Yes, there was pain. Rehab was tough. And not contributing to the team or meeting lofty expectations was frustrating. But for Michigan senior swimmer Jason Mallory, the worst part of his roller-coaster comeback from a knee injury was the waiting.
His knee had healed and he”d been training hard, but the results just weren”t there. Doubts started to creep in.
“It”s a really hard thing when you look perfectly healthy and you feel perfectly healthy and no matter what you do you can”t go faster,” Mallory said. “After a while you start to doubt yourself and think “am I ever going to be the same?””
In January of 1999, Mallory was a freshman aiming for the NCAA Championships in the 400-yard individual medley when his promising career was put on hold.
He”d had a couple minor injuries to his left knee, and during his warm-up for the Penn State meet “it finally just popped and gave way,” Mallory said.
He swam that day but knew the rapid swelling was a sign of trouble.
An MRI revealed torn cartilage, and surgery was scheduled. He missed the remainder of the season, including the Big Ten and NCAA Championships.
Mallory was disappointed, but focused on coming back strong for his sophomore year. He was out of the water for just a month, and he expected to return to form by the fall.
But that month set him back further than he anticipated, and it took Mallory almost a year to completely regain his strength. Although he was glad to help Michigan win the Big Ten Championship in February of 2000, he failed to qualify for NCAAs and the year ended in disappointment.
A dual meet against Texas at Canham Natatorium last fall looked to finally be the turning point.
“I swam really well and was right next to my best times,” Mallory said. “That kind of showed me I was back on track.”
But the vicious cycle of highs and lows continued when he again missed NCAAs.
“That was a very disappointing time because the No. 1 goal is to win Big Tens and the number two goal is to get to NCAAs,” Mallory said.
Both goals went unfulfilled, leaving him frustrated but even more determined. A voracious work ethic kept him going.
“I”ve always just had a drive to push myself as hard as I can,” Mallory said. “I like the feeling of leaving practice knowing I gave it as good an effort as I could and there was nothing I could have done to make myself better that day.”
Although he sometimes felt like he was letting down his coaches and teammates by not contributing, his relentless effort didn”t go unnoticed. Mallory impressed his teammates with how hard he trained throughout the entire ordeal.
“He was always the one trying to do extra stuff,” senior Tim Siciliano said. “I saw him in the water just pounding it out day after day.”
Heading into this fall, Mallory felt confident his senior year would be his best season yet. But then again he had been confident last year. And the year before that.
So he just kept working, pushing for team goals and leading by example.
The persistence finally paid off this past weekend when Michigan traveled to Austin, Texas for the Texas Invitational. Mallory had his best weekend since 1999. He finished just outside of the top 10 in both the 200-and 400-yard individual medley, and he swam an NCAA-consideration time of 4:26.58 in the 500 freestyle.
Siciliano said he could see everything coming together for Mallory in Austin. After Mallory “slammed” him in prelims, Siciliano thought to himself, “Wow. He”s back. He”s back for good.”
Mallory hopes that”s the case and that he can finally go where he feels he should have been before the NCAA Championships. But his grueling comeback has taught him that a collegiate career is about more than just competition.
“Whether you win or lose a swim meet isn”t the most important thing,” Mallory said. “But just the fact that you go out and try hard and you give it all that you can, that”s what really matters.
“Things don”t always come easy. You have to work for stuff, and if there”s something you want, just keep working and don”t give up.”