Personal Statement: My Sister's Savior, My Best Friend

Tuesday, November 15, 2016 - 6:06pm


Illustration by Elise Haadsma


The first time I fell in love with water was the first time I almost drowned. I was 2 years old and running around my second home: The Valley Swim Club. My dad noticed I wasn’t eating lunch at the picnic table, so he went looking for me by the pool. There I was: submerged like a rock at the bottom of the shallow end. My dad, the hero in this story, claims that he yanked me out of the water by my arm as I coughed hard to get the water out of my throat. The funny thing is, I would be taking swim lessons in that same shallow end three years later.

After swim lessons I was immediately signed up for competitive swimming at the age of 6. It was the Delaware Valley Summer Swim League, and my team, the Valley Sharks, was the smallest and worst team in the conference. I remember wanting to swim butterfly, the most awkward and physically challenging stroke in the sport of swimming (bless my ambitious, six-year-old soul). Circling my arms as fast as I could, I felt so powerful going through the water as I swam that one, 25-meter lap. Little did I know, I would continue swimming for the next 13 years.

As strange as it sounds, swimming comes more naturally to me than walking. I never feel out of place in the water — my body immediately adapts with each stroke. I had only swum in the summers, but when I got to high school, my senior sister convinced freshman me to join the swim team instead of the basketball team. I had loved swimming, but I knew it would be tough: two (and sometimes three) practices a day, late nights and super early mornings, Saturday practices, and in general, extremely difficult workouts. But for some reason, something was calling out to me to do this … to continue swimming. So, I reluctantly obliged.

Soon enough, I was racing my sister in the 100 Butterfly, something I had never done before due to our separate age groups. It was always Lauren first, Erika second, and that only made me want to do better every race (Shevcheks live off of competition). The pool was the second home for my sister and me: We both grew up swimmers and became lifeguards, we both chose swimming over any other sport, and we both felt that we were most dominant in water. But in June of 2013, the pool changed for us completely.

A dive into a black-bottom pool made Lauren paralyzed from the nose down. The one person who knew water better than I did was now struggling to move, let alone swim. I asked her what it felt like to be in that pool, losing all the feeling and function in her body. She told me, “With every kick back to the surface, I lost more sensation. Then my legs just stopped working. I felt like a mermaid.”

It’s been a tough journey of recovery for Lauren since then. But, despite the catastrophic accident, my sister is still the same person she was before. The doctors had told her that even though the impact of the dive was so crucial, the water pressure saved her brain. The water saved my sister.

I have not looked at a pool the same way since. There will always be a scar of pain when I see the water and when I dive in for my own races. Yet, Lauren’s brain wasn’t the only one that was saved by water.

My senior year of high school I was diagnosed with severe anxiety. There were days when I genuinely could not handle the world, including myself and my own thoughts. However, I had a volleyball and swim team to lead, colleges to apply to, records to break. I concealed my anxiety with a façade of smiles and confidence. Truthfully, the one thing that got me through that period of time was the power of the pool.

That season I had set enormous goals for myself. With two torn rotator cuffs and a mental illness, I planned to break school records, go to districts (for 50 freestyle and the 200 free relay) and overall, have my team win as many league meets as possible. I channeled all of my energy, my stress and my deteriorating thoughts into the sport. And somehow, my anxiety turned into accomplishment. I stood at the top of the podium with my relay, holding our gold medals and knowing that our names and the record-breaking time would be up on the board.

As any swimmer knows, the physical act of swimming is meditative. You can’t hear anything but the rippling motion of the water and your own thoughts. You somehow think of everything and nothing — it’s being mindful and mindless at the same time. It’s pure magic.

The water gets sucked into my skin; it runs down my hair, through my teeth. I can feel my heart thriving as if the water has entered my bloodstream. When I couldn’t tell others about my issues, the pool was all ears. When I had to cry, the goggles caught my tears. Personally, I believe water to be the most damaging and powerful force, but here I am also feeling so safe and content when I am in it.

Those who are close to me will know that when I am sad, I swim. When I am angry, I swim. When I make a huge mistake, I swim. When I need to dissect my thoughts, I swim. When I need to leave the world for a while, I swim. My body doesn’t have to think about the motions — it acts on its own. It knows when to flip, when to breathe, when to change from fly kick to flutter kick, when to break out of streamline and all the in between. Even though I almost died in the water when I was two, having the outlet of swimming and having my body react the way it does when it is in the pool has been my biggest blessing.

Though water is my safe haven, there still remains that slight touch of fear. However, even my sister’s injury did not stop her. By summer of 2015, she was back in the pool with my mom, trying to do strokes and float on her back (a form of hydrotherapy/rehabilitation). I slipped into the water next to Lauren, who sat in this cute, adult floaty. I looked at her, I looked at the water: “You know, we haven’t been in a pool together in four years,” I told her. The water still had its binds, and regardless of our rough journeys, it had brought my sister and I back home.