- Patrick Barron/Daily
By Brad Whipple, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 21, 2014
On a rainy Wednesday, Canham Natatorium — an old, bricked building — is a retreat to find warmth from the cold Ann Arbor morning. To many, this place is a sight for winning championships and shattering records. For others, it’s home.
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The lane lines are set, and twenty-some maize-capped athletes are swimming laps as part of their daily routine, the block ‘M’ bobbing up and down in the water. The Michigan water polo team looks healthy and full of energy at first glance, and it should — the Wolverines have won their last 12 games.
But one player stands out among the rest.
Bryce Beckwith’s goggles rest upon her head as she hangs onto the pool gutter and listens for what assistant coach Ryan Castle wants to see in the last few minutes of practice. The sophomore two-meter nods and goes right into a freestyle stroke — nothing about her technique looks out of place.
Minutes after practice ends, Beckwith sits in a chair near the side of the pool overlooking the waters that she swims in every day.
It’s rare for an athlete to keep such a positive attitude after sustaining a season-ending injury that limits her to only participating in practice. But with Beckwith, there is hardly a moment when she doesn’t smile or laugh. She radiates positivity, masking five months of disappointment.
Water polo has always come naturally for Beckwith, and her talent came to fruition in her freshman season. She appeared in all 34 of Michigan’s games in 2013 and ended the season tied for first among freshmen with 38 goals, and was the recipient of the Collegiate Water Polo Association’s Western Division Rookie of the Year honor.
Michigan coach Matt Anderson said the 2014 team was going to be practically built around Beckwith. That was, until October.
During a scrimmage in practice, Beckwith made a strong side turn with the ball and felt a pop in her wrist. She asked the athletic trainer to tape it up, but when she jumped back in the pool, something wasn’t right.
After a series of X-rays and MRI’s, her doctors assumed it had something to do with the cartilage. Beckwith went in for surgery in November to clean out damaged tissue from the right side of her wrist, but what the doctors found was that three-fourths of her ligament had torn.
To be exact, it was a degenerative tear to the triangular fibrocartilage complex. The type 2 tear usually results from chronic overloading of the joint. In water polo, the wrist performs every function from passing to rotating the ball before taking a shot, so overuse can occur progressively.
When the doctors found the tear, they performed surgery to replace the ligament with a tendon from another part of her arm, a procedure similar to Tommy John surgery.
“This was not how I expected my sophomore season to go,” Beckwith said.
“Four to six months.”
The surgery had no complications, yet these were the words Beckwith woke up to from the doctor. What was originally thought to be a four-week recovery from scar tissue turned into a much more arduous journey.
“I didn’t expect that,” Beckwith said. “I thought I was going to come back and play the season, but you just got to roll with the punches, I guess.”
Coming out of surgery, Beckwith had to wear a series of different splints for her right arm: first a soft splint, then a hard one and then a plastic one, the latter of which limited her mobility the most.
She spent the fall semester with one hand, making easy tasks like opening a door or taking notes in class dreadful. Things that she did without thinking twice left her distraught by the end of the day.
Beckwith has always had her teammates by her side to buoy her spirits. They made a heartwarming video for her to watch after surgery and sent “get-well” postcards, helping even in her more uncomfortable moments.
“I tried to put on my T-shirt, and I could not get it on for the life of me,” she said. “I was in the locker room and they just helped me out. They were very accommodating and supportive of me having a hard time.”
Another time, her housemate, sophomore two-meter Barbara Lanier helped Beckwith scoop ice cream onto a cone even though it took almost an hour.
It was the little things that made a positive difference for Beckwith. It was the little things that pushed her away from the breaking point. And the push was forceful enough to keep her smiling.
“Having a positive mentality and being able to accept the reality of it was something I did really quickly,” she said.
“Win the game.”
Beckwith stands near the outside of a team huddle during a timeout. Those words are written in dry-erase marker on the whiteboard she carries during games.
According to Anderson, she’s the Mitch McGary of the team.
“Now I get a more different, more special role on the team,” Beckwith said.
Even though her only contribution is from the bench, Beckwith is quick to give her counterparts, Lanier and freshman two-meter Allison Skaggs, advice on where to position themselves by imagining herself in that particular situation, and she cheers up her teammates when they aren’t having a strong game.
The injury may prevent her from playing, but it has provided Beckwith with a valuable learning experience. She now sees the games from a coach’s perspective.
“If you’re swimming down the pool and you’re not kicking into high gear, that can completely kill the pace of the game,” Beckwith said, trying to improve Michigan’s counter-attack. “It has definitely been really helpful to watch that and see where the intensity needs to be picked up on offense and defense.”
As an outsider looking in, Beckwith’s analysis could make her return next season that much stronger.
A month ago, Beckwith got back in the pool for her first practice after being cleared to weightlift, shoot and swim. Ever since, her teammates erupt in cheers after each ball she throws.
“As a water polo player, a swimmer or anyone that has spent a large portion of their life in water, they know how good it feels to get back in there,” Beckwith said.
Though she was back in the water, Beckwith wasn’t on as fast of a track to full recovery as she originally planned. Two weeks ago, she switched to a Jas-splint, which gradually rotates her hand upward as if she were reading a book. With roughly 55 degrees of rotation left, she doesn’t have full mobility.
But Beckwith is able to get through the pain and make a running joke about her “giant and kind of embarrassing” brace.
“Now the term is my Robocop arm,” she said. “I love it. I Instagrammed a picture of it saying ‘I am Robocop,’ with ‘#Robocop,’ which I thought was funny. I don’t know why I didn’t get more likes on it.”
“I think in total, you really have to expect the unexpected.”
Beckwith expected to make a strong entrance into her sophomore season, but instead watched it fly by while she sat on the bench. With her whiteboard and marker in hand, she wanted nothing more than to be in the water, to find twine and to rightfully earn a win.
The entire injury initially took a toll on her mentally, leaving her without her dominant hand for months. Though her teammates were largely involved in leading the way through adversity, it was mostly a matter of Beckwith changing her own perspective.
“Having a positive outlook is something I would recommend to anyone that has anything unexpected happen to them,” Beckwith said. “It’s a matter of staying positive and really not internalizing your anger and frustrations.”
The wrist injury was unexpected, and the rehabilitation has been a prolonged and painful process. As an athlete, an injury is sometimes expected — the road to recovery is not only defined by laboring through it physically, but also by the outlook taken on such circumstances.
To Beckwith, being a Division I athlete comes along with sacrifice, and learning to embrace it is just one of the many ways to grow.
Beckwith says she will definitely play her junior season and the idea of coming back full-strength excites her more than anything. Until then, you can find her by the pool holding that whiteboard in the air.