Will Copeland: Big Pain for Big Gain


Wll Copeland (large)

By Mike Watkins//Correspondent

Will Copeland admits when it comes to dates, his memory isn’t as good as he would like it to be.


But one in particular – May 21, 2007 – has been burned into his mind as a day that changed his life in and out of the water forever.


Born with pectus excavatum, or sunken chest in layman’s terms, Copeland elected to have a specialized surgery done to correct the problem – not only improving his appearance in a Speedo but also his chances of being a contender for a future Olympic team.


And while the outcome has proven to be exactly what he wanted – he’s now one of the fastest sprinters in the United States and world – the process ended up being painful but life-changing.


“What happens is that the sternum grows in toward the spine, which causes the ribs to follow and gives the appearance of a sunken chest,” said Copeland, who was born with the condition and had the procedure done for cosmetic, medical and performance reasons. “The sternum presses on the heart and lungs, squishing them down so that the heart can’t beat to its full capacity and the lungs are restricted.


“Usually, it’s a surgery for kids in their teens because their bones aren’t fully formed and much more malleable, but I was older and my bones were not malleable.”


Copeland said he learned quite a bit about himself as a result of the procedure – first and foremost that he is allergic to morphine. The original hospital stay was supposed to be between 3 and 4 days, but because of his allergy, it set him back to a weeklong and painful experience.


Negative effects from the morphine caused him to hallucinate and vomit, and when moving from his bed to the bathroom, he fainted and fell to the ground, dislodging the bar that had been placed in his chest. He had to go under the knife again to fix the problem.

While he admits the short-term pain from the procedure was often excruciating – full recovery took three months – the gain has been well worth it. During his senior year at the University of California-Berkeley, he enjoyed the best season of his career – going from 42.97 to 42.44 in the 100 free and 19.57 to 19.35 in the 50 free – big time drops for a senior in college.


Eighteen months post-surgery and swimming with Coach Dave Durden in Berkeley, he was 41.75 in the 100 and 19.05 in the 50 free and finished first and second, respectively, in those events at 2008 Short Course Nationals.


“Deciding to get the surgery was really agonizing, but I’m really glad I did it,” Copeland said. “It was an awful lot of short-term pain for a major long-term gain.”


With Olympic Trials less than two months away, Copeland is counting on that gain to make his first Olympic team.


He said his training is complete, and now the only thing left to do is enjoy the taper and his last go-around with the guys on his team.


“This is my last season no matter what, so I’m going to soak everything up as best as I can,” Copeland said. “I really haven’t been doing anything differently in preparation for Trials. Even though the stakes are higher this year, I try to do my best every year so it’s pretty much business as usual.


“I have gone to a couple of Grand Prix’s, and I’ll be going to Santa Clara and that will be my last meet before Trials. My times haven’t been really special thus far, but I usually drop considerable time at the end of the season so that’s O.K.”


Copeland said he believes his best opportunity to make the Olympic team is in the 100 freestyle, where the top 6 finishers make the 400 freestyle relay team.


Considering his 2008 Trials experience was “a blur,” and he wasn’t very experienced at that point in his career and got caught up in the fanfare and excitement of the event, Copeland said he’s definitely ready to push himself and go after his dream – especially with this being his last year of competition.


“My expectations are simply to do as well as I can,” said Copeland, who learned to swim in the pool in his backyard as a youngster growing up in Virginia and swam on his first team at age 8.


“Times don’t really matter at this point. It’s all about place. But I’m not going to worry about that either. If I go compete and try my hardest and enjoy the experience, it doesn’t matter the outcome. I’ll be happy.”