Cal Swimming: Abbey Weitzeil's Harrowing and Heroic NCAA Meet

Photo by Justine Casterline

Junior freestyle sprinter overcomes freak arm injury to help Golden Bears put dramatic exclamation point on the meet

Is there such a thing as swimming too fast?

Surely not, but Cal junior Abbey Weitzeil put the theory to the test a couple weeks ago at the NCAA women’s swim championships in Austin.

And things nearly went terribly wrong.

The 2016 Olympian and reigning Pac-12 Swimmer of the Year was just one day removed from setting an American record in the 50-yard freestyle, anchoring another AR in the 200 free relay and contributing to a school-record and a third victory in the 400 medley relay. In the Friday night final of the 200 medley relay, she seemingly shifted into an even higher gear.

Weitzeil, 22, had no choice but to swim her brains out after diving into the pool for her 50-yard free final segment with the Bears in sixth place. She trailed first-place Tennessee by 86/100ths of a second, which may not sound like much but is a huge gap in a sprint that takes less than 21 seconds.

Weitzeil actually chopped more than a half-second off Erika Brown’s lead, swimming a time of 20.45 seconds that matches the fastest split EVER in the event.

“I was doing my best,” Weitzeil said.

(Click here for a video of Weitzeil's plans to prepare for the 2020 Olympics.)

When she finished — alas, in second place after passing four rivals — Weitzeil hit the wall hard. Too hard.

“I don’t remember it very much, but I think I thought the wall was farther than it was,” Weitzeil explained. “I kind of took a half-stroke and I thought I had more time to extend my arm, and I kind of just hit the wall. I hit it with my palm at full speed and my arm just hyper-extended.

“It was immediate pain.”

She looked up at a teammate on the deck and cried out, “My elbow, my elbow, my elbow.”

Cal coach Teri McKeever didn’t see exactly what happened. But the reaction poolside was immediate. Weitzeil was fighting tears, team trainer Ann Caslin was summoned and McKeever feared the worst.

“I really thought she had broken her hand … just the way she was holding it. Then she said it was her elbow,” McKeever said. “She's not really a girly-girl or a cryer so you could tell this is bad.”

(Click here for a video of McKeever explaining what makes Weitzeil so fast.)

It was bad enough that Weitzeil could not extend her arm and, as a result, couldn’t even get out of the pool on her own.

The decision was made almost immediately that Caslin would escort her to a local hospital. This required a closer look, a doctor, X-rays.

Weitzeil didn’t want to go.

“I was in denial. I didn't want them to tell me I couldn’t swim,” she said. “I was like, `I’ll be fine.’ ”

While McKeever stayed with the rest of her team, Abbey’s parents, Konrad and Michelle, joined their daughter at the hospital.

The first problem was Weitzeil couldn’t move her arm enough to even remove her racing suit. Finally, in something of a swimming jaws-of-life moment, she asked her mother to cut it off.

X-rays confirmed there were no broken bones. The doctor said Abbey had suffered some sort of ligament damage — she found out back home days later it was a strain, not a tear — and announced they would put her in a splint she would have to wear for at least four days.

That idea was unanimously shot down. “I was going to rip it up,” Weitzeil said.

The doctor gave in on the splint, then addressed the big question: Could she swim on Saturday?

“No one was going to judge me or hate me if I didn’t swim. If it was going to hurt me long-term, no one would have wanted me to swim,” Weitzeil said. “Because it wasn’t broken they were saying it was (a question of) pain tolerance.”

After more than three hours at the hospital, Abbey and her entourage returned to the team hotel. She had dinner sometime shortly before midnight and got a light leg massage because she hadn’t had the chance to warm down after her race.

Meanwhile, Caslin carefully wrapped the arm with three layers of tape and equipped Abbey with a temporary, make-shift splint, keeping the arm immobilized and mostly extended. Weitzeil slept with her arm propped up on a pillow and attached to electrodes that provided E-stimulation therapy throughout the night.

Photo by Kelley Cox

In the morning, despite pain meds, Abbey’s arm still hurt. And her right hand was dramatically swollen. As the morning proceeded, her hand began to look normal again.

Weitzeil was scheduled to race three times Saturday — the prelims and final of the 100 free and in the final of the 400 free relay. McKeever used a different swimmer in the relay prelims to give Weitzeil a break.

McKeever arranged with meet officials for Weitzeil to have her own lane during warmups so no one would accidentally bump her. “I was not swimming very well,” she recalled, “but I figured what’s the worst that can happen?”

With her arm still wrapped in tape to keep the elbow from bending, Abbey stood on the blocks for the 100 free prelim. Her start did not go well. “I went straight to the bottom,” she said.

“I was kind of figuring out how to swim with my arm (immobilized) in a position and not being able to pull any water.”

But she qualified for the 100 final, and later finished fourth in the final, leaving only the meet’s last event, the 400 free relay.

Teammates suggested to McKeever that perhaps it would be easier for Abbey if she swam the lead leg so she wouldn't have to swing her arms in advance of diving in.

McKeever explained that wouldn’t work. “She can’t get out of the water. She has to go last.”

There was one last complication. One of the layers of tape wrapped around Abbey’s arm — the one applied directly on her skin — is known as Kineseo Tape. It’s a product often used by athletes that helps alleviate pain and aids in quicker recovery by reducing inflammation, promoting circulation and, according to its website, re-educating the neuromuscular system.

Good stuff, right?

Unfortunately, USA Swimming bans its use in competition and voids any American record performances when a swimmer uses it. It can be worn in races, but cannot be part of a record. The NCAA has no such stipulation.

The idea of re-wrapping the arm with different tape was rejected because the process was too uncomfortable. The decision was made for Weitzeil to swim as is.

“I don’t care about the record,” McKeever told her team. “Let’s just try to win.”

This time, teammates Izzy Ivey, Katie McLaughlin and Amy Bilquist put the Bears in good position. Weitzeil hit the water in second place, needing to make up a half-second over 100 yards.

She beat her Michigan rival by a second-and-a-half and the Bears clocked 3:06.96 — an American record that would not be ratified. McKeever made a half-hearted appeal, which was denied.

But the Bears had won, Weitzeil had overcome her injury and everyone was happy.

Cal finished second behind Stanford in the team competition, giving McKeever’s program its eighth top-two finish in the past 11 years.

Weitzeil earned All-America status in all seven of her events and had a hand in 204 of her team’s 419 points.

“Very impressive,” McKeever said. “It was very reflective of not only Abbey but how this team fought for the championship. Whatever we can do, we’re going to do it. It may not be enough to win, but it’s the best we can do.”

It was plenty. Even missing out on the American record in the relay left Weitzeil and her teammates with an unexpected sense of satisfaction.

“Our school record is now faster than the American record, which is kind of funny,” Weitzeil said. “It’s an NCAA record. It’s fine. We all know what we did.”