Nugent’s story is one of accomplishment and determination, giving and sharing.
The 50-year-old from Wisconsin explains her start, “I am grateful for the day my parents let me put my foot in a pool for the first time as a little toddler and for their continued support, even to this day. I have swimming to thank for helping to make me the person I am today. I can’t imagine myself without this sport I love.”
But she took a break from swimming in her younger days and returned to swimming almost 25 years ago, it has always been a part of my life. “I was born with hip dysplasia which was first noticed at a routine check-up soon after I was born. Subsequently, my father took me to a referral appointment with orthopedic specialist Dr. Thomas Flatley. At Dr. Flatley’s direction, my father admitted me into Children’s Hospital and sadly, went home alone that evening.
I was immediately placed in a half-body cast.
I had multiple surgeries as a young child: one to correct the angle of the hip and one to try and correct the difference in leg length as a result of the first surgery.”
As a result, she was never able to participate in impact sports because of the one-inch leg difference which also caused me to limp without her corrective shoes. “My hip was definitely not normal and I know it always made the orthopedic surgeons excited to see my challenging hip. I vividly remember one of my last appointments with my pediatric orthopedic surgeon when I was 18 years old.
He told me two things: Watch your weight and You will probably need hip replacement by the time you are 40. Like most teenagers, I thought I was invincible at that age, but his words have always stayed with me over the years.”
She was motivated to stay healthy and fit. “I credit swimming 100% to my overall health and putting off the hip replacement by about 10 years. Swimming is a low impact sport and thus makes it a perfect activity for me and others with similar joint issues. There are many swimmers over the age of 40 because swimming is very easy on the joints. Unlike other endurance sports, specifically running, wherein athletes are subjected to rigorous pounding of their joints, swimmers can continue to get better as they age. Swimming is all I know. I can tire easily from walking, but put me in the water and I can swim miles.“
The joy she experiences in the water comes from long ago. “I have always been exposed to the water as my family joined a private club with a pool when I was very young. I quickly graduated from the baby pool to the intermediate pool, and then hit the ‘big’ pool. By the 8th grade, I joined the swim club in our city and a year later, the girl’s high school swimming team. I swam the same events for every meet: the 50-yard backstroke in the medley relay, the 100 yard backstroke, and the 100 yard butterfly.
I didn’t know about any other events since the coach put you where he needed you. I thought my friend, Martina, who swam the 500-yard freestyle was crazy. How boring was that to swim 20 lengths of the pool in a race.
In college at University of Wisconsin–Madison and graduate school at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, schoolwork took priority, but I recognized that I loved to swim and tried to stay active by swimming on my own.”
After entering the workforce and attending graduate school, she placed a lower priority on swimming. But by 1994, she was itching for something to keep her busy. Ultimately, she decided to dive back into the pool. “It was not easy at first. The first day, after swimming 200 yards, I thought, ‘Well this is boring, what did I get myself into?’ I slowly started to increase my yardage and soon was feeling like I never left the pool. A lifeguard told me about United States Masters Swimming and that piqued my curiosity.
Nugent became a member of USMS in 1995 and never left. She realized there are people like herself who love to swim and compete. “Who would have thought that an organization like this existed for adults. The first six months of swim meets, I swam the 100-yard butterfly and 100-yard backstroke because that was all I knew. Then I thought, ‘Hey, no one is limiting me to only these events.’ So I tried the 200-yard freestyle and realized that it was not too bad. I continued to push myself by increasing my distances of freestyle, first the 500, next the 1000, and then the 1650. The more distance I would swim, the more in the groove I felt.”
Her first open water swim was the one-mile Lake Amy Belle Swim in Wisconsin in 1996. “I was pregnant at the time. That is when I officially fell in love with open water events. During the next few years, I had three children in 1996, 1999 and 2002 and continued to swim throughout all of my pregnancies. When I was four days overdue with my second child, I swam two miles, including flip turns, before the contractions started. My son, Kyler, was born 2 hours later. I quickly bounced back from all three pregnancies. My doctors and I both believe that swimming should be credited for my quick recoveries. I was able to keep up with the family and activities without any hip issues.”
Initially, she primarily swam 1-3 mile events in the Wisconsin and Illinois area. She had not yet been introduced to marathon swimming. “I gradually increased the distances and by 2011, I really cranked up the distance in 2011 by swimming the USMS 25 km swim in Noblesville, Indiana. This was almost double the length of any of my previous swims.
That was a tough swim and I was very sore afterwards. I thought I was physically prepared, but I was definitely not. But, I finished even though the event’s 10-hour limit was reduced to 8 hours because of storms. I finished 26th of the 27 swimmers who were able to squeeze in the time limit. The other 39 swimmers did not finish in time or did not finish.”
That 25 km swim inspired her to attempt more marathon swims. “I have swum in 11 different states and many of our family vacations are planned around locations of my swim races. To date, my farthest swim was a 36-mile swim in the Red River in 2016. I have learned a lot over the years, from how to train for these events and the best nutrition plan that works for me. I enjoy the swims because I learned how to prepare for them. I am always looking for a new challenge, and the world has no shortage of lakes, oceans, rivers, bays and channels to swim.”
But eventually her hip issues resurfaced. “Swimming never bothered my hip, probably because I was becoming a distance swimmer and I did not have to kick a lot. At the end of 2016, however, my youngest daughter said, ‘Mom, you say owww all the time.’
I knew I was slowing down with walking, doing stairs and bending. I was used to my slower lifestyle on land and learned to deal with it and thought that was just life. I went to the doctor in January 2017 and got the surprise of my life, the reason for the slowness was because there was little, to no cartilage left on my bad hip. Was I completely shocked. It definitely explained how I had been feeling.
I tried a cortisone shot in February with hopes of it lasting long, but it lasted only a couple weeks. Then I had to make a major decision, should I go ahead with total hip replacement surgery? I knew my situation was unique and made the surgery more complicated than a regular hip replacement. I really felt that was the best choice for me. The big bonus was that my surgeon, Dr. Joseph Schwab, would try his best to lengthen my short leg. I was very excited about that possibility.”
True to her nature, Nugent swam 7000 yards before she left for the hospital on the day of her surgery. “Swimming helped to take my mind off of the surgery. Surgery went well, though my femur splintered, which I knew could happen in order to lengthen the leg, but the end result was worth it. The recovery was not as bad as I expected. I only took a half of an opioid pain medication with hopes that it would help me sleep, but it did not help. After that, it was only Tylenol for pain for me. I think swimmers/athletes have a higher level of pain tolerance from our many hours of training.”
It turned out that her May surgery was a blessing in disguise. “I was concerned about missing the 2017 open water season since in the Midwest the season is short. I had weight restrictions because of the splintered femur and the leg lengthening, which meant I had to use a walker for the first six weeks. Then I used a cane for another 6 weeks until I felt comfortable walking. I was told the recovery would be one-year and then Dr. Schwab changed it to 6 months because he said he knew I would be tenacious about recovery. He knows me well.”
Three weeks post-surgery, she was anxious to start exercising. “I was working out on a recumbent bike, but it did not give me the feeling I get after my swims. I emailed the doctor and asked, ‘You knew this was coming, when can I get in the pool?’ I was told to wait a few more days and then I could go in at 4 weeks, to make sure the scar healed completely. I really missed my Wisconsin Athletic Club and YMCA during my month off from swimming.
Not only am I friends with swimmers, but other members as well. They are my second family. Since I got the green light to go in the pool, I have only missed seven days in the pool. I started back gradually by swimming 1000 yards and slowly increased the distance. Not only was I swimming laps in the pool, but water walking, water jogging and physical therapy exercises as well. I spent many many hours in the pool.
By 3 months post surgery, my swim times were back to pre-surgery times and who knows, they may be even better with the new bionic hip. I was doing some underwater dolphin kicking recently and when I looked at my feet, it was so cool to see my toes line up evenly. It made me appreciate what I went through this year.”
Nugent was back to work part-time 4 weeks post-surgery and used her time wisely. “I loved the time I had to exercise in the pool outside in the afternoons. I spent at times up to two hours of water walking, which involved reading a book that was on the float and walking in circles. I was also able to do my first open water race 2 months after the surgery.
I still was not up to speed and needed assistance getting out of the water and walking to the beach, but I was thrilled to be able to compete. I was able to do 5 more open water swim races for the season, ending with a 10-mile Swim The Suck in Tennessee. I know the recovery would be long, but it is going so well. Where would I be in my recovery without the swimming in my rehabilitation plan? I would definitely not be where I am now.”
She reflected upon her masters swimming family. “I have met people from all over the United States with different levels of swimming ability. For some reason, swimmers in the water just click, we all have that passion. The love of the water is not easy to hide. I have developed long-lasting friendships in the pool since I first started swimming in the 1990s. I have met open water swimmers who are well-known in the swimming world and I am fortunate to call them my friends.”
She also understands the profound nature of swimming. “It teaches us lifelong lessons, not just in the pool, but outside of the pool as well. The water will always be my ‘happy place’ where I can escape the real world, clear my mind and push my limits to train for those crazy marathon swims.
Those mornings where it would feel great to stay in bed, swimming teaches dedication and hard work, especially in those cold winter months. Most non-swimmers can think of something else they would rather be doing than follow a black line in the pool for hours.
I never get bored of that line in the pool; it will always be there for me. My FINIS MP3 duo player also helps to pass the time in the pool. Swimming taught me discipline, commitment and goal setting. Commitment that can sometimes, I know, be obsessive at times.
I love to have a big swim planned and have months to prepare for it. Without the many hours spent to meet these goals in the pool, I wouldn’t know what hard work feels like and to go after something you really want to accomplish. These characteristics will carry me through the rest of my life.
After all these years of swimming, there is nothing that can replace the satisfaction after a morning swim. I am ready to tackle the world. I don’t need anyone or anything to motivate me to get in the pool. It is just like brushing my teeth; I need to do it daily. As my husband Mike says, ‘It’s just how she rolls.‘”
Over the last 7 years as the USMS Wisconsin Fitness Chair/Coordinator, Nugent helps promote participation in fitness and postal events, creates and coordinates local area fitness activities for Wisconsin USMS, promotes the USMS Go the Distance event, hosts the Wisconsin Water Warriors event, writes articles on local long distance pool accomplishments and training for the Wisconsin USMS Newsletter, and represents her committee at the national level.
She also helps open water swimming race directors by creating surveys and analyzing results about their event. Her analyses give race director’s information about their events including information on the registration process, food/beverages provided, appeal of the goodies provided and issues regarding safety. She had completed surveys for the SCAR Swim Challenge in Arizona (2014,2015, 2016, 2017), Big Shoulders in Illinois (2014), Alligator Lighthouse Swim in Florida (2014), United States Winter Swimming Championships in Vermont (2015), Flowers Sea Swim in Grand Cayman (2015, 2016, 2017), A Long Swim in Illinois (2015, 2016, 2017), Swim4Freedom in Wisconsin (2015, 2016, 2017), Extreme North Dakota – Watersports Endurance Test in North Dakota (8 separate events in 2016), Swim The Suck (2016), Swim to the Moon (2016), and Three Rivers Marathon Swim (2017).
She is an Infinit-sponsored athlete and serves as a FINIS product tester and a member of the USMS Sports Medicine & Science Committee where she serves as the statistician for the Sports Medicine and Science Committee to help educate members and the public on topics of sports medicine and science, encourage research to Master Swimming.
Copyright © 2008-2018 by World Open Water Swimming Association