Ali IngersollGrowing up in the Bahamas instilled in me a deep love of life on and around the water. However, after a diving accident in 2010 made me a C6 quadriplegic, my water life came to a crashing halt.

I passed the months in my Miami hospital room daydreaming about getting back in the water. My SCI stabilized, and I started to get stronger, but a pressure sore I had picked up after the accident raged on. The doctors told me aquatic therapy was not in the cards for me until the wound on my sacrum fully healed. Stuck in bed for nine months, all I could do was focus on healing my body, and I passed my time researching swim instructors. I counted down the days until I was given the green light to enjoy the water.

I have many friends who were paralyzed in water-related incidents and are too afraid to risk swimming again. I had the opposite reaction. I wanted nothing more than to experience that unique feeling of weightlessness that comes with floating in the water. I was ready to submerge myself at a moment’s notice — only maybe I wouldn’t dive this time.

Thankfully, I found Hortensia Aguirre, a swim instructor in Miami with years of experience teaching people with disabilities to swim.  Teacher in tow, when I was finally cleared for swimming, I made haste to take the proverbial plunge. I purchased every piece of adaptive swim equipment I could think of, only to have Aguirre tell me I wouldn’t need any of them. She intended to teach me how to swim unassisted. I thought she was crazy, but she was the expert.

When I finally got into the pool, I was the happiest I had been in over a year. The feeling of being out of my wheelchair and simply floating in the water had me over the moon.

Getting My Stroke Back

Even though I was back in the water, I still couldn’t quite figure out how I was actually going to learn to swim. Every day Aguirre created a swim plan for me. One day she would just dunk my head underwater to get me accustomed to the feeling, the next day she would hold my arms and show me how to glide my upper body through the water in order to poke my head up for air, and the following day she would have me float on my back to understand how buoyant my new body was.

Day after day we practiced different techniques. I definitely swallowed more water than I had bargained for on several occasions. Aguirre was aggressive and pushed me because she could see I wasn’t afraid of the hard work or the water. We swam three times a week for over two years together.

Around six months into my training, Aguirre had her hands supporting me under my belly as I practiced swimming with my head face-down in the water. Then she pushed my arms firmly into the water in order to make me pop my head up to get a breath of air. I swam to the end of the pool, rolled over onto my back, and, to my great surprise, realized Aguirre was at the other end of the pool. I had done it all by myself!

Finally, after countless hours swimming, I had completed a length of the pool unassisted and without any devices to help me. Years later, it remains one of the best days of my life since my accident.

Aguirre pushed me to my limit, as she innately understood what I was capable of even when I did not. It was no small feat getting ready for swimming with caregivers, getting into the pool, and figuring out how to use this new body. But time, patience and determination pushed me over the finish line.

Swimming brought the life back into my world. Being able to get into the pool for some laps, lounging on floating mats in the water or hanging out with family and friends for a pool day makes me my happiest. I now eagerly anticipate each spring and summer when it warms up in Raleigh, North Carolina, and outdoor swim season begins. I start each swim session by doing 40 minutes of laps, and then my husband and I lounge around in floaty toys, getting a suntan in the pool.

I look forward to it each weekend and will do so as long as my body allows.

For a more detailed look at how Ingersoll swims, along with more pointers and tips, watch her instructional video.

Jonathan Merchant:
Grueling Workouts Paid Off

Jonathan MerchantJonathan Merchant, a C5-6 incomplete quad, vividly remembers the first time he swam after being paralyzed in a 1999 car accident. It would be hard to forget, given that several years after his injury, his friends suddenly picked him up and chucked him in the pool. Fortunately, he logrolled and started to backstroke on instinct. Then he took swimming lessons at the VA and eventually devised a system — fashioning a device that tethered his legs to the side of the pool to keep him in place as he swam — that let him swim for hours on end in his home pool.

Eventually, he tried out his new skills in the ocean. “When I was thrown into the ocean and started swimming, I had my family there, along with friends and a guy recording me,” says Merchant. “Even though it was my first time swimming in the ocean since my injury, I had rehearsed it over and over during the hours and hours of swimming in the pool.”

He became the first quadriplegic to tackle the Challenged Athletes Foundation Ironman 70.3 Triathlon and has participated in several half-Ironman’s since, swimming 1.2 miles unassisted with the backstroke in the ocean. “It took me over two years to build up the strength and endurance to take on the challenge of the 70.3 Triathlon,” says Merchant. “I endured grueling workouts that left my arms unable to move after the trainer left. At the time, I had a caregiver who made it possible for me to train this hard. Today I still exercise but not nearly as hard as I did back then.”

Although today he’s an incomplete quad, Merchant says that when he was competing in triathlons, his injury was diagnosed as complete. “I didn’t regain function of my core until 11 years after injury. It was only after numerous stem cell treatments that I was able to have more function,” he says. “I still can’t feel half my arms, my armpits and three-fourths of my body. Though I do have function, thank God, below injury now.”

Secrets to SCI Swim Success

There’s no reason to fear getting back in the water just because you have a spinal cord injury or a disability. Even if you are a higher-level quad and do not have any upper body mobility, being able to simply float in the pool on your back or on a floaty toy still has many incredible therapeutic benefits. By mastering a few techniques and adhering to a few simple tips, you’ll soon be loving life on the water.

Two Techniques to Master

Log Roll: Being able to roll onto your back if you find yourself face down in the water is very important for safety reasons. When you are face down in the water, you can create momentum with your arms by pushing down with one and throwing the other in the air to create a rolling movement.

Treading Water:
When you are upright in the water, spread your arms out left and right, and create little circular movements back and forth while simultaneously moving your head back and forth. Essentially, you are using your balance to maintain an upright position.

Tips and Tricks

Find a Swim Float: Part of the joy of being in the water is just lying on your back, soaking up the sun, feeling the warm water on your body and enjoying the sensation of weightlessness. Don’t let your body getting tired keep you from enjoying your time on the water.

For higher quads, it helps to find a swim float that makes you feel safe. It’s even better if someone can easily get you in and out of one that requires little effort to inflate. Personally, I use the Floating Hammock Pool Float by Swim Ways. Its sides are inflatable, and it has a nice soft mesh in the middle that allows your body to stay in the water.

Supra Pubic Catheter/Leg Bags: For those who have an SPC, it is imperative to make sure pool water does not get into the stoma because it can very easily cause a urinary tract infection. I learned that the hard way after multiple UTIs, but my urologist taught me to use Tegaderm tape — a transparent, adhesive medical dressing — to make a watertight seal around the entry.

Secondly, there’s the issue of having a leg bag floating around in the water. I purchased a little flip flow valve on the Internet and put it into the end of the catheter so I can remove the bag while swimming. I then tuck the catheter itself into my bathing suit or tape it on to my belly, and voila! No more catheter bag dragging around the pool.

Snorkel Mask: If you want to put your face down in the water, but are worried you won’t be able to lift your head to breathe, consider getting a full-face mask with a snorkel. I tried one out myself in Key Largo this past fall and it worked great.