I remember playing name games as a child – saying my name and something about me – often enough to form the automatic answer: “My name is Claire and I am a swimmer.” In the water something clicked. Submerged, I felt powerful and hopeful, determined. That’s why instead of playdates, I went to practice; and why, instead of sleeping in, I woke up at 5:30am to jump into freezing water. I was a swimmer. It was the second thing people learned about me, right after “My name is Claire.” Identities seemed fixed and swimming was me.
I joined the varsity swim team as a freshman. I lived to race: seeing the results of my efforts, going a little faster and pushing just a little harder than ever before. I enjoyed fighting my brain, persevering when it ordered me to stop. My world expanded as I got to know an amazing team that pushed me, joked with me, taught me, and, on August 28, 2015, saved my life.
What my doctors refer to as my “event” occurred during the second practice that day. When my leg of a mock relay approached, I mounted the block with staunch need to catch my teammate, already half a length ahead. Racing, I felt everything I strove for, but also something new and amiss. My body and mind faded away from each other. I ignored the sensation and pushed further. When I finished, I was no longer aware of my surroundings. I could hear my teammates yelling, but as if they were moving away through a tunnel, until everything disappeared.
I returned to the sound of my coach asking me to blink if I could hear him. After fluttering my eyelids, I don’t remember much – an ambulance ride, beeping machines, tests with needles, my inability to recognize the two people next to me stroking my head and my coach sitting in the corner. I do remember the next day listening to my parents and doctors explain what happened: a cardiac arrest. My teammates pulled me out of the water and my coach administered CPR, reviving me before the EMTs arrived. My “event” was caused by a genetic heart disorder. The doctors then told me what I feared most: I could no longer swim. What I had been working toward for years was halted instantly by something unimaginable.
Before long I was questioning who I was if no longer “Claire the swimmer.” My week in the hospital produced a few exciting moments, but most of my time was spent sitting and thinking. By the end of my stay I decided that my “event” would not be the end of my life. From my hospital bed, the cradle of my changing future, I contacted an organization focused on training all Illinois public high school students in CPR. It was through this organization that I rediscovered myself, gaining a new purpose, one more significant than I had in swimming. Not wasting my experience, I told my story and trained people, trying to give someone else the same chance of survival that I had.
I have now trained hundreds of people in CPR, given countless speeches, and even traveled to San Diego to talk to a crowd of over 1,000 people at the national Cardiac Care Convention. I am also helping with the formation of a cardiac arrest survivor network in Illinois, while still finding time for the sport I love. On my club swim team, I coach the youngest groups; and, for my high school team, I organize the girls and help them achieve the goals that I set for myself. A year after my event, I am content with not saying “My name is Claire and I am a swimmer” because I transformed into something better. Now I am Claire and I am determined, I am an advocate, I am a teacher, I am a life saver.