She entered the water hoping to regain her mobility. She became a record-breaking aquatic marathoner. By Craig Mullaney.
For two years, Kim Chambers endured day after painful day of therapy trying to regain the ability to walk. It was an ordeal she wouldn’t wish upon anyone, an ordeal she would never want to repeat.
“My injury was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says.
Silver-lining stories are vital just now. Our need to believe that some good will emerge from the awful toll of the coronavirus is reflected in the world’s unofficial motto of recovery—build back better. Rallying behind that phrase, business and political leaders are promising a post-pandemic world of greater equality, deeper concern for the environment, wider access to better healthcare.
Yet the Kim Chambers story raises a question: Why limit our hopes to outcomes we can envision? Ms. Chambers started swimming in the hope that it would help her walk again, never imagining that she would become a legend of the sport. Perhaps we ought to keep our eyes open for unanticipated junctures. “I have had the great fortune of plumbing the depths of a sense of self that did not exist ten years ago, five years ago or even a year ago,” she writes on her blog.
Ms. Chambers could serve as a role model for the many adults who cling to fantasies of athletic glory—F. Scott Fitzgerald dreamed of quarterbacking the Princeton football team long after he became a world-famous writer—except that she never longed for aquatic glory. At age 30, she was an up-and-comer in Silicon Valley, the holder of two degrees from the University of California at Berkeley, including a Masters in information management with an emphasis in computer/human interaction. She’d come a long way from the New Zealand sheep farm where’d she’d grown up. “I was very much the corporate woman—high heels and all,” she wrote on her blog. “I made enough money to think I was invincible.”
Then one day while hurrying to an appointment she tripped on her high heels and fell. She awoke in the hospital, where a surgeon told her good news—he’d barely avoided the necessity of amputating her leg—and bad: She had a 1% chance of ever walking unassisted. She was suffering from Acute Compartment Syndrome, in which swollen tissue and internal bleeding create destructive pressure. “My life as I knew it was over,” she says.
She did not think about building back better her career in Silicon Valley. A former ballerina, college rower and all-around fitness fanatic, she thought about proving her doctors wrong. “Something inside of me decided this prediction was unacceptable. I didn’t know how or when, but I was determined to prove all the doctors wrong,” she later wrote on her website. As she told the Brunswick Review, “Not a single time did my doctors discourage me. They were my biggest supporters and fans when I did prove them wrong.”
She was encouraged to try swimming at a local pool. Neither the horrific scars on her legs nor her lack of swimming proficiency stopped her from showing up. Weightless in water, she discovered she could move in it as she hadn’t moved in two years. “It was pure magic. I felt free for the first time in years,” she wrote.