By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
In nearly the equivalent of a breath in the water or a wall touch, Chip Peterson caught a glimpse of a life without swimming.
Diagnosed in 2007 with congenital ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease that shares some of the same characteristics as Crohn's Disease, Peterson, the 2005 10K World Aquatics Champion (open water), experienced a severe flare-up in early 2010 that forced him to concentrate on improving his health largely at the expense of his lifelong passion.
Interested in a career in medicine – either research or clinical – since he was a kid, he reluctantly accepted this harsh reality, stepped away from training and competition and focused on finding a treatment that might allow him to one day return to competition.
“I took about 9 months off from swimming and training full-time, although I would swim a 500 here and there, because I knew a short-term stop might make it possible for me to swim competitively again long-term,” said Peterson, who moved back to his home state of North Carolina from California last October to concentrate on his health. “I’ve tried a variety of different treatments, changed my diet, etc., to prevent any flare-ups, and so far, it’s worked out pretty well.”
At the time of his 2010 flare-up, Peterson was working toward earning a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team in the pool after missing his chance to swim in the open water competition in London by not being able to compete at 2010 Open Water Nationals. He was hospitalized twice in 2011 and given prednisone to counter the effects from his disease.
But within time – a short amount of time, actually – it became quite clear to him that he had to shelve his bid for the Olympics.
And while it was less devastating this time around than in 2008 when he just missed making both the open water and U.S. Olympic teams, the potential finality of his career made him take a long hard look at how important swimming is in his life and how much he wanted to come back to it eventually if his body allowed him.
“It made me realize that all the hard work I’d put in over the years in swimming meant more to me than I ever thought,” said Peterson, the inaugural Open Water Swimmer of the Year (2005) and 2007 gold medalist in the men's 1500 meter freestyle at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. “Not making the Olympic team in 2008 was one of the lowest points in my career and it took quite a while for me to get over it.
“This time around, not being able to physically compete at 2012 Trials, was easier to stomach because it was largely out of my control, and all you can do is play cards with the hand your dealt.”
In addition to concentrating on his health, Peterson has also spent the last year coaching his high school swim team and discovered a previously unknown love for working with kids.
It’s also revitalized his love for the sport during a difficult time in his life – giving him inspiration to get back in the water – first just casually but lately more regularly and setting some goals – and potentially working back toward resuming a full-time career in the sport.
“It’s amazing how much fun it can be to swim with a group of 10 and 11 years olds and teenagers who are so excited about the sport and find it fun every day. I didn’t hear that much the past 5 or 6 years from myself or the others I was training with,” Peterson said.
“When you’re in a competitive mode, training for hours every day and focusing on everything associated with competition, you lose track of the fact that swimming is fun. We all need those reminders from time to time, and I get that almost every day at practice. It really has given me a brand new perspective about swimming and how important it is to me.”
While he isn’t setting any firm goals at this point – he’s only been back in the water a couple of months – Peterson said his health is as good as it’s been in a couple of years and he’s working toward competing at Open Water Nationals in May.
He’s also taking his MCAT’s in a couple of months and will be applying to medical schools (admission in 2014) as he knows he wants to pursue a career in clinical medicine, although he isn’t sure of a specialty but has an interest in sports and gastrointestinal medicine.
Peterson said he will assess where he is in his swimming prior to and after Open Water Nationals to see how he’s feeling to determine a long-term strategy or a decision to give up the sport once and for all.
“I’m just happy to be healthy now, and I’m loving training again and ready to compete again,” said Peterson, whose last competition was in February (2012) at a World Cup Open Water meet in Argentina. “It’s been a very up and down year for me, but I am hopeful that things have settled for me physically and I can pursue these goals I’ve set.
“It’s frustrating for everyone when their body doesn’t allow them to do what they want or are used to doing, but it’s particularly frustrating as a competitive athlete. I’m nowhere near where I was (physically) before the disease flared-up last year, and I don’t know how much I might have lost, but I’ve been impressed with my progression over the past three months and still have a long way to go. But I’m excited for the possibilities and ready to see what I can still do in the water.”