Athlete of the Month: Megan Wheeler

Name: Megan Wheeler
Hometown/Currently Living: Laurel, Montana
Age: 27
Sport/How Long Competed: Swimming, Backstroke (50 and 100) for 13 years
Current Occupation: Sponsorship Sales for Vacation Races, a company that organizes half marathons built around national parks. There are some really inspiring people who participate in the runs. For example, I just helped with a run at the Grand Canyon, and a woman with Spina Bifida did the entire half marathon on crutches. Another time there was a 67-year-old woman who finished, and her 71-year-old husband gave her a giant hug and got her a coffee when she was done. Later, everyone told me she was cheering everyone on who passed her while she was running.
Favorite Healthy Food: Three pounds of blueberries, avocado on everything (the healthy fats help with lubrication with some internal inflammatory issues I have), pea protein vegetarian meat
Favorite Physical Activity: Swimming, running or hiking
Biggest Athletic Honor: The biggest turning point for me was when I won Junior Nationals and broke the record in the 50 backstroke. I even got a free robe. Until then I really didn’t think I was that good. I also (accidentally) touched Michael Phelps butt at Nationals. I was 14 or 15, and I thought I could never wash that hand again. I had another awkward run in with him in Olympic Trials. He got in my lane a couple times and it was just he and I, but I was injured and not racing, so I wasn’t going fast. I didn’t want to get passed, so I was sprinting to try not to get lapped by him. It was the third or fourth day of us sharing a lane, and I finally worked up the courage to say hi. He got in my lane the fourth day, I was at the wall practicing what I was going to say when he got to the wall, but when he looked up at me all that came out was a squeak. I just got out of the pool because I was so embarrassed.
High School: West Valley High School in Yakima, WA
College & Degree: University of Southern California for 1.5 years (NCAA DI), graduated from Eastern Washington University with Bachelor of Arts in Recreation Management, with a double minor in Business and Communications

Megan was state and relay champion as a high school junior in 2004
Megan was state and relay champion as a high school junior in 2004

How old were you when you started playing sports or exercising?
My parents were both really active when they had my brother and me, so ever since I can remember I was going on bike rides. There are pictures of me in a bike trailer when I was less than a year old. I was always around sports, so I just picked up on it.

Megan was practically born with goggles on!
Megan was practically born with goggles on!

How old were you when you started playing your main sport?
Mom was coaching high school swimming when she had me. She put me in the pool. I was a water baby. I was going off the diving boards at three with no fear. I joined the Yakima Athletic Club swim team when I was five. I played soccer when I was four, and I always liked it. It was a great place to get my energy out. I wasn’t good or anything—we all basically ran in circles and picked grass.

Megan and her Mom in [year]
Megan and her Mom in Delaware, 1989

Can you talk about your injury, and how it affected competing, and how you handled it? How did you eventually get through it?
I had qualified for Olympic Trials, and we were doing a two-a-day on a Saturday morning. It was a pool session for 2.5 hours, then dry land. One of the dry land activities was ultimate Frisbee. Swimmers are usually pretty uncoordinated, so all we really do is run around and occasionally throw the Frisbee. We split into two teams, and for whatever reason my coach invited a parent to play.

It was a parent I had problems with before. He had a very aggressive personality. He was playing, hitting people and knocking people down. I told my coach, but he didn’t do anything. When I approached the parent about it, he kept saying to me, “I thought you were tough.” I went to catch the Frisbee with my arm extended, and he ran into the back of my arm, dislocating it out the front of my joint. The first two surgeries they tried anchoring the tendon back to my bone, but what they didn’t realize is the bone was displaced too, so it kept falling back out. All in all, he tore the tendons, cartilage, and broke the bone.

It was two months before trials. Those two months were a blur. My coach stopped caring. I didn’t know what to do. Training had been going really well up until then. I had this goal of making it to finals at the trials as a 16 year old, and I thought for sure colleges would come begging me to be on their team. Then it all went out the window. I was floundering around. I went to trials, I was lost—I finished last. But I was proud of the fact I went. That was the last time I competed.

I still went on recruiting trips and I was picked up by USC. When I got there I found out the first surgery was a failure, so had second again freshmen year. It immediately hurt and I knew something was wrong, but rehabbed and rehabbed, did some tests and then they wanted me to do a complete replacement. However, if I did that I would never have been able to swim again, so I refused. Eventually my shoulder was just falling out all the time, like in my sleep, in class taking notes… part of it was I just didn’t want any surgeon to do it. I did a lot of research and calling around and I found a surgeon in Seattle who was one of the leading shoulder surgeons in the U.S. I met with him and scheduled the third surgery.

It was a big surgery. He had to file down dead bone and re-pin the bone and screw the tendons and cartilage back in. Rehab was really hard after that. Then, just as I was coming out of rehab I was working my summer job as a recreation person at Lake Chelan, renting water equipment. I was helping someone carry a canoe, but she misunderstood and got in the canoe when I was carrying it and tore my other shoulder. I had surgery a year later on that one.

Then things were working well and just a few months ago I was swimming to try to train for triathlons. All the sudden my originally injured shoulder started hurting again. I saw the surgeon, and the MRI showed I tore my shoulder again. I haven’t scheduled another surgery—I just can’t deal with it yet.

Did you have support throughout your journey?
There are people who have always been there and been super supportive no matter what. The first people that come to mind are family friends, the Bernfelds. I met Shawn (the older brother) at swim team when we were five—we all did play dates, went to swim meets together, and our parents would tag team practice pick-ups. It just morphed into this supportive second family. They are a very close family, very loving. The big difference I see is that they are not results driven when it comes to sports. They were just happy their kids were involved in something. They liked to see improvement—it was more about the experience than the results. I always liked that. At a couple of meets, Wendy (mother) bought me a sweatshirt because she wanted me to remember how well I did. She was proud of me. The big one I remember is they bought tickets to watch me at the Olympic Trials. When I got hurt I told them they didn’t have to come, but they came because they were just so excited for me. We don’t talk all the time now, but if I need to talk or I’m in town, we pick up like we never stopped talking.

Megan and Lynsey Bernfeld Together at Olympic Trials [year]
Megan and friend Lynsey Bernfeld walking together after Megan’s swim at the Olympic Trials in 2004

The McGuires (other family friends) were always supportive also. When I got hurt and found out I needed surgery, Jori (friend) drove me around in her car and let me vent, cry, and talk about my anger. I felt like I couldn’t do that anywhere else. She and her family didn’t care just when I was a swimmer, they cared after I stopped swimming.

I’ve made some amazingly close friends from swimming. I would never go back in time and change anything because of everyone I’ve met. My roommate in college went on and had great swimming success. We are still really close and I’m very grateful for that friendship and all of them along the way. Swimming is such a positive network. Everyone is always so nice to each other. It was a really fun sport to be in.

Megan supporting her brother Ian, who also competed at the Olympic Trials in [year]
Megan supporting her brother Ian, who also competed at the Olympic Trials in 2012

How do you view your health throughout your athletic career?
Good. I was always on the skinny side. When I was in middle school or junior high I had health issues related to being so skinny. I had a heart murmur from being so active at such a low weight. I grew out of it, but being active and weighing so little made it hard for my body to keep up with what I wanted to do at that age. However, I never had any super serious injuries from training. My parents did a good job of making sure I was eating consistently throughout the day so I could keep up my energy.

Megan competing for [YAC?] at age [?}
One of Megan’s first meets at the King County Aquatic Center at age 10

We never ate a lot of junk food. My mom cooked because we couldn’t afford to eat out. Even at swim meets she would package snacks and meals. We got pop and ice cream on Friday night family night. I never thought about calories or anything growing up. We were always so active, riding bikes, playing in the dirt…

How did you feel about your sport and health immediately after you were no longer competing?
Initially it was really hard. I moved home and I realized at that point that all my hopes and dreams were dashed. I kept trying to prove to others that being a swimmer was my identity. I was in the darkness for so long, and then something switched and I realized I couldn’t do that to myself anymore. I was really young, yet felt really old—but it was a gift, not a curse. I finally stopped pitying myself and started living my life.

I had always grown up in the outdoors, and I think I sought refuge there. I liked to go drive in the mountains—it would calm me down. Something clicked for me that it could be a job, a filler until I could swim again. I think I still had an idea I would go back to swimming, but in the meantime I could do this: go hiking, go into the mountains, get a degree in it. I like pushing myself and the idea of getting out and exploring. I like going and doing things and experiencing life. Once I started doing that, swimming started to fade a little bit. My drive for redemption faded.

Megan hiking [where] in [year]
Megan hiking at Pinnacles National Park

I still love swimming, and everyone always asks themselves, “what if”? It’s not a fair question. But I’m happy about the way things have turned out for me, because most of the my most treasured experiences would never have come about if I had become a professional or career swimmer.

How do you feel about your sport now?
I still think it’s great. I would never go back to my younger self and pick another sport. I learned a lot and I got to do a lot I would have otherwise never done. It fit me since it is very individualistic. I’m not always a good team player—I have a tough time dealing with other personalities. For me it was more centered on my ability and work ethic. At least when I was young, you could participate as much or as little as you want. Now you “have” to choose to be serious about a sport at a younger age. I never want my kids to feel like it’s a hassle or a requirement, or not fun, or too intense. I feel sports have gone that way, which seems natural because our society revolves around sports and obsesses over professional athletes. I want my kids to do sports. I don’t care what they do, but I want them to do it to learn discipline and sacrifice, but still have fun.

Were you ever provided with nutritional information during your athletic career (childhood, high school, college)?
I think I was aware of what proper nutrition was, in general, because my parents ate healthy and my mom became a PE and health teacher. We were big on veggies and fresh fruits and limited sugar. In terms of nutrition for athletes, I don’t really remember learning anything, but was aware of needing a lot of calories and not just consuming empty ones—eating meaningful food was important for athletes.

How do you feel about your overall health now?
I feel good. I was diagnosed with scoliosis last year, but I see chiropractor and get massage. For my shoulder I just modify as I needed. I have an autoimmune disease that doesn’t affect my athletic stuff. My eyes don’t lubricate, so I always have to have eye drops. I also get Raynaud’s, so I always have jacket, gloves, etc. I learn to deal with that stuff and try to make lifestyle choices that help. I’m healthy and I’m happy about being healthy. I like to go running, I like to swim with my boyfriend. We like to eat healthy because we feel better when we do. I sleep a lot, I have a really good schedule. I feel good when I’m active, and its not just because I feel that I look better. When I have muscle mass or tired from a work out, I feel better. We are always trying to eat healthy and find new things and look into ways to be more healthy. And for me being Eco-friendly is important.

Megan and her boyfriend Joel going for a ride [where] in [year]
Megan and her boyfriend Joel going for a road ride in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains, 2015

What is your current exercise regiment?
I run four times per week, and even now with my shoulder I’ll go swimming with my boyfriend. I haven’t been riding lately but we’ll go mountain biking or road biking. Summer is coming so we’ll start hiking and trying new things. Montana is a cool place because there is a lot to try. We are just active people.

Megan Running at the Grand Canyon in 2015
Megan Running at the Grand Canyon in 2015

Do you include anything in your routine for “mental” health? (i.e. meditation, affirmations, playing logic games)
I used to do affirmations. I went to rehab for an eating disorder, and that was a big one. When I have a hard time with something, or not processing something well in my life, I journal. I love journals because I love writing things out. For me it is a way to organize my thoughts. When I write down my thoughts I feel accomplished. I’ve worked through something, progressed, acknowledged and moved forward.

I’m also kind of a hermit sometimes socially. I make a conscious decision to meet friends and do new things and things that make me happy. That always seems to help. I have really good friends that I feel like I can talk to without judgment. They are hard to find, and I feel lucky.

We do yoga, not as often I would like because its 30 minutes away from where we live, but it is something that I want to do more. I found a runners yoga online I will start doing. I also have a glass of wine every night. It’s like my “congratulations, you made it through the day.” It’s my me time.

Do you feel like your job allows you to have a good work/life balance?
Yes, because I make it that way. But it could easily be the opposite, which I think is true for a lot of people. It’s hard to work from home because the work is literally there, I don’t physically leave my work when I’m done. I’m just walking away from my computer. That’s hard, and I sometimes feel like I’m working all day when it’s not the case. I consciously have to be done. I don’t ever want to live my life based around my work. I think that’s healthy. When I have kids, I want to experience life with them. I want to show them the world and do things with them, go to the park and go to their swim lessons. I feel really lucky to have a flexible work schedule. I can go running in the middle of the day because I want to. But it’s easy to get carried away, and I see a lot of people who work all the time because they are driven by something else. If you offered me a $1,000 a month to work 10 more hours per week, I would probably say no. I never want to look back at my time and say, “Wow, what did I do last year other than work?”

If you could give advice to your younger self, what would you say?
Relax. It all gets better from here. Enjoy.

In high school I felt awkward and ugly, but I realized later that it was not the defining moment in my life. College is better, and life after college is even better than that. I remember getting caught up in trivial things.

Any last comments?
I wish things happened differently, but I don’t regret it because of what I’ve learned. I’ve learned I’m a strong person. I’ve reflected and grown from the hardships. It’s almost a hilarious story to tell now. I mean really, four shoulder surgeries? The most important thing I remember is it’s not a defining. Just roll with it. I thought my injury would make or break my entire life, and it clearly hasn’t. Stuff changes. I love athletics and sports, and I think they are really important for so many reasons. But I’ve learned there is more to life than training and sports, and when you train, you almost become blind to the rest of life. I love being fit, but going back to training is hard because you have to have the blinders on for a bit. I like training but having a life at the same time. I think that’s what makes things hard for a lot of athletes.

Megan Back


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