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Defeating the odds


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After a life-changing accident, junior Ben Koeller made it to the state swim meet despite serious spinal injuries.

“I was nervous about the fact that I wanted to make it back so badly,” Koeller said about being able to compete at the state swim meet. “As happy as I was to be there, just making it back would have been an accomplishment I would be proud of for the rest of my life.”

As Koeller was loading an ATV into his uncle’s truck, the vehicle fell back and landed on top of him. Koeller was rushed to Salida Hospital, where he was informed that he had suffered injuries to his spine.

“Surprisingly, I had very few ,” Koeller said. “The only injuries I had were a cut to the head from the ATV hitting me that required stitches, a fracture to the side of the L-3 and the destroyed L-1 vertebrae.”

Koeller’s injury to his lumbar spine — the lower back, and the third major group of vertebrae in the spine, consisting of five bones, each stacked on top of each other — called a wedge or compression fracture, could not be treated in Salida.

“Being an unstable fracture, they didn’t have the spinal surgeon who could take care of the condition I was in. So, two-and-a-half hour ambulance ride to St. Anthony’s Hospital outside of Denver.”

Once there, X-rays and an MRI showed that his unstable fracture could break apart more and cause damage to the spinal cord, potentially causing paralysis. However, with the care that he received from the doctor at St. Anthony’s, Koeller was told that he would eventually be able to swim again.

“Initially, awe that I would eventually be able to get back to what I was doing, and then depression at how long it was going to be until then,” Koeller said. “Then we arrived back in Kansas City, and the doctor here gave us an even longer timeline for when I would get back to sports. Fortunately, though, we proved him wrong through physical therapy.”

Koeller began physical therapy in the water, with exercises to strengthen his core and the muscles around the spine. After a week and a half, his therapist, an ex-swimmer, agreed that he was ready to start swimming again. His health and strength increased, and he slowly swam more each day.

“When we went back to see the doctor on Jan. 24, we told him how I had progressed, what I had been doing and what we were willing to do so that I could swim sooner. He agreed to those terms, and I began training.”

Even though he achieved immense progress in his training, Koeller faced many troubles in getting back into shape.

“The hardest part was going at the speed that the doctor and therapist wanted me to go at because I wanted to get back into what I was doing,” Koeller said. “I just had to control myself and do what they wanted to, because if you stay on their good side, things do progress faster because they want to see you do better.”

Amazingly, Koeller has come back from this severe injury, and despite that fact that paralysis was initially a possibility, he has succeeded in all of the swim meets he has been able to compete in this season.

In his first meet back, Koeller swam the 200 freestyle and ended up with a consideration cut. In swimming, competitors have to have at least one qualifying time to compete in the state meet; however, a consideration cut is slower than the qualifying time, but it still might give the swimmer a chance to swim at state. Then, in his second meet, he swam both the 200 and 500 freestyle. He swam faster in the 200 free than he did in his first meet, received a consideration cut in the 500 free, but still didn’t qualify for state in either.

Then, in what is known as the “Last Chance” meet, a competition for swimmers who have not attended the maximum number of meets during the season, Koeller was given the opportunity to compete one last time. Although he only dropped another two to three seconds in the 200 free — not making qualifying time — Koeller dropped 10 seconds in the 500, getting the qualifying time by a mere two seconds.

With his qualifying time, Koeller was able to make it to the state competition, placing tenth in the 500 free.

Although he was able to compete and excel in all of the meets he went to coming back from an injury, Koeller did not achieve his largest goal of going to the national competition during the winter.

“I was hoping to go to the Winter Junior Nationals meet, meaning that everyone in the nation who had a junior national cut would have been at this meet. I’d been trying all summer to get there but wasn’t quite there,” Koeller said.

Koeller still feels proud of his progress, however.

“I’m happy with how I’ve done,” Koeller said. “I know a bunch of people have told me that it’s an inspiration to see how well I’ve done and I’m happy that I’ve influenced them so. I would love to see others put effort in after seeing what I’ve accomplished.”

This accident has shown Koeller just how lucky he is and taught him the value of hard work and dedication.

“It showed me that regardless of the situation, if you truly enjoy doing something, and you’re willing to wait and put the time in, that chances are, you’ll be able to return to what you’re doing. I’m happy that I’m still able to swim, that I’m still able to walk.”

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The Student News Site of Shawnee Mission Northwest
Defeating the odds