Swimming Without Danger


By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

Imagine swimming and suddenly losing focus. You blank out. Everything fades. You have a brain lapse. You suddenly don’t remember what just happened.

Then it happens again in the same week. You know something is wrong.

Heading into his senior year at Virginia Tech, Zach McGinnis was looking forward to closing out his NCAA careerZach McGinnis  (medium) with a championship. The returning ACC champion in the 100 backstroke was poised to finish strong. Then, in one week, McGinnis had two of these experiences – the second one during practice.

They were seizures.

“It is difficult for me to know exactly when my first seizure was because I can’t remember what happens during them,” McGinnis said. “Typically when we think of seizures we think of someone convulsing and kind of foaming at the mouth; however, my seizures are more of a fade out or brain lapse. They can come in a wide variety of forms such as I can shut down and just be laying on the floor, I can be repeating a phrase over and over, as well as other ways.”

Doctors diagnosed McGinnis with epilepsy – a potentially career-ending neurological disorder.

“Depending on the type of epilepsy you have and the frequency in which you have seizures, swimming can be very dangerous,” McGinnis said, reiterating that he’s not an epilepsy expert, but that this is just his own understanding. “The biggest threat would be that if you do have a seizure in the water it is very probable that you could drown. From my understanding it is advised that you do not swim if you have epilepsy unless your medication has kept you from having a seizure for a sufficient amount of time.”

“The doctor told me I should be fine to swim, but the trainer needs to keep an eye on me and I needed to stay away from exercises like bench press in the weight room where I would be at risk for dropping the weight on myself if a seizure occurred. After my diagnoses I took some time off to try and gather my thoughts and decide if swimming is still what I wanted to do.”

McGinnis decided he would continue on. He consulted doctors and trainers, began medication, and, after being seizure-free, began to swim again. For a swimmer who had to overcome two torn shoulders in his career, McGinnis was used to setbacks. He began to swim alone in a lane under direct trainer supervision. Then, as it was clear that medication was effective, began to train again.

“When I was at Virginia Tech, the staff was fully aware of my condition and very supportive and patient with my needs. Initially, I swam in a lane by myself with our trainer watching me and after some time on my medication I returned to swimming in a lane with my teammates.”

“I have gone nearly a year now without a seizure and I am reacting well with my new medication so I do not inform lifeguards of my condition; however, my training partners and coaches are aware.”

Now, McGinnis swims as an epileptic. He finished his career at Virginia Tech and scored points at the NCAA Championships. He now trains and attends graduate school in Miami. He aims to compete at next year’s nationals and hopefully make a national team. And rather than allow epilepsy to end his swimming career, McGinnis has become a national spokesperson for the Epilepsy Foundation’s initiative “Athletes vs. Epilepsy.”

“The initiative offers athletes of all levels the opportunity to support accelerating new therapies for people living with epilepsy and seizures through appearances and participation in athletic events of all types.”

“My goal is to bring awareness to epilepsy, contribute to fundraising for the Epilepsy Foundation, and use my story to inspire those who have epilepsy to be active as well as give them hope that they will be seizure free one day.”

Though he’s had setbacks, McGinnis credits his coach at Virginia Tech, Ned Skinner, for his guidance and mentorship.

“He was paramount in my decision to keep going and he was always concerned with my health and happiness long before he even asked if I wanted to keep swimming.”

What’s inspiring is that McGinnis has not used his diagnosis as an excuse or reason to quit, but he’s utilized it as a reason to keep going. He’s been lucky that the medication has worked and he can continue to swim. He wants to make other swimmers who also have epilepsy understand that there are options.

That maybe they, too, can keep going.

“For swimmers who suffer from seizures, my aim is to let you know you are not alone. There are millions of people suffering from seizures who are unable to swim and I hope that you have faith in and feel the support from the Epilepsy Foundation and your doctors to find new therapies that will allow you to be seizure free one day and finally be able to swim without danger.”

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