aspirations, first of recovery, now of a life filled with endless possibilities.
* * *
By fall of 2011, little more than half a year after the accident, Konkoly returned to Georgetown.
“I redshirted because I knew that I was going to have an extra semester left to make up for the one I missed (in the spring) and wanted to still have my eligibility if I wanted to swim for that semester,” she said. “So I redshirted, trained with the team and they let me swim ‘exhibition only’ in a couple of meets. And I got a little frustrated, not with the lack of competition, but lack of competition that was good for me because I wasn’t as fast as everybody anymore.”
The Paralympics had in no way entered her mind when she first started swimming again. The idea came about out of frustration when she wasn’t up there with the best of her Hoyas team anymore after her return.
“So we began to look around where else I could compete against people closer to my level, and started looking into the Paralympics,” she said. “In March of 2012, my mom and I went down to Baltimore to find out a little more about what the deal was. We met with a couple of Paralympic coaches, just to kind of see if this was something I would be qualified for, if they thought I would be any good at it. I swam for them and they said, ‘Yes, definitely, you would be a good qualifier for this, but you have to get classified.’
“They have different classifications, from 1 to 10. They test all your muscles and then give you a number. One is the most severely disabled, 10 the least severely disabled. And when I was classified last year I was a S9.
“I went to a meet a couple of months later in Ohio, competed and got classified for my number in the Paralympics,” Konkoly recalled. “After that I went to the Paralympic Trials in North Dakota (June 2012) trying to make the London Team. Based on how I performed at those trials got me on the Emerging Team, a team for athletes that are up and coming and hope to some day be on the national team. As part of being on the Emerging Team you have the opportunity to go out once a year to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. There is a team of resident Paralympians that live there all the time, train 24/7.”
And Konkoly was able to join them for a week last month.
“My coach from Georgetown, Jamie Holder, came with me, which was really cool,” she said. “He got to learn a lot more about Paralympic swimming. That whole world is a lot different than NCAA swimming. It was also a requirement that you have to bring a coach and when I asked him, he was super excited. I think it was really good for him because he has never coached a disabled athlete before. And that’s not a bad thing at all. But there’s some different things that he could learn, in addition to just being in a world-class training environment.”
For Konkoly it was yet another major boost.
“It was really cool, really neat,” she said. “It got me a new surge of excitement for the whole Paralympics swimming thing because I hadn’t done a meet since last June because of the way my year went. With all my classes I just couldn’t travel. It got me so excited to be racing with these kids in Colorado, beating kids, being with people on a world-class level. For me to be competitive with them was really neat.”
* * *
She was by no means a swimming fan as long as she can remember, already 13 when she first started swimming and, at first, had to be pushed and prodded by her parents to keep it up.
“I know, I was old when I started swimming,” she said with a laugh. “We were kind of discovering that I was really bad at basketball. I was tall, so my parents had said, ‘all right, you’re going to be a basketball player.’ But I wasn’t really going anywhere with that.
“We did have a pool in our backyard that was put in a couple of years before and I was doing OK in that pool. So my parents said, ‘OK, we’ll send you to the Methacton Aquatic Club.’ Turned out I had to go to Norristown because they were redoing the Methacton pool. And I hated it, cried every single day. I wanted to quit all the time, and my dad would say, ‘You’ve just got to make it to the next meet and then you can quit.’ And I kept saying, ‘All right, one more meet. One more meet.’ We got through the whole season like that, I ended up doing really well, made the championships relay, and discovered, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at this.’ And that’s how it all started.”
Konkoly wasn’t just pretty good when she got to high school, she was one of the best on the Warriors’ excellent team, their top sprint freestyler and a member of their great relay teams that qualified for the PIAA Championships.
She could have easily gone after an athletic scholarship in her final years at Methacton. But she had opted to be a walk-on at Georgetown because that was the university she wanted to attend.
“I wanted to go to Georgetown because I was not focused on swimming when I looked at all these schools, and was more focused on the academic programs. I got it narrowed down to a couple and Georgetown was the one with the swimming program best fit my times and my abilities at that point. It worked out really well and I’m so happy and I love it.”
Konkoly, a biology major, will be right back at Georgetown in the fall with her supportive Hoyas swimming teammates.
“They definitely were,” she said. “They helped me get back, got me a first-floor room for my second-year back because they didn’t want me to have to deal with a lot of steps. And the team welcomed me back as if I’d never left.”
* * *
Konkoly, who turned 21 in February, is spending her summer by training at the North Penn pool for several hours nearly every day. She is also giving swim lessons to youngsters in the family backyard pool and works for a catering company on weekends.
Come fall, she will return to Georgetown again chasing her dreams.
”I’d like to go on to medical school and become a doctor. And I’d like to definitely continue swimming,” she said. “The exact path of how long I’m going to keep swimming depends on a lot of things, including medical school. I would love to say that I’m going to try for Rio, the 2016 Paralympics. That depends a lot on where my academics end me up. But there’s a lot of big Paralympic meets every year and I’d definitely like to get involved in some more of those. I love swimming, I never want to stop.”
To revisit the horrifying moments of the fall may always be too painful, but Konkoly is quick to recognize how lucky she was.
“I think about that every day,” she said wistfully. “Every time I jump in the pool I think I’m so lucky I’m able to jump in the pool; when I get in the car, so lucky that I can drive myself to the grocery store. That I can do things independently is a huge deal that might have been different.”
It is also important to her to set an example that no matter what, with the right attitude you can fight your way back.
“I hope that I can represent that in multiple facets, not only in competitive swimming,” she said. “I know at school, a lot of my teammates have mentioned to me that if they’re having a rough day, and then they look over, even if I’m not doing it 100 percent (to my past potential), I’m trying, trying to do it the best I can. And it’s, ‘Well, if Michelle can do it, even if it’s not the best way, I have to keep trying.’
“And to my sisters. To show them that nothing can stop you.”