By Gail Wood
No one – not Mel Smith, her coach at Olympia High School, nor her parents or her sister – thought she’d be there, swimming and competing for a state medal.
Two weeks ago on the day of the district finals, just a day after Norman did well in her prelims, she was rushed to the hospital and needed emergency surgery.
“I couldn’t move,” Norman said. “I was in so much pain.”
In September, Norman, a senior at Olympia High School, first felt stomach pains. But she passed them off as a flu bug. When the pain didn’t go away, she went to the doctor and was eventually diagnosed as having an ovarian cyst. Surgery was imminent.
“But we hoped we’d do it at the end of the season,” Norman said.
She wasn’t that fortunate.
On Monday this week, just eight days after her surgery, Norman, with her doctor’s permission, was back in the pool, swimming laps and preparing for state. With her coach making sure she didn’t push it too hard, she swam an “easy” 2,000 yards.
“It was like keeping a thoroughbred under control,” Smith said with a chuckle. “Just not overdoing it is a challenge right there.”
As a precaution, Smith had Norman swim her workout laps in her own lane.
“We don’t need to have someone bump into her or someone swimming the breaststroke and kick her in the stomach,” Smith said. “But the doctor cleared her to get back into the water on Monday and cleared her to compete. We’re excited.”
Typically, someone who has undergone surgery needs two weeks before resuming any physical activities, giving them time to get the sedatives out of their system and to heal. Norman’s first day back wasn’t easy.
“I couldn’t do flip turns,” Norman said, frowning at the memory. “It hurt too much.”
But she felt better the next day. And now she’s hoping to push herself at state. When Norman went to the hospital on the day she was scheduled to swim in the district finals, she was still hoping to swim in her events that day.
“We actually had my swim stuff in the back of the car on the way to the ER,” Norman said. “Just in case.”
But surgery couldn’t be delayed and it happened on Sunday, Nov. 2. Norman admits that the swimming, pushing herself at district and swimming a state qualifying time, aggravated her problem. Things probably would have been fine if she just been home relaxing.
There were questions whether or not she’d be ready to swim at state, but Norman only took a week off and was back in the water.
“I don’t have any pain right now,” Norman said after swimming laps at practice earlier this week. “Missing some practice time puts me behind where I should be. But it shouldn’t be too bad. I’ve been swimming for a long time.”
There have been moments where Norman, frustrated by her health problem, has cried.
Through all of this, Norman’s parents, Charles and Gigi, have been the encouragers. Understanding all the years of training to prepare for this moment, they’re letting their daughter pursue her dream.
“They’ve been very supportive,” Norman said. “My dad is at my morning practices. He knows what I go through.”
Another rah-rah supporter has been Norman’s younger sister, Ali, who is also on the high school swim team and has qualified for state. Both Sarah and Ali, who is a sophomore and has been a teammate of her sister since she was six, have qualified for state in two individual events. Sarah is in the 100 breaststroke and 200 IM. Ali qualified in the 100 butterfly and the 100 backstroke. Olympia also qualified three relays.
“Qualifying three was hard even with Sarah swimming, but we had to do it without her,” Smith said. “Our kids really stepped up. They were outstanding.”
Seeing her sister struggle hasn’t been easy for Ali.
“It was hard for me to be doing good and to see her not being able to swim,” Ali said.
When Sarah was at the hospital, Ali admits she had trouble focusing on swimming her events at district.
“It was a challenging day,” Ali said. “I knew if I thought about it too much I’d start worrying and it would affect me. I just decided to put it in the back of my mind.”
In a strange way, it’s been a horrible, wonderful season for Sarah – horrible because of the pain she endured because of her health problems and wonderful because of the way her friends and family supported her and how she stood up to the challenge. She didn’t buckle and quit.
As a senior, this was going to be her final hurrah, her showcase season and her chance at earning a swimming scholarship to college. It hasn’t been easy.
“I’ve cried some over it,” Sarah said. “Hopefully, my next tears will be happy ones. Hopefully, they’ll be tears of joy.”