DURHAM, N.C. - Serious injuries so often disrupt and prematurely end college athletes’ careers. Even those who are able to return to competition find the road back to be long and challenging.
For two members of the swimming and diving team at Duke, being able to get back in the water and race was worth the multiple surgeries and extensive rehabilitation periods.
Emily Barber and Francesca Tocci both made the decision to apply for medical hardship waivers after suffering serious injuries that kept them out of the pool. Now in their fifth years with the women’s program, they have been able to continue their swimming careers while also pursuing master’s degrees at Duke.
A breaststroke specialist from Guilford, Conn., Barber began her collegiate career with promising results. As a sophomore, she turned in top-10 performances in both breaststroke events at the ACC Championships and the following summer surpassed the U.S. Olympic Team Trials qualifying standards in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke with a strong showing at the 2011 ConocoPhillips National Championships in Palo Alto, Calif.
A shoulder injury derailed Barber’s plans for her junior season, though, and eight months of physical therapy followed. In the spring, it was decided that surgery was necessary to repair the injury. After months of recovery, Barber returned to the water late in the fall of her senior year and went on to compete at ACCs in March, placing 12th in the 100-yard breaststroke and guiding the Blue Devils’ 400 medley relay to a new program record.
“It was kind of a crazy process just because it took a lot longer than I expected it to,” Barber says. “Honestly, I don’t know how I would have gotten through it without the support of my teammates, the coaches, the physical therapists and the trainers. I worked mostly with (director of athletic rehabilitation) Kerry Mullenix and (assistant athletic trainer) Kevin Ortega and they were absolutely great. And of course my family was a big part of it too.”
Another minor surgery took place after the 2013 conference meet to clean out the joint in her shoulder, but since then, Barber has been able to get back to racing and regaining strength and speed.
“It wasn’t a small injury that I could push through. It affected everything,” Barber said. “Even though I wasn’t able to take full strokes the first time I got back in, that feeling in the water reminded me of why I did what I did and why I love it. Every day as I get more comfortable and can do more, it just further reinforces why I stayed another year.”
Tocci also got off to an impressive start as a freshman in 2009-10, quickly becoming one of Duke’s top sprinters. She competed on the most relay teams of any freshman her first year and broke a school record in the 100 backstroke at the ACC Championships her sophomore season. The Weston, Mass., native opened her junior campaign on a strong note as well before missing the entire spring and the following fall to undergo surgeries on her elbow.
After returning to the pool last spring to compete at the conference championship, Tocci found out over the summer that she would have to have another operation. She had a rib removed in order to lessen pain in her left hand, delaying her start to the 2013-14 season until late in the fall.
“When I made the decision to stay for a fifth year, that was already after two surgeries and I thought that was it,” she says. “It was a really hard decision because it wasn’t just a surgery I had to get for swimming. I had to get it if I wanted to use my left hand again. It put me in a tough position, knowing that I was going to have to go through rehab instead of being able to just go right back into things.”
Like Barber, Tocci says the support from those around her has eased the transition and kept her motivated and optimistic throughout the recovery process.
“The support from everyone has been awesome,” Tocci said. “Just being part of the team has helped a lot and knowing that people believe in me even if I don’t believe in myself sometimes. This made the third time around easier than I thought it would be.”
While both swimmers continue to recover and train, they have also been afforded the opportunity to continue their studies at Duke. After earning their undergraduate degrees in psychology last May, Barber and Tocci were admitted to the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program and are preparing for careers in medicine. The two-year graduate program offers classes in wide-ranging areas of concentration and has allowed them to work alongside students coming from all kinds of backgrounds.
“I was a little bit nervous about it because it’s a very diverse group of people and a lot of people at different stages of their lives, and I knew I would be one of the younger members of the program,” Barber said. “I was a little intimidated but I’ve made a ton of new friends and they’ve been great. I’ve learned so much already and it’s only been a semester.”
Barber and Tocci have also continued their involvement with the Collegiate Athlete Pre-medical Experience (CAPE), which provides female Duke student-athletes with access to explore the medical profession. The two fifth-year students have both previously completed internships at the Duke Hospital through CAPE, and continue to work on projects and receive career guidance. Tocci has plans to take the MCAT and apply to medical school, while Barber is pursuing a career as a physician’s assistant.
“CAPE has been the most amazing program,” Tocci says. “It was one of the reasons I came to Duke and I’m definitely still involved. It’s been hard since our classes were all at night and we missed a lot of the CAPE meetings. But I still got to do clinic and I’m actually working on a project with the brain tumor center, an exercise intervention program for brain tumor patients.”
As they prepare for their final few meets and the upcoming ACC Championships, Barber and Tocci also appreciate the support they’ve received from each other during their five years with the Duke program.
“(Francesca is) one of my closest friends so we’ve gone through this process together,” Barber says. “We ended up being in all the same classes in the fall and we train together, we’re always on pool deck and in weights together. It’s been great that I’ve been able to share this opportunity with a teammate and a best friend.”
Despite the hardship the two swimmers have been through, just returning to the water and contributing to the major strides the Blue Devils have made as a program validates the long recovery process and their decisions to stay.
“I have a different perspective on things — in terms of swimming, in terms of life,” Tocci says. “I’m here because I really love swimming. Even when I’m injured, it’s doing what I love.”